All in a hard Today's night

When big stories break, the BBC's radio news flagship comes into its own. Ian Burrell watches the team at work on the Iraq War legal advice
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It's the time of the dawn treaders, those unfortunates obliged to rise at first light and head to work in a state somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. James Naughtie of Radio 4's Today programme yawns and chews on the rim of his polystyrene coffee cup.

It's the time of the dawn treaders, those unfortunates obliged to rise at first light and head to work in a state somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. James Naughtie of Radio 4's Today programme yawns and chews on the rim of his polystyrene coffee cup.

By the 6am pips, Today's on-air time, co-presenter John Humphrys has been in the office for almost two hours. He says he can be at his desk within 10 minutes of his two alarms sounding at 4am, thanks to a multitasking routine of "military precision" before jumping into a waiting car.

Preparations for this edition of Today have been intense, with the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, booked to defend the Government - and Tony Blair - after the leaking of Attorney General Lord Goldsmith's advice on the legality of the Iraq war. At 5am, Naughtie was huddled over a copy of the Butler report, determined to prevent the Foreign Secretary from evading his line of questioning.

Straw had been on the show three days earlier, interviewed by Humphrys and given such a grilling that The Independent published the "classic clash" in full. The leaked document gives Naughtie fresh ammunition. The scene is set for another memorable Today exchange.

But if some of the early birds among the programme's 6.4 million listeners could see into the studio, they might be surprised. This is not the sharp-dressed world of TV. It's serious, agenda-setting journalism, but without cameras. So Humphrys and Naughtie are in rather crumpled open-necked shirts, and Corrie Corfield reads the news in a long-sleeved T-shirt. And this is a show where the green room serves breakfast cereal.

The night editor Saleem Patka is a model of calm, despite having to oversee the running order of the three-hour programme at the end of a shift that began at 8pm.

It has been some night. The previous day, the Today team had been working on a programme based on a set-piece interview with Gordon Brown, talking about Labour's launch of its economic manifesto. Then Channel 4 News revealed the leaked Goldsmith memo. It was immediately apparent that the story would lead the show.

The editor Kevin Marsh confirms this when he telephones the night desk just after it comes on duty at 8pm. He's actually called to smooth over a more delicate matter. Humphrys, who has conducted the main 8.10am interview for the previous three days (Straw, Ruth Kelly, Alan Milburn), had wanted Brown as well. "One of the things you've got to do is balance the egos of your main presenters," Marsh says later. "These people are household names and have a strong sense of their own worth. Clearly, Jim has to get a look in. It shouldn't be a calculation: we should be focusing on the journalism, to be honest."

Marsh's job doesn't recognise the term "off duty". He's up at 5.45am to hear the show's start and in the office by 7am, having worked until midnight on the Goldsmith coverage.

He's not pleased that the leaked memo (which Today credits to C4) had been knocking about in the BBC the previous afternoon. "It had been in the BBC since 4pm. To learn about it on Channel 4 News was a bit of a shock. That's the problem, because the BBC is a vast organisation. It came in somewhere centrally and was checked out somewhere centrally. Clearly it has to be authenticated... but had that come to a programme, it would have been dealt with rather differently. I had a word with the deputy director-general [Mark Byford] about it."

Marsh instructs his team to put in bids for all three main party leaders. When Michael Howard declines (at 11pm), Marsh is surprised. Charles Kennedy says no too. Labour makes it clear that neither Tony Blair nor Lord Goldsmith will participate, then leaves Today hanging. Just before midnight, the night-desk phone rings: it's Jack Straw, wanting to know who will be interviewing him. "The Labour Party itself didn't tell us we had Straw until later," complains Patka afterwards.

By 6am, the schedule looks in good shape. It is in the climate of political rows such as this that Today comes into its own, and there's a confidence that in Humphrys and Naughtie they have a team no one can match.

A quarter of an hour after going on air, Humphrys leaves the studio to pre-record an interview with Shami Chakrabarti of the human-rights group Liberty (she's in a radio car outside her home), about the restrictions of anti-terror laws.

During the first hour of the programme (sometimes called the "graveyard slot" by politicians unhappy at being scheduled early), the audience is introduced to stories that will be repeated later. Political correspondent Norman Smith provides analysis of the Goldsmith leak, and reporter Jon Manel highlights concerns over the use of postal ballots at local elections in Lancashire.

Steve May, the sports correspondent, is asked to slash the length of his bulletin at two minutes' notice. He makes the changes. Given the turbulent history of Today since Andrew Gilligan's two-way on Iraq two years ago - and the potential for errors in such a fast-moving programme - the mood is relaxed.

Menzies Campbell, whom the Lib Dems have put up to speak on the Iraq issue, comes on air at 7.15am. The interview with Naughtie runs over its time, and Campbell's promise to "try to be brief" gets a cheer from the production crew. Naughtie admits after the show that brevity is not his strong suit: "I'm aware that my weakness is, shall we say, a certain wordiness."

But at 8.10am, with Jack Straw on the line from his Blackburn home, Naughtie is focused. He's already elicited an admission from the Tory Michael Ancram that he still feels Britain was right to go to war.

He tries to put Straw through the wringer, using the Butler report and the words of the UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix to block the Foreign Secretary from endlessly quoting UN resolution 1441 (which required Iraq to disarm, and which Straw says he can recite in his sleep). After the programme, Naughtie concludes: "I thought there was evident discomfort on his part in dealing with the question of how much the Cabinet knew and how the process was conducted during that period of great tension."

Naughtie is acutely aware of his responsibilities to an informed audience (which usually sends in 200 e-mails during a show). "The programme has to make a judgement about how to conduct an interview so it enlightens people and is not just a Punch and Judy show. People don't like shouting matches."

After the 9am finish, Today's staff meet for a debriefing and to start the process again. Kevin Marsh is a lot happier. During the 8.10am interview he came into the studio and listened intently to the Foreign Secretary's every response. Marsh has had e-mails from listeners glad that Straw was put on the spot.

The editor is pleased that Naughtie didn't let Straw stick on the issue of "the reasons we went to war" but questioned him on "the way we are governed and the administration Tony Blair leads". Marsh says that "it's not always easy to keep an interview focused".

His star presenters have "totally different" styles. "Jim has more of a traditional debating style, where he is putting carefully-formulated propositions. He likes to focus the answer he is going to get by closing off the pointless answers in his questions. It's a very careful style, looking for the eureka moment."

Humphrys, Marsh says, is "fantastically well-prepared for interviews. He's got a mind that remembers every interview he has ever done. His ability to drag that out in the heat of an interview is remarkable. He is trying to manoeuvre himself around the boxing ring to find the best possible short, sharp punch that will reveal something."

In an ideal world, Marsh says, he would match interviewees with the different approaches of his chief inquisitors. "But, as I say, you are more concerned with balancing the interests of the two presenters," he says.

Humphrys agrees that the Straw duel was "a good interview". It's right, he says, that the editors decide who gets the 8.10am slots, "otherwise it would not be a civilised discourse".

One thing that "does get on my wick", he says, is the claim that he's "always trying to be the Rottweiler". It's the suggestion that he might be putting on an act that really irks. "If I come across as an argumentative, miserable sod, that's probably because I am."

Naughtie seems pleased, too. He wouldn't get up at this time to drive a bus or milk a cow, but "to present Today? You've got a deal. It's physically draining, but exhilarating." And then he dances a little jig.