'Today' loses another editor. But not its nerve
Sunday 26 February 2006
There is a neat circularity. Kevin Marsh is editor of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme when it broadcasts the Andrew Gilligan item shortly after 6am one day in May 2003. This is followed by the death of Dr David Kelly, the Hutton inquiry, the resignations of Gilligan, Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke. Marsh stays.
The Hutton Report leads to the Neill Report on journalism training in the BBC which leads to the creation of the BBC College of Journalism, set up to secure higher standards in the BBC. And three days ago, we are told that Marsh is leaving Today to be editor-in-chief of the BBC college. And there are still no weapons of mass destruction.
There will be those in the BBC who will suggest Marsh has been pushed upstairs, or sideways, and holding a senior position in training and education is a move from "real" journalism.
You would not expect me to take such a view. I am intrigued by the title of editor-in-chief at this end of the business; this juxtaposition of journalistic and academic titles may have possibilities. But there is no doubt the BBC takes this aspect of the post-Hutton era very seriously. And rightly so.
I heard Marsh speak at a Society of Editors conference in 2004 on the subject of "What makes a good editor". He had clearly reflected on the Hutton experience, and had expanded his definition of good journalism beyond the skills needed to do the job.
Worried about the lack of trust in journalists and the consequences of that for the "health of our public life and institutions", he called for four additional qualities: "toughness to resist the hypocrisy of so much of the press that wants a scalp, while at the same time denying the press should be concerned about its effect on public life; belief that finding the truth and telling it is a public good; individual and collective sense of responsibility for journalism's purpose in making government and institutions work better; and accountability, the realisation that journalism isn't something you just do and walk away from".
Marsh's retention of the Today editorship post-Hutton was probably as poisoned a chalice as walking away. Others carried the can for Gilligan's journalistic lapses, but remaining in charge of the programme put him under the spotlight of those looking for evidence that Today was cowed, losing its edge, or otherwise intimidated by the Hutton report.
There were many - I was one - who felt although Hutton could not be disregarded, its stark characterisation of "the BBC bad, the Government good" was an unfair simplification. We must remember how many questions were being asked, pre-Iraq war, how many the Government ducked, and the answers that have emerged. Today played a major role in all that probing.
The programme has retained all its best qualities. John Humphrys has refused to trim his cussed interviewing technique, his professional bloody-mindedness. Jim Naughtie - he of the overlong question, great political knowledge and cultural dimension - has also worried away, and both remain an impressive team who continue to hold government to account on our behalf. Ed Stourton and Sarah Montague give powerful support to the lead actors.
The Radio 4 audience, and Today's in particular, is not a small band of the incensed of Tunbridge Wells. More than six million a week tune in. Today is an institution within an institution, Radio 4, within an institution, the BBC. Its listeners may moan about Thought for the Day, but in a world they see as dumbing down, Today provides hope.
It may have been the programme that broadcast the item that caused the trouble. Marsh and the members of the BBC's ruling elite would dearly have loved that not to have happened. But it is a measure of the programme's ability to take on the difficult and sensitive subjects that it ended up in the target area. It is not brave to be wrong, but being brave can run that risk.
Today is more careful now, but it does not seem to be more cautious. It remains essential, and Kevin Marsh has been a big part of that. It will be the College of Journalism's gain.
Brian Redhead, another presenter from Today's hall of fame, said: "If you want to drop a word in the ear of the nation, then this is the programme in which to do it." It still is.
Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield
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