BBC Radio 4’s Today programme has long been held in high esteem as the nation’s premier news-junkies’ top-up of choice. Leading politicians frequently opine that they don’t leave home without it, and that it sets the news agenda for the day. Its reputation is intermittently disrupted when the programme itself becomes the story, usually it has to be said because John Humphrys’ rottweiller tendency has been adjudged to have got out of hand. On such occasions opinion is usually split between those who see Mr Humphrys’ interview technique as being the best bulwark we have against politicians’ lies and spin: and those who see him as aggressive, unconscionably rude, and needlessly adversarial. I note that most people swap between these camps largely on the basis of whether or not their political sympathies are with the hapless politician in question.
Whilst the Today programme keeps its attention on mainstream politics, it generally maintains an even keel, with first one political side apoplectic with outrage, and then the other. Most aficionados of politics prefer it red in tooth and claw, and feel on the whole that removing the kind of interviewer personified by John Humphrys would be like taking the scary bits out of a horror movie. The result would be not only boring, but pointless. But Today does not restrict its attention to politics. Recently, writer Graham Linehan has complained bitterly that he was “ambushed” by the Today producers into participating in an artificial controversy over his new play which takes the famous film “The Ladykillers” and re-imagines it for the stage.
Linehan raises two important, but separate, issues. First, he questions whether the framing of arts and other non-political stories on Today as arguments between binary positions – a sort of “is, is not” level of debate – is either useful or necessary. Second, he maintains that he was in effect tricked by the programme’s producers because they were not honest in their brief.
In both cases, I think he has a very valid point. To be fair to Today, we have only Mr Linehan’s word about the brief that he was given, although others have since come forward suggesting that they too have been “tricked” in the same way. But assuming for the moment that Mr Linehan has fairly reported his experience (and I have no reason to believe otherwise) then it is clearly wrong and improper for any programme to misrepresent to its participants how it intends to frame the discussion it is inviting them to join.
But this misrepresentation is a consequence, not a cause. It only becomes necessary because the programme does indeed, it seems to me, routinely frame everything as if it were a political dog-fight. I listen to the programme just about every day – largely because I am one of those news-junkies I began by describing. And just about the only exception to the adversarial framing of interviews is when a member of the public, especially one that has been through some trauma, or whose relations have perhaps been appallingly treated by the health service, is asked about their experience. Mr Humphrys in particular has conducted many sympathetic, gentle and moving interviews with just such contributors. For the rest of the time, though, it’s business as usual.
I think this is a mistake. I enjoy the rough and tumble of political debate. I welcome the programme’s determination not to accept politicians’ glib explanations and constant avoidance of important issues. But not everything is about politics in that narrow sense. Today needs to have other tools at its disposal. In the case highlighted here, I wanted to understand something of what Mr Linehan considered when he decided to take on the Ladykillers project, and to learn how he’d gone about it. There was no need to pitch him, and no benefit to be obtained by so doing, into a facile debate about whether in principle films should or should not be made into stage plays. There is no answer to so fatuous a question, other than, “It depends.” But we never got to know what those dependencies might have been in this case.
That’s a pity. But Graham Linehan was entirely right to resist the pointless theatricality of the programme’s item on his play. I suspect that takes a lot of courage on a live radio broadcast. Hats off to him.