When Theresa May accepted the role of British prime minister in July 2016, she faced innumerable immediate challenges and tasks. One of them was to write four letters, one to each of the commanders of Britain’s nuclear submarines. Those letters contain her handwritten instructions on what to do should the UK be hit by a surprise nuclear attack that kills both her and a designated colleague who would become the decision maker in her absence.
They’re known as the “letters of last resort” and detail a series of checks that the submarine commander must make to establish exactly what has happened. Understandably, the precise nature of these checks is secret, but one of them is believed to require establishing whether Radio 4’s Today programme is still being broadcast.
Could a radio show be any more representative of “the establishment” than that? As its former star presenter, the late Brian Redhead, remarked:
If you want to drop a word in the ear of the nation, then this is the programme in which to do it.
Yet Today’s beginnings were much humbler. It may now be the nation’s most influential news and current affairs programme, but in 1957 it sounded rather different. The original proposal for the programme described it as a “morning miscellany” and as a result the variety of content was much wider than is heard now. Recipes and keep fit exercises were still a part of the show until the 1970s.
From the infamous gaffes of the late Jack de Manio, through the dulcet tones of James Naughtie (who also had his slips of the tongue), the furore and subsequent departure of Andrew Gilligan, and the welcome chortle of Sarah Montague, Today has been regarded as the breakfast companion of the political and business class for six decades. In reality, its listenership is far wider.
As the show marks its 60th birthday (50 years on Radio 4 and ten before that on the Home Service) it’s worth noting that it recorded the highest listening figures in its history this year. Over 7m people regularly tune in for their daily dose of Humphrys, Hussain and high-brow haranguing.
That figure is all the more impressive in an age of desiccated media consumption where, for many, habitual tuning in has been replaced by the more passive consumption of streaming, swiping, search engines and social media. The director of BBC Radio and Music, Bob Shennan, has commented:
In an era of fake news, echo chambers and significant shifts in global politics, the role of Radio 4’s Today as the trusted guide to the world around us is more important than ever. As Today celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, Radio 4 listeners continue to wake up to world class journalism which scrutinises the headlines, holds those in power to account and enlightens them with stories that shape our society.
All radio bosses would speak this bullishly from atop record figures, but can a programme so linear, so rigid and so traditional continue to survive and thrive in a more competitive digital age?
Against a backdrop of BBC charter renewal and an increasingly tribal and centrifugal political environment, recent months have seen the programme subjected to as much scrutiny as at any point in its illustrious history. And rightly so.
Just recently, the BBC’s executive complaints unit issued an apology for Today allowing climate change denials from the former chancellor, Lord Lawson, to go unchallenged during a programme in August 2017. July saw controversy and complaints concerning Humphrys’ questioning of tennis player Johanna Konta’s nationality. And Roger Mosey, the former BBC editorial director (and now Master of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge) questioned whether the programme has “gone soft”.
He went on:
All of this matters because Today matters. What the nation needs now is a predominantly serious and analytical programme that illuminates Britain and the wider world, and we should expect the BBC to deliver it.
Thought for tomorrow
Former newspaper boss Sarah Sands was appointed as the programme’s latest editor back in January and faced suggestions that she’d like to see Today become more of a traditional magazine show with a move away from the hard news programme that sets the Westminster agenda.
Today currently accounts for nearly 900 of the 2,500 hours of news and current affairs that Radio 4 is obliged to provide each year. As such, its news content isn’t going anywhere, though its definition of news probably is. In the wake of research that has called the BBC’s impartiality into question, it probably has to.