Out of date—or up to it? Charlotte Runcie and Lucy Winkett discuss fake news, shouting at the radio—and whether it's time to turn off Todayby Prospect Team / September 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Yes: Charlotte Runcie
Birdsong, coffee, sunlight streaming through the windows: these are all good things to wake up to in the morning. The Today programme on Radio 4, sadly, is not. I’m not the only one who thinks so. In the last year, Today has lost 800,000 listeners—over 10 per cent of its total. BBC bosses have attributed the ratings fall to a “stabilising period” after a hectic news year in 2017. But the problem goes deeper than that.
The Today programme used to be an essential part of the morning routine in any household keeping abreast of current affairs. Ten years ago, Today didn’t just report the news, it created it. The main interview slot at 8.10am was a place for political heavyweights, often including the prime minister, to face rigorous questioning on a key issue and set the tone for the day’s events.
But interviewees have wised up to Today’s famously aggressive tactics. Politicians now either don’t appear or are media-trained to sound tediously matey and reasonable. Brexit doesn’t help. It’s a giant topic that needs to be discussed, yet any Brexit coverage squeezed into a 10-minute interview slot feels inevitably like scratching the surface, explaining and solving nothing.
Worse still, when the BBC’s pay statistics were revealed, the gender gap on Today—where it emerged that John Humphrys was being paid almost four times as much as Sarah Montague—made the programme itself a story. Montague was reportedly “incandescent with rage” and has since left, and Humphrys volunteered for three separate pay cuts, but Today’s reputation had already been tainted. How can it hold politicians to high standards of fairness and equality when it has behaved as badly as the rest of them?
And don’t get me started on “Thought for the Day.”
No: Lucy Winkett
Of course I’m irritated by the Today programme sometimes. But that’s not a reason to tune out: it’s a reason to argue with it and invest in it as a serious journalistic endeavour. Of course I find myself yelling the equivalent of “put your specs on ref” as some business leader, media-trained to within an inch of his life, tries to fob off a presenter in a way that politicians are rarely allowed to. And in a rapidly changing news landscape, there’s no doubt that so-called traditional media, including BBC radio news along with print journalism, is potentially in real trouble.
But I resist the obvious temptation in acknowledging these trends of simply declaring traditional news journalism redundant. “Get with the programme” say those cheering on the revolution. And it can’t be the Today programme. But I think that it still can. And should.
Today has the potential to hold on to the trust it has built over decades. Hearing John Humphrys, who left school at 15, demolishing not just any powerful man but George Entwistle, the Director General of the BBC, in that famous interview from 2012, was the best example of how to hold power to account I have ever heard—and I heard it live.
And in a Brexity, shouty, Twittery world of so-called news websites, there has emerged an instantly responsive global infrastructure for disseminating falsehood like never before. Sure the Today programme needs a kick up the backside from time to time, but as a publicly-funded flagship morning news programme, uninterested in the views of advertisers, it is still the aural equivalent of a journal of record. Or, if you like, it retains the role of the referee, calling time on the divers and fakers on the social media field of play.
There should be no room for clickbait in news. And the Today programme doesn’t have any.
John Humphrys’s verbal disembowelling of his own boss was one of the most gripping pieces of live journalism that I’ve heard too. But that was six years ago. It took place in a time before the Scottish independence referendum, before the Brexit referendum, and before Donald Trump was elected US President.
The world has changed and in these turbulent and increasingly populist times, holding power to account is vital. But the old-fashioned interview style of asking questions in the manner of a thug hurling someone against a wall until they crack—a style on which Today continues to rely—doesn’t get results any more. The bad guys have wised up.
One of the biggest stories today is Russia and others meddling in US elections. What’s Today going to do about that—demand that Putin appears on the 8.10 interview slot? Good luck.
Social media often makes it feel as though we are living through one long breaking news bulletin, and that inevitably leads to news fatigue. We are, of course, still in need of publicly-funded news, meticulous and trustworthy, to cut through the fake stuff. But first thing in the morning?
I’d argue that waking up to Today actually makes things seem worse than they are. News is so constant, and so depressing, that it can tempt you to switch off from the world entirely, especially when the programme makes you endure yet another episode of back-and-forth political mudslinging before you’ve even brushed your teeth.
It’s not healthy to consume news like this. People who’ve just come back from holiday and switch on Today for the first time in weeks learn in that moment how wearing it is. Much better to start the day with a reminder that the world can be a beautiful place—try music on Radio 3 instead—and leave the politics until later in the day, after you’ve downed a gallon or two of coffee and are in a better state to tackle the ugly truth.
