Andrew Marr got his voice back this week. That may come as a bit of a surprise to everybody who’s been watching and listening to him on the BBC for the past 22 years but it’s the reason he gave when he announced last year that he was leaving. On Monday we heard the new voice. Marr made his debut on LBC. He’s presenting a 6 p.m. show four days a week in an hour nicked off Eddie Mair.
Maybe ‘new’ voice is wrong. Not so much new, perhaps, as the old pre-BBC voice. The one he’d been forced to suppress. He called it ‘entirely my own voice’.
After my own 51 years as a BBC journalist, I think I know what he means. If I sound a little hesitant it’s because in all those years nobody explicitly told me what to say or how to say it. On the occasions when I lost my cool with a particularly dense or defensive politician on Today (vanishingly rare, of course) the editor might whisper in my headphones: ‘Back off a bit…’ But it was a suggestion rather than an order. And I was never instructed to take a particular line or adopt a particular tone. I’d happily bet my BBC pension that Andrew wasn’t either.
I would discuss the broad shape of my interviews with the editor and a producer would prepare a brief. But that was supposed to provide background facts rather than suggest questions. Let alone the tone. I can confidently assert that no producer or editor ordered Nick Robinson to tell Boris Johnson to shut up when he finally got the chance to interview him on Today.
Yet there were areas where only the most reckless BBC hack would dare tread. I speak as someone who joined the ranks of the heretics in the eyes of many bosses when I wrote a book daring to suggest that the corporation’s journalism had not always been unfailingly impartial. That was published on the day I handed back my BBC pass. From hero to zero in 24 hours.
Still, I was slightly puzzled when Marr announced he wanted to get his voice back and warned ‘anyone wanting bland, safe, wearily predictable journalism is strongly advised to look elsewhere’. It’s true that he would be able to write for newspapers and the New Statesman in a way that had been forbidden when he was taking the BBC shilling but how would the voice of the new Marr – liberated from the BBC shackles – sound on LBC? At the end of the show he told his listeners: ‘I hope you weren’t too appalled.’ And I suspect we weren’t. That’s because his new job is much like his old one and the ‘new’ Marr is much like the old Marr.
How could it be otherwise? More to the point: why should it be otherwise?
What he’s doing is interviewing people and he’s very good at it. He’s curious, clever, quick-witted, immensely knowledgeable and he knows what the listeners and viewers want. They want to be informed. Of course they do. And if the politician is lying or stupid or lazy or just not up to the job, they want him exposed. That’s what Marr has always tried to do. The difference is that now he’s doing it for LBC.
So it’s not so much Marr that’s changed, it’s his new employer.
I started listening to LBC when I joined Classic FM, which is also owned by Global. Conditioned by a lifetime of sheltering under the skirts of Auntie, I was shocked at the freedom granted to presenters like James O’Brien and Nick Ferrari to rip the throats out of any public figure (mostly politicians) who displeased them. But the audience loves it and why not? Free speech is free speech.
And Marr is not the only new kid on the Global block. Two other BBC stars – the hugely respected Jon Sopel and Emily Maitlis – have also jumped ship in the past months. Maybe they feel the same need as Marr to get their voices back, however they interpret it. If I were running the BBC, I’d be rather worried.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10