Why tomorrow should not be as predictable as Today

  • @RobertHanks
Who sets the agenda, the 'Today' programme or the politicians? Robert Hanks believes the Today team need to look beyond Westminster for some refreshment

Today has big ideas about its place in the broadcasting firmament. It is the programme that sets the nation's agenda. If you want to drop a word in the nation's ear - as Brian Redhead was fond of remarking - Today is the place to do it. It is the most listened-to programme on Radio 4 - 5.5 million people every week. Prime ministers listen to it: Margaret Thatcher once phoned the programme, live, on air, when she wanted to talk about the cancellation of Mikhail Gorbachev's trip to Britain. No. 10 tapes the programme. The Labour Party went to the trouble of trying to rig the programme's "Personality of the Year" contest in Tony Blair's favour. For its 40th anniversary, it has its own double-cassette of highlights ("Forty years of the Programme that sets the Nation's Agenda"), and its own biography (All Our Todays, by Sunday Times radio critic Paul Donovan). On the day of the anniversary, a former Chancellor came down to the studio to "turn the tables" on John Humphrys, avenging all those politicians he's grilled, though the argument was almost drowned by the sound of backslapping.

All this makes Today sound pretty important. Certainly, what happens on Today is news, though not always good news. The publication of Paul Donovan's book sparked a minor controversy, when it emerged that Today's women presenters are paid less than the men. And criticisms of the programme's style and news values have gathered pace. Over the years Today has been told off repeatedly for its robust interviewing style by savaged politicians.

It isn't only politicians who complain. There are complaints from weary listeners and nervous management. Many regard the politicians as the source of the problem: what gets them down is the programme's persistent obsession with Westminster politics at the expense of news from elsewhere. Earlier this year, Today was slagged off by Jane Garvey of Radio 5's The Breakfast Programme, who said she couldn't understand why anybody listened.

In the Eighties and early Nineties, at a time when Redhead and Humphrys provided a far more effective opposition to the Government than the Labour Party, the criticisms seemed nitpicking at best, propaganda at worst. Now, though, sclerosis has set in - it's starting to feel predictable and dull, and listening has become a frustrating experience: a matter of hearing points missed and more obvious ones laboured.

Let's begin by saying what the problem is not: it is not over-abrasive political interviewing. It's far more of a problem that Sue MacGregor - arguably the best personality interviewer on radio - is unsuited to the feint and jab of interrogation. But the abrasive interview is a problem when it's used without discrimination.

The underlying problem is Today's exaggerated sense of its own political importance. On Tuesday's programme, Kenneth Clarke complained about a perpetual bias towards things that haven't yet happened - reports that are due to be published, announcements that are expected. Humphrys made no apologies: we set the agenda, he said. Well, not really. Westminster sets the agenda, which is why Today has no time for the European Parliament, precious little for local government, almost none for foreign affairs.

Today strokes Westminster, which strokes it back. Take Thatcher's phone call regarding Gorbachev, touted as one of the classic moments in 40 years of broadcasting. Listening to the compilation cassette, it's clear that she had virtually nothing to say; but the fact that she chose Today to say it flattered the programme's amour propre. Perhaps reports that Tony Blair doesn't listen to Today will help it to break out of this cosy relationship.

At the moment, for all Humphrys' brilliance, for all that it is still more informative than any rival, Today feels as if it ought to get out and about a bit more. It desperately needs a bit of fresh air.