What’s the point of the Today programme?

21 September 2019

9:00 AM

21 September 2019

9:00 AM

What else is there to write about in the week that John Humphrys, that titan of the BBC airwaves, retires from his duties on the Today programme? Love or hate his terrier-like style of interviewing — baiting and occasionally biting his victims metaphorically on air — there’s no denying his stature as a news broadcaster or his influence on that staple of the Radio 4 schedule. He will surely be missed, much as Sue MacGregor, Brian Redhead, Jim Naughtie et al are missed, their presence in our lives determined by that early-morning slot, the first voice we might hear each day, the voice that brings news of never-to-be-forgotten events, the voice that infuriates and intrigues in equal measure. Humphrys’s combative style has come to represent the programme, much as Jeremy Paxman infamously shaped Newsnight on TV.

That determination to rattle authority was born in Humphrys on his first big break as a journalist, the Aberfan disaster of October 1966. He has since said he has never forgotten the sight of that junior school, smothered in black sludge, its children choked and suffocated to death. And all because the National Coal Board had failed to take notice that the tip of coal waste was built on a series of natural springs. Worse still, the officials Humphrys interviewed at the time hesitated and harrumphed, wriggled and writhed, never admitting to their mistakes, glossing over their incompetence and indifference.

During his 32 years on Today, Humphrys has surprisingly never developed any aural tics or mannerisms, no constant mistakes over telling the time, no catchphrases. He comes across as very austere, no light relief. What do we know of him apart from his authority behind the microphone? Mornings with Radio 4 have become equally stark; too much so for many listeners. There has been a dramatic decline in the Today audience in the past couple of years, which probably has as much to do with Brexit boredom and competition from LBC and breakfast television as with Humphrys and his current colleagues, Martha Kearney, Justin Webb, Nick Robinson and Mishal Husain. It suggests that a new direction is called for if Radio 4 is to hold on to its listeners.

What’s the point of interviewing politicians now they’re so tightly trained in PR skills that, like building-society managers selling endowment mortgages back in the 1980s, they can never go off-message? Do we learn anything from them? Are they ever persuaded to change course after a session with Humphrys? His most notable success was not in fact with a politician but with his own boss, the former BBC director-general George Entwistle, who was ripped apart by him question by question in an interview that was excruciatingly uncomfortable to listen to. We might need to find new ways of challenging authority in a world where tweeting is an acceptable form of diplomatic discourse and parliament can be prorogued on the whim of a PM.

Over on Radio 3, the musical establishment was challenged to justify itself in a brilliantly conceived feature, Everybody Likes Music, Don’t They? (produced by Faith Waddell and Sarah Devonald). I just wish it had been given longer to gestate so that its themes could mature and be brought closer together in a coherent narrative. But there were some fascinating threads here. What would it be like to experience a panic attack mid-Mahler Seven? Would this mean you could never face another live concert again? Or to be flummoxed every time anyone asked you that perennial party opener, ‘What kind of music do you like?’ Suppose you ‘hear’ music only as noise, ‘indistinguishable from the hum of a ceiling fan or a lawn mower’?

On Sunday night we were also reminded that music has been used to torture people: in Greece, for instance, during the rule of the Colonels, and in Guantanamo Bay where particular songs were played endlessly until they wormed their way into the minds of its inmates like noisy parasites eating away at the brain. You can close your eyes and ignore visual threats but you cannot close your ears.

In Malawi under Hastings Banda, traditional folk tunes were given a political message. That’s the power, and the danger, of music, admitted Gareth Malone, famous for so enthusiastically popularising singing as an antidote to mental illness. Music is an extremely powerful tool, capable of exciting people and putting them all in the same emotional state. It can be designed to manipulate, Malone reluctantly conceded.

Sheldon Gilbert, an American lawyer and academic, thinks of music as noise because he fails to connect with its emotional content; it provokes no reaction in him. Films often disappoint him because he cannot pick up the messages conveyed in the soundtrack. He has to watch with subtitles, pointing out the ‘suspenseful music’, for instance. For poets, too, music is not always beneficent. George Szirtes fears that music ‘takes poetry into its own possession’. He says that poets often ‘find it frustrating to have their works spoiled’. Music taken to task for getting above itself. Malone forced to admit that music doesn’t do it for everyone. The tone-deaf having their moment on Radio 3. Brave stuff.

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