Old boys who set the agenda on Radio 4

Elinor Davies says we deserve better from the BBC than smug exchanges between rich and powerful men

Like many people, I tune into the Today programme most weekday mornings before I go to work. It’s a form of masochism, really, as I don’t enjoy it much and I know full well I will end up swearing at the radio. But it covers the main stories of the day, and makes me feel vaguely plugged in to what’s going on in the world. So why the expletives?

Despite its veneer of neutrality (a problematic concept anyway, of course) the Today programme gives us a very specific take on the world. It’s a world in which the views of the establishment are unquestionable facts, and a needlessly aggressive interview style masquerades as incisive journalistic scrutiny.

In the programme’s daily review of the newspapers the entrenched prejudices of the mainstream media regularly go unchallenged. The presenters read out quotes from a selection of the daily rags on a range of the day’s stories. But who decides which papers, which quotes, which stories? Last Tuesday they covered the revelation by the DWP that thousands of people on sickness benefit “had been discovered to be fit for work”. This is a complicated news story – who decided they were fit for work?

According to what measures? – but not for Today. We get the illusion of bias-free reporting – they’re only reading out what the papers say, after all. But what the presenters gave us were two very similar angles on the story, from the Daily Mail and The Sun, both of which unquestioningly used these statistics to bolster the editorial line that these scroungers should get back to work. Why quote from two papers with the exact same viewpoint?

Often, in an effort to provide two sides of a debate there is that familiar, pointlessly adversarial interview style that the Today programme specialises in. Last June the writer Graham Linehan wrote this searing critique of the “squabbling that passes for debate” on Today. Linehan was writing after his experience on the programme, in which he had been invited on to discuss his stage adaptation of The Ladykillers, only to discover he was expected to provide one side in an “argument” about the value of adapting films for theatre.  Of course, as Linehan admits, confrontational interviews sometimes make sense –we need them sometimes to get to the truth. But more often it is not the best way to get to the heart of a story. Such interviews have the air of a university debating society, where notions are challenged and argued merely for the fun of it. (They remind me a little too much of Chris Morris interviewing the organiser of the London Jam Festival on The Day Today.)

Paradoxically, when the Today presenters are confronted with the genuinely powerful, the interviews can be surprisingly lightweight, a case in point being John Humphreys’ recent interview with David Cameron . Humphreys spent a tiresome five or so minutes haranguing him about Abu Qatada (and admittedly gave him a bit of a hard time about tax dodgers in government), but failed to challenge any of the Tory tropes that Cameron trotted out repeatedly throughout the interview, about being on the side of “hardworking people who do the right thing”, making the country more “pro get up and go” and even “making sure our children aren’t burdened with debt”. Is it not Humphreys’ job to pick apart such clichés and enquire what they actually mean? The interview descended into an infuriating kind of mateyness, in which the two men laughingly discussed Cameron’s relaxed demeanor and his ‘date nights’ with his wife. As if this wasn’t nauseating enough, when the interview finished BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson (known for his long-standing Tory associations) joined Humphreys for a nice cosy chat about the PM and the interview that had just finished. There was no mention, in either conversation, of NHS reform, of unemployment, or of the double dip recession. It was all just one big jolly jape.

It is this lofty, old boys’ club approach to the news – as if nothing really matters beyond the Today studios – that I find so irksome. There was a discussion on the programme a few weeks ago about the effect of the housing benefit cap on low-paid Londoners, between Grainia Long from the Chartered Institute of Housing and Mark Easton, the BBC’s Home Editor. Both Long and Easton quoted statistics demonstrating rising rents and the massive financial pressure the cap places on people in the capital. But the discussion quickly became focused on the effect the cap would have on the flow of cheap labour into London. Easton speculated whether the government had really thought through the impact of this policy and wondered aloud just who was going to do these low-paid jobs in London if people couldn’t afford to pay the rent.

It’s a valid point of course, but Easton’s observation did have a touch of the Today loftiness about it. Running through it seemed to be the assumption that listeners really only care about this issue because it means that there will be no poor people left to sweep the streets or serve coffees or empty the bins in their offices. The low-paid workers are not the participants in this discussion – they are merely objects, being talked about in so far as they are useful. Today does not belong to these people.

As Dave Boyle points out in his article for ourBeeb, the BBC is astonishingly unaccountable to its license-payers, and boy does it show. For me, nothing expresses the need to reclaim the BBC better than those smug exchanges between rich, powerful men on Today. We deserve better than this.

Elinor Davies is a teacher and writer and blogs here. This article was originally published in the independent online magazine OurKingdom

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