How 'Today' lost its soul

Is the Today programme biased? Or do they just get bored of politicians?

William Hague's recent refusal to be interrogated on the Today programme put a dampener on an excellent month for the show. The fuel crisis and party conferences saw it return to the political agenda it covers best. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ann Widdecombe, Charles Kennedy and Michael Portillo all appeared at the microphone. Mr Hague was wrong. Despite a high-brow reputation, Today's largest audience is made up of Daily Mail readers. By agreeing to an interview, and handling it well, Portillo again showed that he understands the electorate better than his boss.

William Hague's recent refusal to be interrogated on the Today programme put a dampener on an excellent month for the show. The fuel crisis and party conferences saw it return to the political agenda it covers best. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ann Widdecombe, Charles Kennedy and Michael Portillo all appeared at the microphone. Mr Hague was wrong. Despite a high-brow reputation, Today's largest audience is made up of Daily Mail readers. By agreeing to an interview, and handling it well, Portillo again showed that he understands the electorate better than his boss.

Mr Hague is presumably concerned about political bias. Ungenerous minds may suspect that morning radio looks a bit forbidding after 14 pints. But let's face it; Hague cannot claim he finds Sue MacGregor daunting. That would not be credible from a man who shared a platform with Anne Widdecombe.

I started work on Today in 1988 and adored it. What was wanted from me was politics. I had worked as a "chocolate soldier" - one of the Rowntree Trust funded researchers who assist the Shadow Cabinet. I understood Parliamentary procedure and had in-depth knowledge of MPs.

Politics was meat and drink, and the then programme editor, Phil Harding, exploited our knowledge to the full. His morning meetings were high-octane political seminars. We competed to offer the best proposals and Phil skimmed the cream.Homework meant reading Hansard and lunching the authors of early-day motions.

Today remains a forum for politics. But the last few weeks have been atypical. The programme's focus has changed, and the philosophy behind the shift poses more of a threat to Today's reputation for impartiality than allegations of bias advanced by the Daily Mail or the provisional wing of the Norman Tebbit appreciation society.

First, the latest charges. Is Today biased? No. Is Jim Naughtie anti-Tory? Not remotely. Naughtie, like John Humphrys, is feared and admired with equal fervour on both sides of the political divide. Does Rod Liddle's programme reflect his background in the politics of the left? About as much as Kosovo Albanians sympathise with Slobodan Milosevic. Liddle is an iconoclast - as entertained by The Spectator as by Red Pepper.

Today's problem is a misreading of what the 1997 election meant. BBC News assumed that a fundamental change had occurred in the political landscape, that New Labour was more than just another government. The response was a fresh focus on social issues. Where Today would once have interviewed a dissident backbencher, it now broadcasts essays by Will Self, crafted music packages by Mark Coles, and daring attempts to make architecture interesting on radio.

Today still covers big political stories and events with great skill. But it does not follow every twist and turn of political debate as it used to. A deliberate decision was taken to reduce political content. After the brutal theatre of John Major's decline, the BBC felt the country deserved a break. That change of tone has nurtured a problem already present in politics; that dissident voices have become a less prominent presence in national discourse.

Set-piece interviews with politicians are still broadcast at 8.10am. The provocative chats with dissident backbenchers and Select Committee chairmen are less frequent. This thinning down of political news contributes to what the former Labour Cabinet Minister, Peter Shore, describes as the lack of an intellectually rigorous internal critique of New Labour.

This is partly due to the culture of obedience, being "on message", which New Labour has imposed on its young and inexperienced backbenchers. Blair's Babes and Lads are a supine and conformist bunch. But journalists have responsibility, too. Fostering dissent takes effort. Credibility is enhanced by repeated exposure and the reduced focus on politics has decreased the number of opportunities for Labour critics of Blair to hone their messages. It has cut appearances by opposition spokesmen, too.

This does not constitute bias, but it does present a challenge. The fuel crisis has demonstrated that New Labour is a fragile and superficial thing. Politics as usual has returned earlier than expected. Fairness and impartiality will require the BBC to reflect this. And as the unchallenged flagship of news and current affairs, Today is going to need a fresh crop of political ideas. Extended contemplation of whether a second term is worth granting must not be restricted to specialist channels. By all means keep the light and shade, but public service demands a new focus on hard politics.

 

Tim Luckhurst is a former editor of 'The Scotsman'. He worked on 'Today' between 1988 and 1993

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