Thought for 'Today': bring back journalism
A new editor for Radio 4's flagship. But can Ceri Thomas restore its credibility?
Sunday 26 March 2006
Forget transparency. The appointment of Ceri Thomas as editor of Radio 4's Today programme last week displayed BBC clumsiness at its worst. From the moment his predecessor, Kevin Marsh, resigned, executives briefed that Thomas would get the job.
A former BBC editor says: "They made it look like a coronation: Today entrusted to another canny BBC apparatchik who will never do anything to rock the boat. The impression is that Ceri has kept his nose clean and ended up enjoying the sort of career progression you would expect in an insurance brokerage."
The gossip is unfair. Thomas emerged from a genuine contest with the daunting challenge of making Today feel fresh. Yet former Today reporter Andrew Gilligan is not alone in believing that the programme's political reporting "atrophied" under Marsh's editorship and that it is now "more interested in the fate of the garden mole".
John Kampfner, the New Statesman editor and himself a former Today regular, has also weighed in, accusing Marsh of "deliberately avoiding giving offence to the Government and the establishment".
Former Today editor Rod Liddle says: "Ceri Thomas will have to expunge some of the soppiness. The challenge is to return it to journalism after a period of quiescence."
Liddle says Newsnight is doing the BBC's best journalism: "I'd rather we saw Today providing original stories than providing egg cups to the nation."
But the debate about whether Today exists to make trouble or simply be an avuncular establishment notice board ignores a more fundamental issue. In a time when newspapers and television have developed dramatically, the BBC's flagship radio programme has hardly changed in 20 years.
Former presenter Peter Hobday asks: "If you were to invent Today today, is this really how you would do it? With all those fixed points of the sports news, the business news, the weather forecast, Thought for the Day and the big interview at ten past eight?" The programme's tradition of three- or four-minute chunks infuriates him. "I can't stand the phrase 'we will have to leave that now'. Who is the 'we'? It's not the audience."
But Justin Lewis of the Cardiff School of Journalism urges caution. "It is a pretty successful formula and Radio 4 is a revolution-free space."
For Lewis, the problem is one of style. "A lot of people within journalism dislike John Humphrys' confrontational approach ... the 0810 interview sounds as if it is designed to get a quote for the news bulletin, not to get to the bottom of the story."
Hobday shares that concern but dismisses the suggestion that Humphrys is Today's Achilles heel. "The problem will come when John retires. Jim Naughtie is not an interviewer.I am beginning to turn it off."
Today's audience is up on the previous quarter and the previous year to a daily total of 2.3 million. Weekly reach exceeds 6 million listeners. Liddle says: "The staid format works. People are familiar with it."
Lewis agrees. "There is logic to Today's shape and tone. Newspaper readers will accept change. It is much harder to do with morning radio."
The BBC's ambition is plain. Rod Liddle made the editorship of Today controversial. Thomas's job is to keep himself out of the limelight and the programme's audience exactly where it is.
Tim Luckhurst is the author of This is Today - A Biography of the Today Programe, Aurum Press
THE CURIOUS WORLD OF 'TODAY'
* Sir Robin Day dreamt up the idea of a news programme featuring "intelligent, pithy comment" in 1955. The first edition, in 1957, had an item on singer Petula Clark.
* Today reaches 2.2 million listeners between 7.30am and 8.20am.
* John Humphrys, who joined in 1987, is the longest-serving presenter of Today. The previous record, 18 years, was held by Brian Redhead.
* Redhead said of Today: "If you want to drop a word in the ear of the nation, then this is the programme in which to do it."
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