How Auntie treated Sue

Despite her skill as an interviewer, Sue MacGregor, of the Today programme, has been relentlessly undervalued by the BBC. And, as Tim Luckhurst reveals, she knows why
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sue MacGregor has stopped being cross or bitter about it. She will take her revenge when she publishes her memoirs. But she knows it happens. "If there is a major political interview on the programme, it will not go to me," she told me. "It will go to John or Jim."

MacGregor's sense that her beloved Today programme treats her as the token female in a show dominated by those big, testosterone-charged talents, John Humphrys and Jim Naughtie, is not paranoid, and nor is it unprovable. It is a statistical fact supported by much eyewitness evidence. I know. I have been the duty editor, called at 5.30am by a former Today programme editor and told, "Oh no. Don't let Sue do that one. Give it to Jim".

MacGregor's admirable calm ensures that she does not dwell on such slights. Despite her vast experience as one of the BBC's most high-profile and most glaringly able presenters, she remains utterly unpolluted by the venomous internal politicking that besmirches the corporation. She is charmingly certain that her job as an interviewer is "to go for elucidation rather than to make a clever political point... to pin them down on behalf of people out there who are not journalists".

The lack of respect for MacGregor does not come from her fellow-presenters, and certainly not from Today's audience. They all hold her in the highest and most sincere regard. The problem stems from a mindset that apprentice Today presenter Sarah Montague also recognises. Before Montague fronted the show for the first time, an anonymous BBC executive told her: "It's unlikely we'll put you on with another female presenter because our focus groups show that the public just switch off if they hear two female voices."

Montague's instinct was to "just keep doing it" until the audience finds it familiar. But that is not the BBC way. Today has an overwhelmingly male guest-list. It is inevitable, given the show's focus on serious politics and diplomacy. Careful study of running orders suggests that with two women presenting, it would still struggle to ensure that half the air time between 6am and 9am was filled with women talking.

That focus group that Montague was told about must have been adamant. Its influence can be detected in Today's extended struggle to identify replacements for John Humphrys and Sue MacGregor. The thought does not seem to have occurred that if both were replaced with female broadcasters, Today could aspire to mixed male/female presentation on every edition. That is becoming more common as both Montague and MacGregor make regular appearances, but a straight swop of Montague for MacGregor when the latter retires next year will perpetuate the problem that, too often, the programme is a boys-only zone.

There is something perplexing about this. It is a hallowed rule in television news that the girl/boy format is a must to ensure ratings. Certainty about this extends from America's network breakfast shows, throughout British news and current affairs, and across most of Europe, too. It's called chemistry and every producer wants some.

If the BBC's argument is that the rule does not apply to radio, then it will have a hard time proving it. The most successful new partnership in British broadcasting was the twinning of Peter Allen and Jane Garvey on Five Live's Breakfast Show. They have now moved to the "drivetime" slot, but nobody would suggest breaking up the team. Pete and Jane are as engaging as any duo since Redhead and Timpson. Together, they sparkle.

Nobody doubts the talent of the Today men. The former controller of Radio 4, James Boyle, calls John Humphrys the best presenter the show has ever had. Nostalgia for the incomparable Redhead cannot dilute the truth that Humphrys is a giant, as Boyle puts it, a man who pursues truth "without any kind of personal posturing or anything other than clean journalistic aims". The mystery is that BBC Radio, itself subject to the overall control of Jenny Abramsky (a real editorial talent in her own right), does not believe that a woman can be as great. It's a crazy prejudice in a corporation more normally associated with extreme political correctness and a "Civil Service" mentality that the present Today editor, Rod Liddle, reviles.

Liddle sees the mindset at the BBC as, "if you don't do a good job, they will always promote you into some fatuous middle-level bureaucratic job". He's right. The corporate disease is a capacity to believe things that are demonstrably untrue because they are the "corporate line". The line on female radio-presenters is that they are not as good at political interviews as the men.

My own view, widely shared by Today's audience in the country as opposed to the Westminster Village with which it was, until recently, too intimately associated, is that Sue MacGregor is a genuine match for Humphrys. She has been relentlessly undervalued by a corporation that mistakes her preference for explanation over aggression, for a lack of sophistication.

MacGregor told me that she will write about the frustration and anger caused by editors who never criticised her style or challenged her grasp of issues but relentlessly insisted that the boys should get the high-profile interviews. She will tell it straight. She has the integrity of a news reporter and little of the ego of a presenter. Sue MacGregor demonstrated that when I interviewed her for my book. Alone among the presenters with whom I had worked for five years, she told the truth we all knew about Brian Redhead. Yes, he was brilliant. Yes, he was beguiling. But he was also a bad-tempered little sprite who "embroidered the truth enormously".

As she put it: "He'd invented almost everything, and he'd been clever from the age of eight." It wasn't bitchy. It was evidence of MacGregor's philosophy that Today presenters are there to expose truth not to play concealed parts in the internecine world of politics, whether at Westminster or Television Centre.

When MacGregor retires, the best compliment the corporation could pay her would be to reassess their attitude towards female presenters on Britain's most prestigious show. She came a long way from her early days as a "girl reporter" on World at One. But while she has always attracted loads of respect and admiration from listeners, her managers have routinely fallen into the trap of regarding her contemptuously, as Redhead did, as "the Dowager Duchess of Dingly Dell".

Sue MacGregor has never been a token. The BBC is discovering that as it recognises how hard it is to find someone who can reliably fill her shoes. Still more astonishing is that MacGregor has earned her reputation as one of the greats of post-war radio while repeatedly being denied the chance to conduct the big, career-defining interviews. It's a mark of her skill that she made it anyway. The pity is that while the young James Naughtie got bogged down in his legendary "kebabbing" row with Neil Kinnock, and Brian Redhead sought a minute's silence after Nigel Lawson suggested he knew how the man voted, Sue MacGregor would probably have obliged both politicians to simply answer the question. That may not sound spectacular, but it is supposed to be the point.

Tim Luckhurst's book, 'This is Today', is published by Aurum Press, price £16.99

Comments