PJ Harvey on the ‘Today’ programme: A radical and refreshing take on a radio staple

Harvey generated her own digital birdsong: a flurry of comment on Twitter

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There has been talk in the offices of the Today programme of scrapping the tradition of handing control of Radio 4’s flagship news broadcast to guest editors at the end of each year. The feeling was that, after 10 years, the gimmick may have run its course. But after hearing PJ Harvey’s edition this morning, I hope they keep it going.

The musician approached her role from a completely different perspective. The result, filled with snippets of music and poetry, felt radical and refreshing.

Thought for the Day was split between former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reading his poem “Passion Plays”, and Julian Assange delivering an alternative version in which he explored the relationship of knowledge and power.

Perhaps predictably, the more reactionary parts of the media immediately condemned her efforts, with the Daily Mail website branding it the “worst ever” edition of Today, and a Daily Telegraph headline dismissing it as “left-wing tosh”. One Telegraph writer suggested the show should have been replaced by “birdsong”.

Harvey’s Today generated its own digital birdsong: a flurry of comment on Twitter which was complimentary and critical in equal measure – surely a sign that the programme was generating debate.

Nick Robinson took issue with a John Pilger piece titled “Is the media now just another word for control?”, but it won’t be the first time the BBC political editor has shouted at his radio. Yes, the programme skewed to the left, but it wasn’t tosh. Photographer and triple amputee Giles Duley talked of the plight of injured servicemen. Russian history professor Bob Service condemned the totalitarianism of Kim Jong-un and Leonid Brezhnev.

At the start of the show, presenter Sarah Montague observed that it was “a quiet news day”, emphasising the value of the guest editor experiment. She may have been getting an excuse in for the unusual material, and I would imagine that some of the Today regulars felt a little uncomfortable.

It can’t have been easy for business presenter Simon Jack to hand over to John Rees of the National People’s Assembly Against Austerity, who cued up his report with the Jam’s “In the City” before letting rip at the Square Mile.

PJ Harvey is an outspoken liberal, but let’s not forget this was part of a Today series that included guest editions by the CEO of Barclays Bank and a former head of MI5. She knew she was testing boundaries, but I didn’t feel BBC editorial values were compromised.

She had demanded that the BBC did not restrict her contributors in what they could say, or edit their pieces “without their full consent”. A lot of the content she had chosen “is about censorship in one way or another”, she added. Bravo the BBC for not putting on the shackles.

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