Evan Davis: New man of Today
His great skill is to latch on to an opaque issue vexing the City and explain it to a broad audience
Saturday 24 November 2007
As a former economist at the Institute of Fiscal Studies, a graduate of both Oxford University and Harvard, and one of the British media's most revered communicators on business affairs in recent years, Evan Davis will probably not entrust the writing of his official biography to Garry Bushell, the one-time television critic with The Sun newspaper and musician with the Gonads punk band. Particularly as Bushell once characterised the popular BBC journalist as a cross between Gollum, the fawning, treacherous character in The Lord of the Rings, and a "needy vicar".
But it is an indication of Davis's own lack of pretensions – not to mention the sense of humour that lurks close to the surface of many of his reports on the British economy – that he went about the newsroom at the BBC telling senior colleagues of the description with a big smile on his face.
Davis, 45, the BBC's economics editor, was last Wednesday appointed as a full-time presenter on Radio 4's Today, arguably the single most influential news programme made by the corporation. This new role in an invisible medium comes just as the shaven-headed Davis, with his boundless energy and enthusiasm, has established himself as one of the most recognised news figures on BBC television, largely due to his work presenting the hit BBC2 business-based show Dragon's Den.
According to the newsreader Huw Edwards, with whom Davis has often engaged in two-way discussions on the implications of economic developments, "Davis is quirky but quirky is good. Viewers recognise him and his specialist knowledge, and value his ability to reduce a complex story to a few manageable ideas. He combines this with a relaxed, witty, unstuffy broadcasting manner."
Davis's great skill is to latch on to an opaque issue that is vexing the City and neatly explain how it relates to a broad audience. He will often deploy a smart visual device, illustrating an analysis of Tony Blair's economic record with a shot of an iPod playing the New Labour anthem "Things Can Only Get Better" by D:Ream.
Craig Oliver, the editor of the BBC's flagship Ten O'Clock News, is facing up to losing a prized asset to radio. "He's an extraordinary talent," says Oliver. "When you compare him to others in the broadcasting world he is in a different league and will be very difficult to replace. He has wit and self-deprecation and a huge amount of intellectual honesty."
According to Oliver, Davis "clearly loves economics" and can make a dry subject interesting by providing insight through context rather than dumbing down. Writing in this newspaper, Dominic Lawson, the son of a former chancellor, this month praised the "peerless" Davis for a smart contribution to the debate on the economic effects of immigration to Britain, an observation that if the rest of the country was as densely inhabited as Jersey, the UK population would stand at 180 million, yet Jersey has not resorted to insurrection.
Oliver believes Davis's work is undervalued within the television industry. "If there was any justice in this world we would take his sort of journalism more seriously and understand that it's just as important as the stuff that wins awards," he says. "There's this obsession with people wearing tin helmets and having bullets whizzing past them but in terms of explaining to people what's happening in their country, Evan's work has been extraordinary."
Within his specialist field, Davis has been recognised, most notably when he won the prestigious Harold Wincott Business Broadcaster of the Year award in 2002. When presenter Adrian Chiles, a big admirer of Davis, later won the same honour, he got an insight into Davis's realisation of his own worth. "I said to him, 'How ridiculous Evan, I'm just not worthy,' and he just nodded, quite seriously," recalls Chiles, who was given the award for his efforts on BBC2's Working Lunch.
Chiles admits that he and other BBC colleagues depended heavily on Davis to guide them through what they saw as an arcane specialism. "His contribution to the department was massive. You could just knock the door and say, 'There's something I don't understand here.' He would always patronise you a bit and say 'Let's explain...' but two minutes later somebody of below-average intelligence like me would walk out of there understanding the subject."
Davis's profile was transformed by the launch of Dragon's Den in January 2005. The show is now in its fifth series. "Even the CBI seems to be much more interested in Dragon's Den than they've ever been in news," commented a slightly bemused Davis as the programme took off towards the end of 2005. After more than a decade of working in news in comparative anonymity, Davis suddenly found himself being stopped in the street with cries of "You're that bloke from Dragon's Den".
He claims, self-deprecatingly, that he was offered the role of presenter only after he advised the producers of the show to avoid appointing someone with a personality so strong that it would distract viewers from the programme's panel of "dragon" business gurus. "I suppose I should be insulted," he joked.
But according to Deborah Meaden, one of the dragons, Davis benefits from not being overly brash. "He has a lovely way of asking quite difficult questions but actually making the person feel at ease with it. It's quite the opposite to me. I go in like a bull in a china shop."
