The radio show that's a global institution

Radio 4's 'The World Tonight' is 40 years old. Presenter Robin Lustig recalls tussles with politicians, South American gangsters and the males of Japan

My goodness, Robin Lustig has been throwing his weight around lately. In quick succession, the diminutive and bearded Radio 4 presenter has stomped up into the gangster-infested favelas of Rio, worked over the Tory tough guy William Hague live on air, and questioned the machismo of the entire male population of Japan. That's a few punctured egos.

Maybe it's something to do with The World Tonight approaching the landmark of its 40th birthday. This Radio 4 institution has provided a platform for such BBC broadcasting stalwarts as Douglas Stuart, John Tusa and Anthony Howard. But it is Lustig, after 21 years with the programme, who has become its most distinctive voice.

The Japanese men got it worse, when Lustig ventured to that country in September and mused on why the population was in sharp decline. He ventured that it might have something to do with Manga comics.

"One theory is that Japanese women are increasingly reluctant to marry, because they think Japanese men have shown themselves unable to adapt to the needs of a new, more flexible society – and have retreated into a fantasy world of comics, video games and animated pornography where they feel less threatened."

When those words were translated into Japanese there was, unsurprisingly, quite a storm. "It went viral," he admits now, with a hint of naughtiness in his voice. "BBC says Japanese men not up to it."

More recently, William Hague, distinguished veteran of many a dust-up at the Dispatch box, found himself in full retreat last month when being grilled by Lustig over his knowledge of the renegotiation of the "non-dom" status of Lord Ashcroft.

"When did you learn... when did you learn?" came the Paxman-like repetition before the former Tory leader admitted he had known for "months". The story was widely followed up. "It made quite a splash," says Lustig, who has just returned from Brazil, where he reported on that country's crime problems as well as its emergence as a major economic power.

This mix of stories is a reflection of The World Tonight's ambition to report the nightly news in global terms, while giving due weight to major British stories. "Our remit is to take the world more seriously but not at the expense of domestic stuff. I think some people mistakenly think we only do foreign stories," says the presenter.

He is sat with his editor Alistair Burnett in one of the glass-walled rooms that The World Tonight's staff have to "hot desk" with colleagues from the Today programme, The World at One and PM, with whom they also share an open-plan newsroom and a studio. A hand-painted James Naughtie egg cup is sat forlornly on a desk.

Burnett is marking the 40th anniversary by playing archive recordings from the programme's history. One clip, describing the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, featured a strangely shrill Lustig, then newly arrived on The World Tonight following an earlier career in Fleet Street.

"My voice then was higher than it is now – it was weird, it has changed a lot," he says. "I think it sounded slightly more formal, I think we've loosened up a lot since then."

The growing informality, he believes, is a reflection of the changing media culture of news channels and talk radio stations. But Burnett points out that The World Tonight's audience still includes those who write in to complain about committee "chairs" and the use of "kids" to describe children.

In a special programme on 5 April, The World Tonight will revisit stories covered in its very first programme, on Northern Ireland and Cambodia. The editor hopes to include interviews with two Stormont MPs who appeared on the inaugural show in the early days of the Troubles.

Burnett is also planning a landmark debate, to be staged on 19 May in conjunction with Chatham House on the theme "Britain's Role in the World". He adds that "hopefully we will have the new Foreign Secretary, whoever that is".

Lustig will chair that event, just as he will also preside over the BBC World Service's election-night coverage for the fourth time. "It's the one occasion when I think people do tune to the World Service to hear British news. We like to boast that we get a bigger audience than all the Dimblebys put together," he says.

Though he will be at Bush House "through the night" he has told Burnett that he wishes to be back at Television Centre the following evening to host The World Tonight.

During the campaign, the programme's place in the schedule (10pm on weekdays) means it is well placed to respond to the televised Prime Ministerial debates, after which Lustig's co-presenter Ritula Shah will gauge reaction in marginal constituencies.

The World Tonight, according to its editor and lead presenter, is enjoying a "renaissance" – partly thanks to an increased interest in foreign affairs that has grown steadily since the attacks on the World Trade Centre. The weekly audience reached a record 1.8m at the end of last year and the programme's share of late evening radio listeners is, at 16 per cent, greater than that of the Today programme in the mornings, though that is a much bigger and more competitive market.

According to Burnett, his main competition is the BBC Ten O'clock News. "Talking to people anecdotally you get a sense that the people who listen to this programme have made a conscious decision not to watch the television.

"For whatever reason they think that radio is a superior form of journalism, and who would I be to argue?"

Lustig has his own image of the audience, about a quarter of whom are "appointment" listeners who tune into Radio 4 at precisely 10pm. "I have a theory that quite a lot of people run a bath at 10pm, and have the radio in the bathroom," says Lustig who prolifically blogs under the banner "Trying to Make Sense of the World".

"A lot of opinion formers, movers and shakers, ministers tell you that they listen to the programme on their way home from an engagement. But some people are already in bed – they go to bed and put the radio on. It seems to me that if you can send people off into dreamland having tried to find a shape for the day, then you've done something worthwhile."