One way to fill the sports slot

We tend to listen to the Today programme on Radio 4 each morning in our house, or rather we tend to have it on, because my wife thinks I listen to it and I think she listens to it. Left to our own devices, we each of us tend to turn it off by and by.

I tend to turn it off when a cabinet minister is sitting in the radio car, answering questions which he hasn't been asked, and my wife turns it off whenever the sports news arrives.

''Why is there a regular five-minute slot for news about sport every day?" she said to me recently, mercifully cutting across someone who sounded like Douglas Hurd talking about somewhere suspiciously like Bosnia. ''There are millions of people like me who are left cold by sport who have to sit through this five minutes of tedium.

''And it's not even news about sport, it's just speculation about sport. They ask people about their chances of beating Brazil or they wonder whether, if somebody's knee responds to treatment in time, he will be picked for the whole 90 minutes. That's not news! That's pub chat! Why don't they have regular five-minute slots on things I'm interested in, like arts?''

''What sort of thing would you like to have reported in a five-minute arts news slot?" I said. ''If you're not careful, they'd just have speculation on how Stephen Fry's knee is doing under treatment.''

We often have chats like this during the Today programme. Whoever said that radio killed the art of conversation was dead wrong.

''It would be nice to have updates on things like the theatre," she said. ''After the first-night reviews, you never hear about plays again. You never hear whether business is good or bad, whether the star is getting drunk or not, which famous actor has started forgetting his lines, stuff like that.''

''That's not news, that's gossip.''

''Nothing wrong with that. It beats speculation on whether someone is going to manage Arsenal anyway.''

She's right, I thought, as I found myself listening to some Euro-rebel MP being interviewed on whether he thought a leadership challenge would be mounted to Mr Major in the autumn. And then it hit me. The reason we should cherish the five-minute sports slice is nothing to do with sport. It's because it's one of the very few moments on the Today programme when the interviewers do not get the chance to speculate on leadership challenges, defeats in the House, falls from power, cabinet shuffles, by-election sensations and all those other things which seem so sexy to Today interviewers.

It's not the only moment, of course. There's also the weather forecast. When the presenter says, ''And now, it's over to Bob Gingham at the London Weather Centre for a look at the next 24 hours ...'' and Bob Gingham starts by saying, ''Well, it's looking rather cold and damp almost everywhere in Britain, I'm afraid ...", it's not too fanciful to imagine the presenter back in the Today studio longing to interrupt and say, ''Yes, Bob, but who do you blame for this cold and damp? Do you think the Government has been in power just too long to get warm, dry conditions going? Will heads roll for this dank period? And if it goes on too long, will you be calling for an inquiry?''

And it's high time for a new-look Thought for the Day. Here's the Bishop of Surbiton: ''You know, when I was preparing this Thought for the Day my glance fell on a painting of The Last Supper, and I couldn't help feeling, in a very real sense, that Jesus and the twelve disciples were much like a prime minister and his cabinet. And I wondered if Jesus ever felt that he was due for a cabinet reshuffle?

''He had had the same team together during his entire ministry, and it must have occurred to him from time to time that fresh blood might be needed. Was Judas Iscariot, for instance, really the right calibre for a cabinet minister?

''Well, we now know that he mounted a very untimely leadership challenge to Jesus, and that in exercising his thirty-pieces-of-silver share option, he was in danger of rocking the boat, but it could be said that this was exactly what Jesus was planning for, and that when Judas, a sort of Euro- rebel in his own way, urged Jesus to go for sovereignty in the here and now ...''

Stranger things have happened.