Evan Davis: quiet man of the airwaves bites back

Some of his BBC colleagues are a little too aggressive, Evan Davis tells Ben Riley-Smith

It's 5am at BBC Television Centre. In the corner of an almost deserted first-floor newsroom, Evan Davis is writing his Today programme cues. "What do you call Roman Abramovich?" he asks the handful of producers and researchers that make up the show's night team. "The chairman of Chelsea?" Someone responds: "Owner." Davis nods and edits his lines, muttering the new script. Next to him, John Humphrys picks at a bowl of cornflakes and scrutinises an article on Vladimir Putin.

There's a quiet intensity to the scene, an hour before sunrise, in the office of Today, Radio 4's flagship current affairs programme. Reaching a weekly audience of more than seven million people, the three-hour show is essential listening for Britain's establishment. It is British broadcasting royalty.

The same can increasingly be said of Davis. Since his arrival at the BBC as an economics correspondent in 1993, the Oxford graduate has risen quickly. His time is divided between Today slots and presenting duties for The Bottom Line, leading round-table discussions with business leaders, and the ever-popular Dragons' Den.

Yet Davis remains an enigma. His cheery, measured delivery lacks the accusatory snarl of a Jeremy Paxman or the evident ego of a Robert Peston. Davis's approach suggests a shyness and privacy rare among those who step in front of the microphone.

In person, the 49-year-old is all smiles as the minutes tick towards Today's 6am start. There's not much to suggest he's been up since 3.15am.

"I turned down the job when they offered it to me," Davis says. "I didn't think I would cope with the unsociable hours." But he now works fixed shifts that take up no more than 20 hours a week. Providing you can sleep – Davis goes to bed at 8.30pm, using hypnosis tapes to nod off – it's a great gig, he says. "Don't ever feel sorry for Today presenters."

At 5.57am, Davis sweeps up his notes and heads for the studio. The pips sound. "Good morning. This is Today with Evan Davis and John Humphrys. The headlines...."

Sitting in the production studio, separated from the recording room by a glass screen, it's clear the show resembles that old swan analogy: as the presenters glide seamlessly from paper round-up to interview, backstage legs are furiously kicking. The unseen team – editor, producer, sound man, two dogsbodies – are constantly chasing calls, reshuffling the running order and barking directions at their frontmen to keep to timings.

Davis's failure to do just this leads to his first reprimand of the day. Directed to wind up a discussion on the legal aid bill, he poses a question that results in a 30-second response. "That was just a shit question to ask, Evan," the producer barks. "I told you to wrap up!" They are now running late, but still manage to hit the nine o'clock pips.

Davis is approaching his four-year anniversary on Today. And yet, with the bedding-in period long passed, there remains criticism about his lighter interviewing style. So does he let interviewees off the hook more often than other presenters? "I think that's undoubtedly true," he says, with surprising candour. "On occasion, I'm sure that's true. That's the risk I run.

"But while there is the error of failing to convict people who are guilty, there's the other error of convicting people who are innocent.... Very few people think that is a problem that journalists make, but I do."

He adds: "You've got the Jeremy Paxman style which is funny, in a certain way. You've got a forensic Humphrys style... it's not just about getting the information out – it's got to be a good, conversational listen. So I just try and make mine engaging in a different way."

Davis, an atheist, feels strongly about Today's "Thought for the Day" slot. A decade ago he complained that it was "discriminating against the non-religious". Now he says: "I think there's a very serious debate about whether the spot – which I would keep – might give space to what one might call 'serious and spiritually minded secularists'. I don't think "Thought for the Day" has to only be people of the cloth."

Davis's homosexuality – he is one of the few prominent gay journalists – often makes headlines. How does he deal with the exposure? "How long have we got?" he sighs. "You accept you have to give a bit of your personality. I don't keep it secret that I live with my partner Gio. I'm very proud of my gayness. But there is lots I wouldn't want the press to write about me... it is a matter of regret that being gay is the most interesting thing about me."

Discussion turns to the Leveson Inquiry. "It's unlikely to have a big effect on press freedom," he says. "There's a public-interest defence and the public interest has not been under attack... one or two things have come up that were clearly against the public interest. The Times hacked the computer of the NightJack blogger in order to out him. That was a hacking case, but what was that about? What possible public interest was there in that? Their defence on that was ludicrous.

"I'm somewhat more sanguine about this than other people. The BBC actually had its own Leveson and it affected the Today programme more than anyone else. It was called the Hutton Inquiry. People have always been saying 'you've been tamed. You've been shut up'. I don't get that impression at all. I've never seen us not tackle an issue we think is difficult or unfavourable."


This interview also appears in 'XCity', the magazine produced by City University's Department of Journalism.