Michael Palin, Sir Tim Berners Lee and PJ Harvey will guest edit Radio 4's Today show this Christmas. But do we need to listen?

They’ll just be promoting their pet schemes and ideas - not editing in any real sense
  • @iburrell

Has the “guest editors” wheeze on Today run its course?

This will be the tenth year that BBC Radio’s premier news programme has “handed over the reins”, as it likes to say, for the week between Christmas and New Year to an eclectic selection of famous individuals.

I have to say they manage to land some great names. This year’s guests include the former director general of MI5, Eliza Manningham Buller, and the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners Lee.

But they won’t really be editing, will they? They’ll just be promoting their pet schemes and ideas – like all guest editors do.

Manningham Buller will talk about spying pigeons and Sir Tim will ask Today listeners how they’d like to see the Web develop. Elsewhere, Michael Palin will discuss with fellow Python John Cleese the row that originally broke out over The Life of Brian. As a travel writer, Palin will also be talking to other travel writers about where else on the globe remains undiscovered.

And PJ Harvey, the musician, will “showcase some of her many influences, political, poetical and musical”. Well, good for you PJ!

For the final week of the year, Today acts as if the news cycle – this constantly whirring information supply that everyone has access to on their personal mobile devices – has suddenly stopped. At the least, news is downgraded in importance. One radio reviewer in 2009 complained of a “nasty taste in the mouth” as a big unfolding news story in Gaza was given second billing behind a cookery item with Giorgio Locatelli. But then the flagship news programme was being edited that day by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster. So presumably it was his call.

On other guest editing occasions, Today listeners have had to hear Chelsea-supporting Lord Coe appealing to Jose Mourinho to return to Stamford Bridge and the Sudanese telecoms tycoon Mo Ibrahim celebrating the telecoms sector in Africa.

Guest editing is an idea that is most-used in print - where commercial media organisations have used the device to raise their profile. The Independent’s use of Bono to edit a newspaper in 2006, themed to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa, was one of the most distinctive examples of this idea.

Today has managed many similarly eye-catching moments over the past decade. Author and guest editor PD James’s grilling of then director general Mark Thompson in 2009 was compelling radio and stands alongside Today presenter John Humphrys’s more regular working over of DG George Entwistle last year.

But when Today assistant editor Peter Hanington first pitched the guest editing idea to then editor Kevin Marsh it made a lot more sense. Back in 2003, things were different. In the days before social media and a revolution in the public relations industry, the Christmas week could feel very sleepy. Who wouldn’t have rather listened to Jarvis Cocker having a Christmas time dinner with Richard Dawkins? Or Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, one of the early guests in 2003, investigating the beneficial effects of a hangover?

Today was reminded that the news never stops in 2004 when the Tsunami swept away most of the Duchess of York’s guest material. Since then the political spin doctors – and other PRs - have realised the opportunity for releasing stories during a week when there is a little less competition in news.

The use of guest editors allows the Today team to experiment with the format. But there is room for much of this stuff in other areas of the Radio 4 schedule.

This year’s guests are great. I hear Lady Manningham Buller is lining up an interview with Dame Judi Dench to discuss the portrayal of spooks in film. PJ Harvey is taking her editing responsibilities very seriously.

But the format has had its time. The fact that reality star Katie Price was even considered last year told us something. And now the guest editing idea has become so established that showbiz agents are pitching their clients to Today. We listeners appreciate a break from politics – but not if our morning listen is to become part of the celebrity culture.