Sue MacGregor on Broadcasting
'Today' editors I have known - and why the latest must hold his nerve
Monday 27 March 2006
Running Today is not an easy job. Its presenters are its public voice but the programme's identity and direction are shaped by its editor. And Today last week appointed a new one - Ceri Thomas, who has succeeded Kevin Marsh.
What kind of challenge does Ceri face? Editors are largely, but not exclusively, responsible for choosing the presenters, and if they get it wrong - which happens surprisingly rarely - it must be one of the more worrisome aspects of being in charge.
Radio 4 listeners like to feel secure at a fragile time of day. Editors are expected to be both innovative and to retain the best-loved bits. They should have well-stocked political minds, and yet not be so obsessed with the Westminster village that they bore the listeners. They must lard the heavy stuff with trivia and some humour, though nothing too raucous for the early morning. They have to work ridiculously long hours, and will be rung at home about urgent matters in the early hours as well as late at night. And they have to keep presenters - quirky, thin-skinned and self-obsessed as we are - happy.
All this has to be done on a shoestring, for current affairs radio is expected to deliver the goods at a fraction of the price of television. This does not allow for the luxury of frequent special reports, or of regular doses of investigative journalism, which were once, and should still be, part of Today's regular agenda.
There are some Today editors for whom these challenges are meat and drink. Jenny Abramsky, now the BBC's director of radio and music, was the first (and so far only) woman to hold the job back in the mid-1980s. Hugely energetic, to a new presenter like me she could be pretty scary: she was tough and forthright, but scrupulously fair and always backed you if you made a mess of things.
Roger Mosey, now head of television news, was a supreme tactician. He had to deal with one of the Today editor's regular nightmares after he appointed Jim Naughtie as the new presenter: who does the 8.10 interview, generally the most important political interview of the morning? John Humphrys was already in place, so which of them would get the Big Slot on a regular basis, becoming, in effect, top dog? And how often would the lone woman on the programme (me, at that time) get a look-in?
The decision about who does what is generally taken the night before, and is pretty well set in concrete by the time presenters come in bleary eyed from about 3.45am: just as well, as there might be some unseemly scrapping if they had to sort it out themselves. Mosey went some way towards soothing ruffled egos in his time by announcing in the mid-1990s that Humphrys, Naughtie and MacGregor had equal status. A statement not quite borne out if you looked at the statistics. It turned out that Humphrys got that 8.10 slot most often by quite a big percentage, followed by Naughtie, followed by me. I dare say the ratio is not very different nowadays, with Sarah Montague or Carolyn Quinn in bronze medal position.
Other editors like to make their mark by concentrating not on presenters but on listeners. This led, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to the invention of the Today vote for Man or Woman of the Year, which received a huge number of entries annually. The result became increasingly predictable, but the poll only came to an end after a previously rather obscure figure, the then leader of India's BJP party, received an enormous number of votes, all posted in either Bradford or Birmingham. Other attempts to involve listeners have included wooing new ones by lowering the audience age profile. This means commissioning features on newly successful rock bands. The howls of protest from the regular audience are loud and generally successful.
Perhaps the highest-profile editor in the past decade has been Rod Liddle: flamboyant, funny and a shameless publicity hound. He liked getting up the bosses' noses: he appointed Andrew Gilligan and encouraged him to produce edgy stuff. Rod was also extremely good at briefing presenters, anticipating all the tricky areas that could surface in a live interrogation. By the time Kevin Marsh succeeded him, I had left the programme, but Marsh's reputation as a first-class editor preceded him. He had a torrid time over Gilligan and Hutton, and deserves a fresh start and success with his job heading the new BBC journalism college.
Ceri, as he takes up his new job, knows he needs nerve, stamina, a constant stream of ideas and an ability to think laterally. He knows his programme is expected to set the political agenda for the day. He should resist the temptation to overload the programme with very long political interviews, because one of the reasons we like Today is that it covers a huge amount of ground by moving briskly.
On the other hand, robust political interviewing is a reason why most of us, bar those at No 10, find the Today programme irresistible. Today did not invent the vigorous political interview, nor is it alone in championing the genre, but it is the only programme in peak time that reliably offers it. May its new editor be encouraged to keep it that way.
You think 'Planet Earth' wastes good film? Not so
It takes quite a lot to tear me away from my radio set, but I'm happy to join in the praise for David Attenborough's new series, Planet Earth. It moves at such a pace that until a few days ago I had only one worry - acres of brilliant footage must surely end up on the cutting-room floor?
Not at all, said the man himself when I bumped into him last week. What you see is the perfect moment. What you lose is miles of stuff that didn't quite work.
I wouldn't have missed for anything the moment when the underwater cameraman, after days of frustrating searches in murky waters, finally found his clear pool of frenzied piranhas. He became so absorbed in his filming that he casually brushed one away with his unprotected hand. What enviable cool!
Meanwhile, having been away and missed some episodes, I have to ask - what on earth has happened to The West Wing, currently on More4? It was never quite the same after Aaron Sorkin stopped writing it, but now we see hardly anything of Jed Bartlet, CJ, Donna or even the flaky First Lady. They - and of course Josh - were my reasons for watching. My loyalty has been tested to breaking point and I just may have to look elsewhere.
Sue MacGregor was a presenter on 'Today' between 1984 and 2002
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