Meaden, a multimillionaire entrepreneur, says Davis enjoys great respect as a business commentator from her friends in private equity. "You understand you are in the presence of a man with the brain the size of a planet, but when the words come out of his mouth they are clear and concise. He's very, very good at boiling things down to the simple points."
Davis, the son of South African immigrants, grew up in Surrey and read politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford and public administration at Harvard before working as an economist for the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the London Business School.
Hamish McRae, principal economics commentator of The Independent, says Davis is "tremendously admired" among economists. "He's one of the best commentators in the land on this subject. He has an intuitive feeling for what matters."
And yet, alongside all of this pin-striped respectability, the name Evan Davis can hardly be uttered in media circles without eliciting a bout of schoolboy sniggering. In the corridors of the BBC, the esteemed economics editor is often referred to as Tinsel Tits, on account of his rumoured pierced nipples. He also said to have tattooed arms and even the intimate ornamentation favoured by Prince Albert. Garry Bushell might disdainfully observe that, just like Gollum, Davis is a "slave to the ring". Giggling interviewers have sought to question Davis about this body art, which he playfully does not deny nor confirm, saying he prefers to remain a "mystery man".
He has been happy to talk about his sexuality, however, and his long-standing relationship with his French partner, a landscape architect, appears to be one of domestic bliss. The couple have an apartment in west London and a country home in France. Davis has laughed at suggestions that he is a gay pin-up, and even the more serious accolade that he is at number 49 in a "pink list" of the top 101 most influential gay men and women he sees as mere "amusement".
He appears to have a strong female following, and one woman interviewer could not resist comparing him to her pet dog, saying she wanted to feed Davis Pedigree Chum and teach him to do tricks. Both The Observer and The Daily Telegraph have used the word "puppyish" to describe him. Jeremy Paxman once referred to Davis by the name Tigger, and "bouncing", which is what Tiggers famously do best, is a word repeatedly used to portray Davis's active style of news presentation. The flurry of arms and the big ears inevitably draws comparison with Andrew Marr, another of the BBC's most successful news communicators.
By moving on to radio, the waving of the arms, the big ears, the shaven head and the Prince Albert all become irrelevant. Davis will have to draw more heavily on his talents for identifying the detail in the story and distilling the information into a set of words that fires the imagination of the audience. He has already cut his teeth on the show that likes to think that it sets the daily agenda for the rest of the British news media, and several reviewers favourably reviewed his presence as a breath of fresh air.
Andrew Scott, professor of economics at the London Business School, remembers Davis's quick wit and says he is looking forward to him bringing economics in from the margins on Today. "By and large, contemporary news analysis is just awful when it comes to economics," he says. "Evan is never going to be producing Nobel Prize-winning economic papers, but he has a very sound understanding of economics and its importance."
Davis says he has no political allegiances, and though he supported the SDP as a student he is not necessarily a supporter of the euro. But with the BBC on the verge of industrial action over major budget cuts he is on a potential collision course with some of his colleagues, having crossed the picket line during the last strike at the BBC in 2005. Replacing Carolyn Quinn, he will not be the youngest of the full-time presenters (Sarah Montague is 41) but he can be expected to provide an alternative perspective on some issues to veterans James Naughtie and John Humphrys.
One senior BBC colleague explains: "The Today programme liked him because they regarded him as the essence of modernity. He somehow represents a contemporary outlook on life." It looks like Davis's time has come.
A Life in Brief
Born: Evan Harold Davis, 8 April 1962, Ashtead, Surrey
Education: Ashcombe School, Dorking. Studied politics, philosophy and economics at St John's College, Oxford. Edited the university's student newspaper, Cherwell. Received a master's degree in public administration from Harvard.
Career: Began his career as an economist, first at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and then at London Business School. Joined the BBC in 1993 as an economics correspondent for radio and television, becoming a regular fixture on the Ten O'Clock News. After four years, moved to Newsnight as its economics editor. In 2001, appointed BBC economics editor. He has also written a book called Public Spending. Also presents hit BBC2 show Dragon's Den.
He says: "I actually profoundly think the world's a better place when economics is fairly boring ... The more boring the better."
They say: "He's an extraordinary talent. When you compare him to others in the broadcasting world he is in a different league." Craig Oliver, editor, BBC Ten O'Clock News
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