Guest editors: Over and out?

Well-known guest editors taking over BBC's Today show is a Christmas tradition – an escape from the 24-hour news cycle. But the scheme may have had its time, says Ian Burrell

Click to follow
The Independent Online

This will be the 10th year that BBC Radio's premier news programme has "handed over the reins", as it likes to say, for the week between Christmas and the new year to an eclectic selection of famous individuals.

They manage to land some great names. This year's guests include the former director-general of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, and the inventor of the internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. But they won't really be editing, will they? They'll just be promoting their pet schemes and ideas – like all guest editors do. Lady Manningham-Buller will talk about spying pigeons and Sir Tim will ask Today listeners how they'd like to see the internet develop. Elsewhere, Michael Palin will discuss with fellow Python John Cleese the dispute that originally broke out over The Life of Brian. As a travel writer, Palin will also be talking to other travel writers about where else remains undiscovered in the world. And P J Harvey, the musician, will "showcase some of her many influences, political, poetical and musical".

For the final week of the year, Today acts as if the news cycle – this constantly whirring information supply that everyone has access to on their personal mobile devices – has suddenly stopped. At the least, news is downgraded in importance. One radio reviewer in 2009 complained of a "nasty taste in the mouth" as a big unfolding news story in Gaza was given second billing behind a cookery item with Giorgio Locatelli. But then the flagship news programme was being edited that day by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster. So presumably it was his call.

On other guest-editing occasions, Today listeners have had to hear Chelsea-supporting Lord Coe appealing to Jose Mourinho to return to Stamford Bridge and the Sudanese telecoms tycoon Mo Ibrahim celebrating the telecoms sector in Africa. Guest editing is an idea that is most often employed in print – where commercial media organisations have used the device to raise their profile. The Independent's use of Bono to edit a newspaper in 2006, themed to combat the spread of Aids in Africa, was one of the most distinctive examples of this idea.

Today has managed many similarly eye-catching moments over the past decade. The author and guest editor P D James's grilling of the BBC's then Director-General Mark Thompson in 2009 was compelling radio and stands alongside Today presenter John Humphrys's more regular working over of the former Director-General George Entwistle last year.

But when Today assistant editor Peter Hanington first pitched the guest-editing idea, it made a lot more sense. In 2003, things were different. In the days before social media and a revolution in the public-relations industry, the Christmas week could feel very sleepy. Who wouldn't have rather listened to Jarvis Cocker having a Christmastime dinner with Richard Dawkins? Or Radiohead's Thom Yorke, a guest in 2003, investigating the beneficial effects of a hangover?

Today was reminded that the news never stops in 2004 when the Tsunami swept away most of the Duchess of York's guest material. Since then, the political spin doctors – and other PRs – have realised the opportunity for releasing stories during a week when there is a little less competition in news. The use of guest editors allows the Today team to experiment with the format. But there is room for much of this stuff in other areas of the Radio 4 schedule.

This year's guests are great. I hear Lady Manningham-Buller is lining up an interview with Dame Judi Dench to discuss the portrayal of spooks in film. But the format has had its time. The fact that reality star Katie Price was even considered last year told us something. And now the guest editing idea has become so established that showbiz agents are pitching their clients to Today. We listeners appreciate a break from politics – but not if our morning listen is to become part of the celebrity culture.