Right of Reply

The editor of BBC Radio 4's `Today' replies to our critical leading article on the programme
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SO, TODAY is dumbing down, again. The first time I heard this hideous phrase used in connection with the programme was back in January, after we'd spent two minutes interviewing a man called Al Nino who had received hate mail and vicious telephone calls for wrecking the weather system in the US. Suddenly, we were dumbing down and, somewhat comfortingly, so was everybody else; politicians, television programmes, magazines - even, on one occasion, a football team. Dumbing down became one of those fashionable and virtually meaningless phrases reached for by the impoverished mind.

And now, just when we thought it might have lost its cachet, it reappears in The Independent's leader column, reborn and pointed once again at the Today programme. On this occasion our crime was to run a three-minute interview of less than national significance. A ferry company operating between some Scottish islands had decided to review its policy of giving vastly discounted fares to farmers accompanying livestock, because the canny farmers now invariably took a sheep with them when they took the boat.

Now, I agree that this item had nothing in it which could directly affect any of our audience. And you can make the argument that Today should never do stories like this; stories which are merely funny and have no great resonance within the affairs of state.

But what you can't argue is that Today is doing more of these lighter items now than ever before, because it is actually doing many fewer. On the corresponding programme 10 years ago we were devoting our time to the Monopoly World Championships, a camel train setting off from Waterloo Station, a debate about the authenticity of the Turin Shroud and a light- hearted look at tourism in Albania. Ten years before that - on 12 October, 1978 - the programme was an almost unrelieved menu of the funny and the frothy; noisy toilet cisterns in Shropshire, dinosaurs, a history of pianolas, tortoises. Only an interview with Sir Edward Heath provided a moment of gravitas.