It’s been said that trying to understand the world by listening to the news is like trying to tell the time by looking at the second hand on a clock. It might be accurate, but not for long, and it doesn’t help you understand more about the time in which you are living.
It’s true that the manufactured breathlessness of much news reporting—its aggressive style and its 24/7 presence—is more than irritating. It turns people off news and contributes to a less knowledgeable and less reflective electorate. This in turn has a detrimental effect on our democracy.
But I can’t say that switching over to Radio 3, the acoustic version of Voltaire’s advice on tending your own garden, is going to cut it. Bloggers and vloggers, shock jocks and trolls are here to stay.
I would like to see the Today programme continuing in the direction it has been going more recently; combining its attempts to hold politicians to account with more programmes based outside central London.
Themed programmes have been built around longer-term debates in, say, the university system or in manufacturing industries. There’s a greater emphasis too these days on longer-term trends in culture and art, including a 2017 broadcast—although not a completely successful one it has to be said—from London Fashion Week. I was delighted when the guest editor was a robot and I’m a fan of the multi-faith “Thought for the Day.” They’re trying.
But it’s not so much the day-to-day choices of a particular editor or presenter that makes the Today programme a strand of news broadcasting that should be protected. Its capacity to win and retain the trust of us as citizens is all the more important in a news information landscape where trust has been completely eroded.
In contrast to the language of Trump’s fanatical supporters, I’d like to see Today re-commit itself to what you might call “Deep Broadcasting”: using BBC news resources to investigate, for example, the Russian activity you mention, over time. And coffee or not, I’m afraid that first thing is absolutely the time to do it.
Well, you’ve outed me as a Voltaire fan. Although while we’re in the 18th century, Pope’s “together let us beat this ample field,” is perhaps a more rousing message for tackling the many scourges of modern life, trolls and all.
Because I’m by no means saying that we should turn a deaf ear to serious debate. The problem is that Today gives listeners the illusion of deep engagement with contemporary issues, while in fact only succeeding in being a shallow overview. What that means is that it’s easy to overstate the importance of Today in sniffing out truth and justice.
When it comes to the memorable investigative scoops of the last few years, we have print media such as the Sun, the Guardian and the Telegraph, and television outfits such as Panorama and Dispatches, to thank. They’re doing the heavyweight journalism, leaving Today to pick over the scraps in interviews and analysis afterwards.
Today has certainly built up a bank of trust with its audience over decades. We put our faith in its presenters to question representatives from two sides of an argument with equal force, allowing us to draw our own conclusions on the subject at hand.
But the Today model of debate has led to a damaging false equivalence in some discourses, whereby, for example, a discussion about racism or sexism puts someone with a respectable academic background against some loudmouthed crank from Nowheresville, generating far more heat than light.
The sole point of “Thought for the Day,” incidentally, seems to be to prove that every faith has the ability to sound insipid and patronising. I’ll concede to the fact that Today is trying to modernise and broaden its coverage beyond Westminster is good, but it’s not good enough. The only solution is a wholesale re-imagining of the programme and its purpose. Meanwhile, I’ll be deadheading the roses and listening to Petroc Trelawny’s morning show on Radio 3.
Where we agree, I think, is that we are living in dangerous times in terms of information management. This makes it more important that we have a news infrastructure that could help us understand the world we live in.
Holding powerful people to account is challenging in an internet-savvy culture that brings with it an overwhelming amount of lies and speculation mixed in with all the fact. Corrupt motives and actions of both individuals and corporations can be hidden in plain sight much more easily if they are surrounded by seemingly plausible platitudes about transparency and buried under a mountain of irrelevant opinion or detail.
In this environment, the steadiness and longevity of Today still provides, potentially, an antidote to the venomous spread of “alternative facts.” One of the most dangerous aspects of our acceptance of a post-truth political discourse is that it replaces a healthy and incisive scepticism with a corrosive and damaging cynicism. It’s often said that we live in a secular society that rejects belief systems. I think we live in a highly credulous society where we are often prepared to believe frankly anything.
If Today can keep faith in its own decades-long commitment to scepticism, independence and the checking of sources, then it has a chance of being part of a news resistance movement, as the Trump bump threatens to destabilise not just newsrooms but the societies on which they report.
My thought for Today therefore is that it could probably lose the racing tips, and the new “Puzzles for today” makes me think that at 50, I’m one of the younger listeners. But we’d be in trouble without this serious-minded, independently-funded morning news programme that still often sets the agenda for the rest of the day.
Charlotte Runcie is a writer and journalist
Lucy Winkett is the Rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, and regular contributor to the Today programme’s “Thought for the Day”