PJ Harvey's Today programme: 'A radical and refreshing take on the format'

Yes, the programme skewed to the left but, no, it wasn’t tosh

Ian Burrell
Thursday 02 January 2014 15:36
The true face of England and Englishness? PJ Harvey performs in Auckland, New Zealand in 2013
The true face of England and Englishness? PJ Harvey performs in Auckland, New Zealand in 2013

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 a series of guest editors at the end of each year.

The feeling was that, after ten years, the gimmick may have run its course. But after hearing PJ Harvey’s edition this morning, I hope they keep these guest editorships going.

The singer and musician didn’t just tweak the Today format, she approached her role from a completely different perspective to those who normally make the programme. 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 referred to scripture as he explored the relationship of knowledge and power.

The more reactionary publishers have already 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 One Telegraph writer suggested the show should have been replaced by “bird song”.

Harvey’s Today generated its own digital bird song, a flurry of comment on Twitter which was complimentary and critical in equal measure, surely a sign that the programme was generating debate over breakfast tables.

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, no, 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 very start of the programme presenter Sarah Montague had observed that it was “a quiet news day”, emphasising the value of the guest editor experiment. Of course, she may have been getting an excuse in for the unusual material on the schedule, and I would imagine that some of the Today regulars felt a little uncomfortable.

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It can’t have been easy for business presenter Simon Jack to hand over to John Rees of the National People’s Assembly Against Authority, who cued up his report with a snatch of The Jam’s “In the City” before letting rip at the Square Mile and the inequality it represents. Property in the banker belt district of Elmbridge, Surrey, was as valuable as that in the entire city of Glasgow, he said.

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. Early bird listeners would have heard her saying 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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