'There are lessons to be learnt'

Kevin Marsh, editor of 'Today', gives Raymond Snoddy his perspective on the Andrew Gilligan débâcle
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The Independent Online

As a Doncaster Grammar School boy who studied Latin and Greek at Oxford, Kevin Marsh, the editor of BBC Radio 4's Today programme, can afford to take the historic perspective. "One of the things that people forget is that Today is 47 years old. It's a programme that has been around for nearly five decades," says the man who has just celebrated his 50th birthday.

As a Doncaster Grammar School boy who studied Latin and Greek at Oxford, Kevin Marsh, the editor of BBC Radio 4's Today programme, can afford to take the historic perspective. "One of the things that people forget is that Today is 47 years old. It's a programme that has been around for nearly five decades," says the man who has just celebrated his 50th birthday.

Against such a sweep of history, he points out, there was only a period of three or four years under the former editor Rod Liddle when the programme said that it would be run more like the features desk of a Sunday newspaper, and that there would be "hard-edged, in-your-face, up-your-nose journalism".

The contrast between Liddle, the hippie-like figure who was noted for wearing a ring in his left ear and sitting on the floor during meetings, and Marsh, the archetypal analytical BBC professional newsman, complete with sober suit and plain blue tie, could not be more complete. Apart from a brief flirtation with ITN, where he was on the team writing News at Ten, Marsh has spent all his working life at the BBC.

And Marsh is not at all sure that the Liddle regime ever delivered on its dramatic promises. "Liddle recruited two newspaper reporters. One was Macer Hall, now back at the Daily Star, and the other was Andrew Gilligan. All the other reporters that Rod recruited had solid BBC backgrounds. It was always a myth that reporters were going to be established in the public mind as the face of Today," says Marsh, who was appointed editor in 2002.

He has not the slightest doubt why more than six million listeners tune in regularly to what is certainly one of the most prestigious radio programmes. They tune in to hear the often-abrasive John Humphrys interrogate a member of the Cabinet, or to hear the intricate sub-clauses of Jim Naughtie's questions as he verbally wrestles with a member of the governing élite.

" Today is a traditional thing, conservative with a small 'c'. Its main job is getting the big arguments of the day, the big politicians of the day, the big ideas of the day into the public domain, and challenging and interrogating them if necessary," says Marsh. Given his strong views on what the programme's role should be, was he therefore a little unfortunate in the Today that he inherited?

"Everyone is left with the legacy that they are left with," says Marsh, who has also edited The World at One and PM, and created, with Eddie Mair, Broadcasting House, the Sunday current-affairs programme. He makes no secret of the fact he did not believe that the direction in which Today was heading was the way that the BBC should do its journalism. "Unlike Rod, I did not despair that cabinet ministers were going to come on the programme, or that it was not possible to do an interesting, informative interview with a cabinet minister. I did not despair because I actually think that it is the BBC's central role," he says.

It is therefore a considerable irony that it was such a careful, austere classicist with such a sense of tradition and feel for BBC journalistic values who found himself at the centre of the Gilligan affair and the subsequent Hutton Report that rocked the BBC. Now that the dust has settled, Marsh is free to talk about what happened - and his views are surprising.

"The important thing that never quite got across in the Hutton Report was the extent to which Andrew's mistake was, at the level at which it was made, a very mundane mistake. It was a slip of the tongue," Marsh insists.

If he had been called to give evidence before Lord Hutton - which, amazingly, he wasn't - Marsh would have explained that the Gilligan story had been cleared by his editors and that a proper script had been written before the mistake was made at 6.07 in the morning. Lord Hutton, Marsh believes, never grasped how mistakes can be made during live broadcasts early in the morning. "He didn't hear that part of the story," says Marsh, adding that if the Government had made a focused complaint in the early days after the initial broadcast, he might have accepted that Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair had a point.

If the mistake was merely a "mundane" one, does that mean that there are few lessons for the BBC to learn?

"There are lessons to be learnt. Bizarrely, one of them is that the consequences of something can be out of all relation to the event itself," says Marsh, ruefully. Besides, he believes that the fallout of Hutton - coinciding with the debate on the renewal of the BBC's Royal Charter - is an opportunity to say some "tough things" about BBC journalism that have nothing to do with Gilligan. "We are about accuracy, fairness, trust, inclusivity and impartiality, and if anyone recruited in the last few years isn't quite clear about this - take it on board, understand it, and if you don't like it, there are plenty of other places to go," says Marsh.

In the past two months, the Today editor has been holding workshops for his staff with a strong emphasis on "fair dealing" with interviewees, particularly when stories change at the last moment. "We are encouraging people to re-establish grown-up conversations with government departments, ministers and companies," says Marsh. The sort of toughness he wants is in the arguments that will persuade ministers to come on to the programme in the first place. "Toughness isn't being sneaky and sly. An interview gained by subterfuge isn't worth having," Marsh insists.

But will Marsh ever do anything about Naughtie's penchant for long and convoluted questions? Or Humphrys' taste for interrupting interviewees, sometimes during their first sentence?

Because of his wealth of knowledge, Naughtie, Marsh concedes, is always going to start from the perspective that he is dealing with complex issues. And as for Humphrys, the Today editor believes that he actually interrupts far less than people think. "It's much more of a perception. John is in the great adversarial tradition," says Marsh, admiringly.

Despite the return to basic values, Marsh insists that there will always be room for lighter stories - whether milk should be poured into the cup before the tea or after, for example. But at its core, he says, Today should continue to have what it has had for 47 years: "the interrogation of authority".

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