BBC announces Mishal Husain as new female voice for Today programme

Show's stalwart presenter Jim Naughtie has moved to work on coverage of Scottish independence referendum

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Tony Hall, the new Director-General of the BBC, today signalled his intention to redress gender imbalance at the broadcaster by announcing a shake-up in the presenting line up of the Radio 4 Today programme

Speaking at the launch of the BBC's Annual Report, Lord Hall revealed that experienced television presenter Mishal Husain, 40, would be joining the flagship show in the autumn in place of veteran host James Naughtie, 61, who is to be given a central role in the BBC's coverage of next year's referendum on Scottish independence.

Lord Hall, the former chief executive of the Royal Opera House, said that “improving the gender balance in our programming has been a priority for me since I returned to the BBC”, taking up his new role in April. He said: ”I'm keen to see more women in key presenting and backstage roles as we move forward.“ 

Speaking of Ms Husain, who was part of the BBC’s presenting roster for the London Olympics, he said: “She is a first rate journalist and she will be an excellent addition to what is a very powerful and strong team,” he said. “I’m particularly pleased that with her appointment there will be another female voice on the programme which I think is really important.”

The Today programme is currently fronted by four men – Mr Naughtie, John Humphrys, Evan Davis and Justin Webb – and just one woman, Sarah Montague. It has been criticised for its lack of female voices, both as presenters and interviewees. Ms Husain is believed to be the first Asian presenter on the Today programme, which first went to air in 1957.

The Director-General praised Mr Naughtie, who has been a Today presenter since 1994, as a ”brilliant journalist“ who had impressed him with his recent reporting from Egypt. Naughtie will be given a ”key role“ in linking the BBC's coverage of the referendum in Scotland with the rest of the Radio 4 output.

Publishing the annual report today, Lord Patten, chair of the BBC Trust, expressed his regret at the BBC's ”chaotic handling“ of the Savile scandal and cited ”unforgivably poor journalism“ by the flagship BBC2 show Newsnight in its coverage of that story and a subsequent piece relating to Lord McAlpine.

He used the opening words of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities - ”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times“ - to describe a year in which the BBC had excelled itself with its Olympics coverage but had also lost its Director-General George Entwistle over its disastrous mismanagement of the Savile affair and its fallout.

Lord Patten was asked if he had considered resigning over the matter. He said: “I have not contemplated stepping down. I was appointed for four years and I think it would be pretty wretched of me, in any of those rows or difficulties, to have stepped down half way through unless I’m told by my colleagues here that I have got it wrong and I think I owe it to the organisation and to them to see this through.”

Payouts to Mr Entwistle and other departing BBC executives contributed to a 60 per cent increase in the organisation’s expenditure on senior staff, which cost the BBC £4.13 million compared to £2.56 million the previous year. Promising to reduce spending in this area, Lord Hall said: “From redundancy payments through to the failed DMI (£100m budget Digital Media Initiative) project, the BBC has not always been the steward of public money that it should have been.”

The annual report identified many other areas in which the BBC is facing major challenges, including concern over falling levels of public interest in its current affairs output. The report said: ”We are concerned about the gradual decline in audience numbers for current affairs programmes on television in recent years and about the degree of ambition and quality of current affairs programming.“ The BBC website still has not fully recovered from falling public appreciation levels after significant changes were introduced to its format.

The BBC has made inroads in reducing its expenditure on star presenters since the days when the salaries of big names such as Jonathan Ross prompted claims that it was misspending licence fee payers' money. The report revealed that spending on ”top talent“ has fallen by £4.2 million in the last year to £12.3 million, which represents 6 per cent of the broadcaster's expenditure on all talent.

The report showed that the BBC still has some way to go in terms of tackling inequality in the workplace and it failed to reach targets for hiring disabled staff, who make up only 3.8 per cent of the staff total despite BBC targets of 5.5 per cent. ”The [BBC] Trust is concerned by the continuing pattern of decline in the representation of disabled staff,“ it said.

The annual report also highlighted the disastrous consequences of the BBC's flawed purchase of the Lonely Planet franchise. The travel guide business was sold for £51.5 million in March 2013, representing an £80 million loss on the BBC's original 2007 purchase. The Trust has ruled that the ”original purchase and subsequent management of the business merit further scrutiny“ and so it has ordered the BBC executive to conduct a ”review of lessons learnt“ and report back to the Trust.

Among other challenges facing Lord Hall, the BBC annual report acknowledged the difficulties Radio 1 faced in increasing the proportion of its listeners aged 15-24. “Lowering it is a tough challenge as young people overall are not listening to the radio as much as they used to.”

It also said that Radio 4 “continues to struggle” to reach “more people outside the south of England”.

Lord Hall spoke today of his highlights in leading the BBC over the past four months and said that he had enjoyed following the organisation’s coverage of Wimbledon and the Glastonbury festival on his mobile phone. But he said the organisation was unnecessarily complex and that he hoped that the reforms he would make in the next 12 months would address that.