Sue MacGregor: Her public loves her, but the whispers continue

As the idle gossip about her departing intensifies, Tim Luckhurst, her former producer on Today, explains its origins
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The Independent Online

The organs of Middle England are agog. Sue MacGregor and the late Leonard Rossiter were once an item. Well, strike me down with a Laura Ashley tea cosy! The nation's favourite schoolmistress once had an affair with a funny, charming actor. And, Sir Robin Day lusted after her. Who would have thought it?

The frantic gossip inspired by the imminent publication of MacGregor's autobiography, Woman of Today, resembles nothing so much as the tittering in a girls' school common-room. Well it just goes to show, doesn't it?

Yes, it does. But precisely what it goes to show requires a slightly more sophisticated analysis than the typecasters appear to realise, and they include most of MacGregor's colleagues at the BBC.

First, the obvious: innocent, demure, otherworldly Sue is bright enough to generate some pre-launch publicity for her book. A luminously clever woman who has been a full-time presenter of Britain's most erudite current-affairs show since 1987 is media-savvy? Astonishing.

Of course, it isn't remotely. The Today programme's only great female success, adored by audience and contributors alike, was never going to toddle out of the most high-profile job in radio (as she will next month) without taking a gentle tilt at the colleagues and managers who underestimated her for years.

Contrary to the snide whisperings of at least two of her editors and several co-presenters, Sue MacGregor is not dim. Nor is she a nun. You do not face the nation at dawn throughout the years that saw the birth and death of Thatcherism, the collapse of communism, the end of apartheid, revolutions and wars, without developing a profound grasp of the modern world in all its complexity.

So why is MacGregor still considered an enigma? First, because she never played the BBC game. MacGregor's ambition was always to be a broadcaster, not a corporate politician. While others applied themselves relentlessly to making friends on the management floors at Broadcasting House and Television Centre, MacGregor concentrated her efforts on that oft-ignored bunch called the audience.

If that reveals an old-fashioned belief in public service, then few Today listeners have ever complained. But MacGregor has paid a price. Her determination to ask questions that she thinks licence-payers would like to hear answered is widely ridiculed at the BBC. While others understand the corporate ethos that requires presenters to flex their intellectual muscle in bruising confrontations with the powerful, MacGregor deliberately adopts a softly-softly approach. She is polite. She questions instead of debating. She removes her own personality from the interview to an admirable degree. As a result, she has been deprived of the major political interviews that have given her male colleagues profile and publicity. MacGregor knows it, and will use her book to strike a few elegant blows against those who doubted her acuity and considered her a supporting act to first Brian Redhead and then John Humphrys.

Humphrys is blameless. His economical style is the male equivalent of MacGregor's. They both display oodles of personality in links and unscripted asides, but preserve their interviews as opportunities to hear the opinions of the guest, not the presenter.

Others. Well, they deserve it. They gossiped behind her back, raised their eyebrows as she refused to treat interviewees like smug morons, and never contemplated the simple truth that MacGregor's approach was deliberate.

As for the reputation. Shy, quiet, reserved? Not really. Sue MacGregor is funny, feisty and, yes, sexy, too. Anyone who has spent time in her company, at party conferences, on overseas news stories, or simply in the production office and studio at Today, knows that she is warm, humorous and sensitive. She enjoys theatre, music, wine and male company. She has an impressive range of anecdotes and smart one-liners. She is a professional radio presenter, not an automaton, and displays an admirable capacity to draw distinctions between her personal interests and her on-air duties.

Sarah Montague, the undeclared choice to replace her, faces a big challenge. MacGregor is a radio girl through and through. She has not courted the great god of television. Radio Four suits her and she will continue to give the channel, if not Today, a personality that the nation patently adores.

I do not know who her lovers have been. I admire her for never making it the subject of public curiosity. But I would be amazed to discover that she does not enjoy her personal life. Today will notice when she goes. She is charmingly devoid of the arrogance to say so, but I hope Sue knows it. Leonard Rossiter is not there to tell her. I hope very much that someone else is.

Tim Luckhurst is the author of 'This is Today – a Biography of the Today Programme' (Aurum Press, £16.99). He worked on the programme between 1988 and 1994

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