Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Calder on Air: The Today Programme

My Calder on Air column from last Friday's Liberal Democrat News.

I don't know if it was inverse sexism or a desire to find something positive to say about someone, but I was too kind to Sarah Montague. She has an annoying strangulated voice and tends to approach interviews with a fixed, tendentiouss line of questioning in mind and to keep to it even when the first answer shows that she has got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Background Today

One morning last month I drifted out of sleep to find that Radio 4 had changed. There was no Today programme. Instead I woke up to an old episode of Matthew Parris’s Great Lives in which Lord Digby Jones spoke about his admiration for Winston Churchill. This was interesting, but turned embarrassing when it became clear that Jones sees himself as a bit of a Churchill figure too. Then there was a blissful episode of The Natural World, describing oystercatchers feeding on the shining mudflats at the mouth of the River Nene. I went to work happy.

I don’t suppose I was alone in enjoying this programming – the result of a BBC strike. When there was a major technical breakdown a few years ago and Today had to be replaced by music, the programme received more letters asking what the music had been than it received complaints.

Like me, I suspect many of those correspondents listen to the Today programme because they always listen to the Today programme. It becomes part of your morning routine. (Thought for the Day? It’s time I was brushing my teeth.) You do not listen to Today for enjoyment.

It would be easy to blame the presenters for this. John Humphrys glories in his ignorance of anything to do with science. Jim Naughtie is bursting to interrupt as soon as he finished one of his interminable questions – you can hear him making little noises all the time the interviewee is speaking. If the subject is something that Naughtie thinks himself an expert on, such as music, then the other person doesn’t get to speak at all.

Evan Davis is incredulous if he hears facts or opinions that are new to him. Edward Stourton has a habit of sounding superior by talking down his nose – just as Martin Jarvis makes Hubert Lane do in his readings of the Just William books. I bet they even look the same

Sarah Montague and Justin Webb offer more hope, yet I recently read an article by Webb in which he said that now he has settled in he is going to interrupt people more.

But really the problem is not the individual presenters, but the format of the programme. Ministers, journalists and professors are brought on to be interviewed, and they get five minutes if they are lucky. Often there are two people in the same slot, so they get hardly any time at all.

This format generally leads to unsatisfactory interviews and can be exploited. During the months when Railtrack had brought Britain’s railways to a halt, its executives who went on Today had obviously been taught to say nothing and say it slowly and repetitively. They knew that time would run out before the interviewer could hold them to account on behalf of the public.

So Justin Webb’s resolution to interrupt people more arises not from a love of the sound of his own voice so much as from a despairing attempt to make the programme’s rigid format work.

Is there an alternative? For a while Radio 5’s breakfast show did essentially the same job, but did it in a friendlier and looser way. It also helped that they had two presenters – Peter Allen and Jane Garvey – who were without the exaggerated sense of their own importance that those on the Today programme tend to develop.

Allen could rival Humphrys in the grumpy old man stakes when he wanted, but if it became clear that a politician was determined to say nothing of any interest to anyone then he was quite prepared to cut the interview short. This was far more damning – and far kinder to the listener – than any amount of Today-style bluster.

Then Allen and Garvey were replaced by Nicky Campbell and Victoria Derbyshire, two of the most irritating broadcasters known to humanity. So it was back to Today.

Is it the sports desk already? Time to put the porridge on.

1 comment:

dreamingspire said...

Humph's interviews with Assange was broadcast by R4 Today in two chunks, which didn't seem right - and there were un-nerving pops in the background, which made me wonder if they were at Bonker's Hall with his Lordship taking pot shots at the serfs (or the orphans). Late last night (Wednesday) I encountered the whole interview on TV (Freeview BBC News) - yes, it was actually a full TV interview for BBC, in the country house to which Assange is confined every night, with a roaring log fire (that must have been the source of the pops). Humph was so, so immersed in what Julian rightly described as tittle-tattle rather than practising responsible journalism - a very sad decline. Assange was very level-headed, clearly understanding that what Wikileaks does is disruptive while believing that they are right to do that.