Tomorrow's man, but can he sort out 'Today'?

Mark Damazer, the new controller of Radio 4, has 'the best job in broadcasting'. But former colleague Charles Courtauld believes reviving the BBC's flagship news show could give him a big headache
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The Independent Online

Mark Damazer is the master of the one-word e-mail. I got more than 40 of them from him when I was working on the BBC's last election-night programme. Just as we were trying to juggle the squillions of outside broadcasts, guests and presenters, an e-mail would arrive. "Marr," it might say. Or "Halesowen". Annoyingly, he was usually right: Andrew Marr did have something useful to say, and Halesowen was about to declare. But Damazer was wise to bother me, as assistant editor, rather than the editor of election coverage, Alexandra Henderson. Even one-word e-mails take time.

As the new controller of Radio 4, Damazer may have, as he describes it, "the best job in broadcasting" but I have taken soundings from many senior BBC figures this past week on the challenges he now faces. What they tell me convinces me that this widely admired figure may have to make some pretty unpopular decisions.

It is a truism that any change to Radio 4 elicits howls of protest from a vocal and committed audience. As such, the controller can never satisfy everyone. They tinker at their peril with the wavelength which boasts The Archers, Test Match Special and Loose Ends. But Damazer's real challenge is not just to upset the denizens of Tunbridge Wells. It's some of the inhabitants of Broadcasting House whom he must now take on. I don't say that because I'm a believer in Maoist Permanent Revolution at the Beeb. But, as charter renewal looms, work must be done if the BBC is to prove itself deserving of the licence-fee funding it enjoys, and Radio 4 is at the forefront of its charter-planning. The argument for a licence fee-funded populist station like Radio 1, or niche stuff like Radio 3 may be hard to make, but what could be a better argument for public funding than a channel with a range combining highbrow offerings like Analysis, File on 4 or Law in Action, consumer-oriented programmes like Moneybox or Gardener's Question Time with sheer populism like Home Truths? Clutching its recent Sony Award as Station of the Year, it might seem that Radio 4 just needs a steady-as-she-goes hand on the tiller. Wrong.

Let me lay out my stall here. I know Mark quite well, and like him a lot, so don't expect this to be one of those knocking-copy articles which so often follow a high-profile appointment. I think that Mark Damazer will probably be an excellent controller for Radio 4 - if only he follows my simple steps to success. It might seem odd that I have anything to suggest about Mark's task, given that I've worked in television, newspapers, magazines and the internet - but never in radio. But nor has Damazer himself.

The first thing to note about Mark is that he's not hugely interventionist. He doesn't meddle, thank goodness. He was the BBC's executive producer while I was editing Question Time back in the Nineties, and he was admirably hands off. Rarely did he question my panels and he never overruled me. That's the right stance. If the BBC is to get the public's trust, it - in turn - must learn to trust its producers and editors to get on with their jobs. If they mess up, fire them; but don't fiddle.

The next thing about Mark is that he's clever. Double-first clever. Weirdo clever, frankly. I bet he likes Round Britain Quiz - unless he finds it too easy. Too clever for his own good, sometimes. When the BBC was trying to work out its response to Hutton, I remember having a conversation with him in which he'd worked out intricate arguments to counter every possible criticism of the corporation's actions. He and Richard Sambrook drew up lists of key journalists to speak to. But they weren't seeing the wood for the trees. The Kelly story stank like rotten fish, and none of Mark's dancing on a pinhead could alter that.

But leaving well alone, making friends and being mega-brainy won't be enough. Radio 4 has troubles - and the first one is right in Damazer's area of expertise: News. As a prime planner of the BBC's defence at the Hutton Inquiry, Damazer knows as well as any that there is a two-pipe problem on Today. It is my personal view (and it may not be shared by BBC management) that that problem can be summed up in two words: John Humphrys. When a presenter's ego becomes bigger than his programme, difficulties are inevitable. When it occurs on the flagship Radio News outlet, the difficulties multiply. Not just the famous 6.07 two-way with Andrew Gilligan, but in several later interviews - ones with John Reid and Ben Bradshaw spring to mind - Humphrys stirred the row between government and broadcaster to boiling point. Dumping Humphrys this close to an election will be seen as pandering to the Government, so that's a no-no. My advice: bolster James Naughtie and Ed Stourton, replace Sarah Montague with Carolyn Quinn, and sideline Humphrys. If he flounces out in a huff, so much the better.

Factual programmes have always been Radio 4's strong point. There'll be a temptation, therefore, to leave them as they are. But I'd suggest some imaginative scheduling here. Programmes like The Learning Curve, Thinking Aloud, The Message and The Archive Hour merit far better slots than they're currently given. Less successful ones - You and Yours springs to mind - should be booted into the long grass.

The new BBC director general has already asserted his commitment to new comedy, and this should therefore be one of Mark's priorities, because Radio 4 comedy is in a bit of a lull. The channel which first brought you The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy now brings you, er, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Trevor's World of Sport gave the station a recent fillip - but that was better on telly, frankly. Just a Minute, The News Quiz and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue are as good as ever, but the station needs some new formats: Loose Ends and Quote Unquote are stale - and despite the torrent of abuse which Mark would suffer if he dumps them, he should bite the bullet.

Mark is a workaholic: he's the only person I know who carries one of those tiny TVs around with him wherever he goes, so he won't miss the latest bulletin. But he'll need all his dedication if he's to push through my last suggestion. Religious programming is considered to be the pits by many at the BBC. It's thought of as a badly funded, much-derided retirement home for second-rate producers, under attack both from the atheistic bien-pensants (who want Thought for the Day booted from the schedules) and from the ultra-religious (who consider it too low churchy, happy-clappy and frivolous). So here's a radical suggestion. Give religious programming loads more cash and slots - and see if they can make the programmes to match your commitment. Few would deny that The Moral Maze is one of your best shows: why not push the Religious Affairs department to make its other output as good?

Mark Damazer's success at Radio 4 will be hard to gauge in the short term: he'll doubtless be getting more than a few one-word e-mails himself in the coming months. But if the licence fee is left intact at the end of this charter review, you can be sure that the corporation's success will - in no small part - be attributable to him.

Charles Courtauld is the former editor of the BBC's 'Question Time'

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