'Don't turn Today into mush'

Sue MacGregor, the former sidekick of John Humphrys, warns that the Gilligan affair must not be allowed to scare the BBC away from 'dangerous' radio. She talks to Tim Luckhurst
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The Independent Online

It is nearly two years since Sue MacGregor ceased to be the female voice of the Today programme, but she still cares about it. She is content to wait until Lord Hutton publishes his report before rushing to firm conclusions on who did what in the saga that led to the suicide of Dr David Kelly, but feels it necessary to issue a stern warning in advance to her former colleagues at the BBC: "It would be a very great shame if the odd slip that may have got one or two people into trouble was an excuse for [installing] executive editors on programmes who turned them into bland mush. I think we must all be on the alert, very much on the alert."

MacGregor is certain that "nobody will escape some sort of censure, least of all the BBC, and one can expect that a few knuckles will be rapped, but I do hope the BBC doesn't go into a horribly cautious mode."

After nearly four decades in BBC news and current affairs, MacGregor knows how readily the corporation can do that. As a veteran, she might even be imagined to support the "Pathé news tendency" at Television Centre (where Today is based) who believe that the programme should revert merely to reporting news instead of trying to make it. She does not. "Today always wants to make news and its best editors have tried to make sure that it does. It is at its best when it makes you stop whatever you are doing and think: 'This is a radio moment. This is a dangerous time.'"

Does the current editor, Kevin Marsh, meet that standard? She is generous. "I wish I'd worked under Kevin, because I never have. The jury is still out on him and he has got all the Gilligan/Hutton stuff to deal with."

So she still listens intently to her old programme? "Oh yes! I did before I joined. It was my wake-up call when I was doing Woman's Hour. I listened when I first came over from South Africa and it was still being done by Jack de Manio. It was always part of my agenda, and it is now, though from a horizontal position until at least seven o'clock."

That freedom to sleep in has made a huge difference to her life. Another change is that, for the first time in years, she is able to have political opinions. Pointedly referring to the row over broadcasters who moonlight in print journalism, she says: "Those of us who weren't writing columns in national newspapers were meant to be strictly neutral." Last summer she found herself at an event where "I heard myself answering a question by saying 'Well, of course, the Tories are currently unelectable.' Afterwards I thought, 'Oh God! Did I say that? How appalling. Shall I row back on that?' And then I thought: 'No, I'm allowed to say that now.' It was a great, breakthrough moment."

MacGregor admits that she misses the buzz of live presenting. Two months after quitting Today in March 2002 she thought: "Uh, uh. I'm missing this. I'm missing the deadlines and I'm missing live programmes." That summer she was invited back to make a series reflecting on the Queen's jubilee. She has also presented The Reunion for Radio 4 and returns today with A Good Read, a books programme.

But, she says: "Much as I enjoy doing these programmes, they are recorded and I have a dreadful impatience with things that have to be done and then cut and put together again. Live, you try and get it right first time, which generally works. When you are allowed the slack of recording in the studio I do find the adrenalin harder to summon up."

She certainly does not rule out a return to live news-presenting. "I don't imagine anyone would make an approach to me at such a venerable age [she is 61], but it would be something I would consider." Then she inserts an urgent caveat: "Not those early hours again. I would never, ever, do that. Not even if I was paid £1m. I would never get up at 3am."

She means it. MacGregor was unique in leaving the most prestigious job in broadcasting voluntarily. Poor Brian Redhead died before he could retire. Peter Hobday was sacked without as much as a formal farewell. MacGregor picked her own moment. Does she imagine that her friend John Humphrys will make the same decision? "I heard him drop a hint that he would go sort of now-ish, if I go back to what he said then. But I see no signs of it." She thinks Humphrys will be hard to replace. "I have sat next to John on Today since 1987. There is no doubt he is the programme. He gives it an extra dimension."

MacGregor has a few regrets about her time on Today. She wishes she had not been out of contact on the night of the Lockerbie air crash. "I was out to dinner with friends and they were ringing round all of us and John, who was quite new on the programme then, got the call and sort of made his Today reputation by his coverage. It was absolutely up his street. I don't mean he glories in tragedy, but he was brilliant at that."

She also wishes she had been able to interview the Queen. She would have given Her Majesty a hard time. Hints of MacGregor's residual radicalism emerge when she recalls a recent encounter at a Buckingham Palace garden party. "She is absolutely unwavering in her apparent unease in the company of people who aren't interested in horses, but one suspects that underneath there is probably quite a jolly person there," she says. "She was pretty relaxed, and I found myself exchanging a few words with her, and then she spotted Trevor McDonald.

"She put her gloved hand on my arm, unconsciously, in a sort of delight at seeing one of her favourite telly people, and I was abandoned and she shot off to talk to him."