Robert Hanks: 'Today' may not be everything that it should be, but it's hard to do without


It took a few minutes to realise that things on Radio 4 were not quite as they should be and what gave it away was not what was being said so much as the tone: it was missing the edge; the hectoring, insistent undertone that the Today programme brings to the morning – for so many of us, the thing we rely on to keep us from dawdling over our porridge.

To the experienced Radio 4 listener, it swiftly became obvious that we were hearing an edition of Off the Page, the programme in which writers read out humorous (but rarely funny) essays.

This is dispiriting at the best of times. At quarter to seven in the morning, it felt as though time was out of joint, or as though some disaster must have struck in the night. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but with Dominic Arkwright.

With the announcement that we were facing a journalists' strike came a sense of liberation: we could listen to anything now – Capital, Absolute, even Chris Moyles – and it wouldn't matter.

However, a 15-minute experiment with Chris Moyles soon showed us how wrong we were.

Back to Radio 4, and a re-run of Matthew Parris and Great Lives.

Generally speaking, it's only the major public holidays – Christmas and New Year – that can keep the Today programme off air, which is why commanders of nuclear submarines turn to it for proof that British civilisation hasn't been wiped out while they were busy running into sandbanks.

Perhaps that was why it felt like a holiday. But maybe the truth is that, even to diehard fans, Today can sometimes feel like a duty – we don't particularly want to hear John Humphrys interrupting a politician, but as good citizens we know we must. Maybe it was the luxury of hearing naked headlines; the bare facts, shorn of argument, comment and audible spin.

Most likely it was the pleasure of being shaken out of a rut and of being reminded, in a world overcharged with 24-hour news, that it doesn't matter a hoot if you drop your attention from the flow of events.

I did wonder, though, how the BBC decided what to put on instead of news. You'd think they'd polish up the best china – In Our Time, Mitchell and Webb, Evan Davies on tax, a few extra repeats of Neil McGregor's 100 Objects (you can never hear that one too often, can you?). But this was the middle-order stuff; programmes you listen to most often when your fingers are too sticky to touch the off-switch.

Instead of PM we got The Music Group and The Museum of Curiosity.

In an era when entire digital television stations can subsist on re-runs of Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week, why didn't the BBC have the confidence to play re-runs of the news?

We could have had the general election again; better yet, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, Mr Chamberlain declaring war on Germany.

An opportunity gone by – and tomorrow, back to the old grind of cuts and arguments.

Those unfamiliar faces

Emma Crosby

Former GMTV and Sky News presenter popped up to front BBC1's 1pm news. She also fronted bulletins for the rolling news channel.

Simon McCoy

BBC1's Breakfast magazine show was replaced by a straight broadcast from the News channel, with McCoy handling duties. The presenter is a regular there. Prior to working at the BBC he was presenter of Sunrise on Sky News.

Ian Payne

Spent over 15 years at the BBC before moving to Sky Sports in 2003. He returned to Radio Five Live in June and replaced the station's striking regular presenters Nicky Campbell and Shelagh Fogarty on yesterday's Breakfast.

Susan Rae

The Radio 4 newsreader and continuity announcer hosted a 15-minute news bulletin at the top of the hour, in place of the Today programme.

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