It is hard to watch BBC Television these days without seeing a trailer for Radio 4's Today programme. In one Jonny Wilkinson experiences existential angst. The connection between the 2003 Rugby World Cup hero's take on the meaning of life and the cerebral radio programme feels remote. Is Today reaching frantically for a younger audience?
"We have to be realistic about our demographic," says Ceri Thomas, the programme's editor. "Our audience hovers around the age of 50. The aspiration is not to let it get older." That is a challenge given Britain's ageing population, but Thomas says the intensive prime time campaign came about for different reasons. "The BBC decided too few of its best brands get marketing. It needed to find a way to promote its crown jewels."
Audience figures confirm that Today is among them. Amid the chaos of multimedia fragmentation, the show still has appointment-to-listen status among opinion formers. "Today matters because of who listens to it," says former editor Phil Harding, "It is still what Brian Redhead called 'A word in the nation's ear'."
It makes the largest contribution by any single programme to Radio 4's weekly reach of 9.98 million listeners. Its audience has risen in the last year. "There is a flight to quality that publications like The Economist have also benefited from," says Thomas. "These are serious times."
Today faces them with a new line up of presenters. Out has gone Edward Stourton, the public school and Cambridge-educated former foreign correspondent and former television presenter. His replacement, Justin Webb, a public school and London School of Economics-educated former foreign correspondent and former television presenter, made his debut in the last week of August.
One explanation for Stourton's defenestration is that his friend, Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer, considers him too posh. Stourton was on speaking terms with the Queen Mother, but it is hard to discern that Webb is less pukka. When he occupied the presenters' couch at BBC1's Breakfast News producers thought Webb was excessively posh. Insiders describe replacement of Stourton as a textbook BBC cock-up: maximum embarrassment for zero net gain.
Politicians are not intimidated by the new arrival. A senior government insider says: "The only interviewer I advise my ministers to avoid if they have a weak case is Eddie Mair on PM. He is the master of the sucker punch."
It is hard to find anyone who believes Webb is more likely to develop that talent than Stourton. The other new presenter, Evan Davis, is the most promising presenter the programme has appointed since John Humphrys in 1987. Insiders say recent interviews with Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson have shown that he needs to develop an interviewing technique that will allow him to challenge politicians without sounding like a know-all, but political interviewing is a problem for everyone at Today.
"The political interview is at a crossroads," says Harding. "It used to be possible to shake a politician until the truth dropped out. John Humphrys excelled at that. But it is much harder now. Politicians have learned how to block and parry everything." Thomas acknowledges the challenge. "The political interview is a worthy preoccupation for this programme. As others withdraw from it, it is incumbent on us to think about the form."
Rod Liddle, another former Today editor, says that is crucial. "There is far more cynicism and far less engagement among the informed and educated classes. The staple coverage of politics these days is satirical, rather than analytical." But Liddle praises Thomas's approach. "His formula is more high-brow now than it has ever been. Ceri uses a BBC correspondent to explain the story and follows that with a 12-minute interview with a politician. That is a public service."
Critics say deploying correspondents such as political editor Nick Robinson, and business editor Robert Peston, to interpret and analyse political interviews risks forcing them into commentary. Thomas says: "It does sometimes require them to perform a high-wire act, but I don't think it compromises their impartiality."
That may be why leading politicians still rate Today. "It remains the flagship current affairs programme," says John Whittingdale, Conservative MP and chairman of the Media Select Committee. "Governments and political parties time their announcements for it." A top Labour aide agrees. "In a fragmented media market mass audience delivers an additional premium. Today has that premium." Government media handlers say it reaches the readers of influential quality and mid-market newspapers – Today is very popular among Daily Mail readers – better than any other news programme. "Today integrates mass culture more than it did ten years ago," says the Labour aide. But he always warns ministers appearing on the show not to be complacent. "It has gone from being a bully pulpit to a plaintiff's dock. It is something for ministers to endure, not enjoy."
Thomas is ambitious for Today's coverage of the forthcoming general election. In the past the programme has paid excessive attention to campaign controversies and has missed big issues. In 1992 it completely overlooked Europe, the issue that would bring John Major down. In 1997 it failed to mention independence for the Bank of England. "We have been doing work to identify what will be the huge post-election issues," says the editor. "We must have the intellectual confidence to keep a gimlet eye on them."
Thomas is credited with restoring morale on Today after the misery of the Andrew Gilligan affair but critics say his programmes are formulaic, with the correspondent/politician interview at 8.10am usually followed by a lifestyle piece and the last half-hour of the programme messy and ill thought out. The Gilligan experience has left the BBC fearful of investigative reporting and Today contains little original reporting of any kind, they say
The programme also lost several reporters in recent cuts and has not replaced stars such as Angus Stickler, its brilliant social affairs correspondent, who recently defected to Newsnight.
Fifteen years ago, nobody at the BBC imagined Today could continue at the peak of influence it had reached in the Thatcher era. "Five Live had its tanks on our lawn," recalls Liddle. "Management was more interested in rolling television news and the public's appetite for politics was not the same as in 1996-1997." Thomas agrees. "Fifteen years ago the assumption was that Radio 4 would inevitably become a niche station." Instead, with informed opinion beginning to cohere around the view that the BBC must be smaller, Today is a thriving example of what nearly everyone agrees the corporation ought to do. That makes it vulnerable.
There are fewer Britons around who will simply grow into listeners as previous generations have. The newspaper market which has historically reflected and amplified Today's influence is changing radically. Above all new media are nurturing generations who reject the "appointment to listen" philosophy on which it depends. Thomas did not ask for the current promotions campaign, but he may crave such marketing in future.
Tim Luckhurst is Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent. He worked on Today from 1988 until 1994 and is the author of This is Today, a biography of the programmeReuse content