The Today programme: informative debate or latter-day bear pit?

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.


7 thoughts on “The Today programme: informative debate or latter-day bear pit?

  1. Personally I hold R4’s Today in a degree of contempt, Humphrey’s rarely seems to know anything about the subject on which he is interviewed, they introduce the deranged spokesmen of wingnut think tanks as if they had a clue and it’s punctuated by the vacuous “Thought for the Day” – the signal for all right thinking people to leave for work.

  2. Hey, there! I really appreciate your post, thank you very much. But I did want to add one thought.

    You’re bang on about the problems inherent in their “framing everything as if it was a political dogfight”. That’s their default mode, and I had no patience with it being used on a play that I hadn’t even seen “on its feet” yet. But I would argue that, because it’s a default mode, it also loses power as a technique for interviewing politicians. How can you catch a politician off-guard if they’re always on their guard? They just have to be as banal as they possibly can, stick to their rehearsed lines, and normally everything will work out.

    This scene from Bull Durham perfectly illustrates the problem (though it’s about baseball players, and it stops being useful about a minute in).

    Look at Iraq. The biggest journalistic failure in recent memory. A series of lies, evasive manoeuvres, half-truths, concocted documents and also, a dishonest binary decision at the heart of it that went completely unchallenged: You’re either with us, or you’re for Saddam. Bunfight journalism did nothing to stop 600,000+ Iraqis losing their lives. In fact, I clearly remember Andrew Marr being openly contemptuous of those of us who marched against the war and saw it for what it really was: The most right-wing US administration in years staging a land-grab.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that. Thank you again for your very kind words.

    • Wow! I guess all of us bloggers who like to pontificate on topical things, and people in the public eye, should remember that those people might actually read what we write! 🙂

      But thank you very much for taking the trouble to comment. I entirely take your point about the limitations of the adversarial approach, even within the narrow confines of the political interview. You’re surely right that the practical effect of this kind of interviewing “arms race” is that we reach a sort of dreary stasis in which interviewers become ever more aggressive, and politicians ever more defensively opaque.

      It’s hard to disentangle cause and effect. Are we increasingly addicted to sound bites and 10-second arguments because of programmes like Today, or is Today pandering to our already hopelessly short attention spans? I love Twitter – but is its 140-character mixture of the banal and the spiteful simply another part of the problem?

      I don’t know. Iraq, though, is indeed a terrifying example of how ineffective our public political discourse has become.

  3. Maybe that radio show is unnecessarily combative and reductive, I don’t know, because I don’t listen to it. The really interesting thing for me, having listened to the offending section online, is that the interview with Graham Linehan is not very combative at all. Michael Billington even pays him a compliment by saying how interested he would be in seeing an original play by him. Linehan’s responses don’t sound at all like Lennon-ish dumb insolence, but complete incoherence.

    • It’s not really for me to make Graham Linehan’s case for him, but his contention is not that the on-air interview was especially aggressive. Rather his objection is that, having been asked on to discuss his play, he found himself “ambushed” as he put it by the presence of another guest who had separately, and unbeknown to Linehan, been invited to question the entire wisdom, or artistic validity, of writing any play based on a film.

      Thus the programme set up a confrontation rather than the promised exploration of Linehan’s play. Michael Billington is not the object of Linehan’s irritation. What you term as “incoherence” is I think a combination of annoyance at the trick, and determination not to play the game that had been set up. I don’t know if you’ve ever talked live on radio (I hadn’t until very recently) but sounding incoherent is only too easy without the added hazard of trying to resist a set-up!

  4. Pingback: Iraq: the biggest journalistic failure in recent memory « Figural Effect

  5. Pingback: The Today programme and the art of political interviewing « The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog

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