Comment: A strong `Today' builds a healthy tomorrow

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The BBC will shortly convene a board to consider candidates for the top job in one of our greatest national institutions: the Today programme. Roger Mosey, the incumbent editor, is moving on to head Radio 5 Live. To those unversed in the way the corporation gives ever larger amounts of money and status to those moving further and further away from the cutting edge of programme production, his is an odd move. Running Today is surely one of the most influential jobs in journalism, and will become more demanding in the months before the election. The Today programme is far from perfect, but it has no equal as the showcase of national political life. In some measure, at least, the quality of electoral decision-making and the honesty with which the forthcoming election contest will be fought depend on the programme's integrity. That in turn hinges on whether the BBC appoints a cipher or a tiger to run the show.

The apparatchiks convened to make that choice should consider this. The BBC's anachronism grows with each passing day. A nation-state broadcaster in an age of multinationals, a haven of neutrality in a partisan culture, the BBC's rationale more and more seems to lodge in those few but special programmes only it can make. The doctrine of novelty and change preached by the management consultants who infest the upper floors of Broadcasting House somehow - hooray - never seems to percolate into Studio 4B. There a muscular and blessedly old-fashioned view of BBC purpose and identity seems still to hold.

Today is a place the middle-class, reasonably well educated not-so-young can call their own. The programme's permanent staff are, like Mr Mosey, probably younger than their average listener, but it hardly shows. Today makes heavy weather when it tries to cover, say, rock music or other manifestations of popular culture. At the other end, Today has little time for high culture - weighty literature, the arts, science, technology, the world of ideas. Its would-be neutral review of the partisan newspaper press is actually rather unbalanced, but probably mildly interesting to non-professionals. "Thought for the Day", by contrast, is a scandalous waste of prime broadcasting time (though this is not Today's fault). Today's world is inevitably bounded by what can be put into a three-minute "package" or a "doughnut" (two interviewees outside with an interviewer connected to the studio). For all James Naughtie's accent, it is, like most national journalism in print and broadcast, rather London-centric.

Because it is a programme we brush our teeth to, its presenters acquire a special domestic intimacy. Reaction to their tics and traits become, in some households, the only thing partners have in common - slippage towards the bland in Today's recent selection of presenters has been disappointing. The programme's new editor will be well advised to make the following calculation. The value of a Brian Redhead and of an Anna Ford ultimately does not lie in the quality of their preparation for the big interview with the Chancellor, or the Environment Secretary, but how far they convince us, as listeners, that they are acting as our proxies. Their credibility depends on our sense of their autonomy. Ms Ford may, the other day, have allowed her slip to show in that celebrated tiff with Kenneth Clarke; but by getting cross she raised her stock immensely in the ears of us all. We have to believe that these people whom we admit into our kitchens and bathrooms each morning are not time-servers or bosses' narks. Evidently Mr Birt does not understand this: he made a bad mistake in apologising so profusely over that interview. If he is going to be editor-in-chief he should know that the effectiveness of presenters depends on the public backing given them from on high. Today is too valuable a brand to be subverted in this way.

Like BBC news in general, Today defines politics too narrowly, as what happens at Westminster among the political parties. It is therefore a poor reflector of the reasons why British democracy is in the doldrums and so much open contempt expressed for political process and personality, especially among younger people. But for certain forms the programme is unsurpassed: in particular the head-to-head grilling of the politician in huckstering mode. Only Today provides such a regular waffle-meter read- out. Sometimes we are privileged to hear one of our rulers forced to think on their feet and say something genuine and unrehearsed. Lady Thatcher listened to interviews on Today as a test of her ministers' mettle - with good reason.

No one really knows how far broadcast messages influence political perception, let alone voting behaviour. Does a John Humphrys less or more make any difference? But politics is a sport and a drama, as well as the terrain where hard decisions about taxing and spending are made, and the Today programme conducts the public game with entertainment and aplomb. To be a middling democratic impresario as well as an entertainer is to ask a lot of the new editor. The chances are that the machine will select a candidate who is a creature of patronage - a prerequisite of upward movement in Mr Birt's BBC. But we have to hope, for the sake of the country's political health, that the person chosen also has a spark of self-confidence that will keep the programme's essential independence of spirit alight, however hard the party minders and managers blow over the next few months. As any interested foreigner who has ever stayed awhile in these islands will tell you, Today is an institution to cherish and protect.