Media Matters Stephen Glover
The editor of Radio 4’s flagship news programme is navigating hostile territory – a Corporation that punishes free spirits
My old friend Sarah Sands is in a bit of bother at the BBC. Six months ago, she took over as editor of Radio 4’s Today programme, generally considered the Corporation’s most important news slot on radio or television. It was a strange appointment for a number of reasons; not least that Sarah had spent her life in newspapers and, most unusually at the BBC, is nominally a Tory. She is also believed to be stronger on features than news, and therefore perhaps not ideally suited to editing a hard-hitting news programme. Her supporters (and I am practically chairman of her fan club) feared there might be trouble ahead.
And so it has proved to be. Sarah Sands is under attack inside and outside the Beeb for turning Today into a magazine-like show with frivolous overtones. The combative presenter Nick Robinson was recently packed off on a rather meaningless tour of Silicon Valley, where he interviewed tiresome and self-obsessed tech entrepreneurs at inordinate length.
There was also much harrumphing when, during London Fashion Week, one episode was largely devoted to fashion. The sacred 8.10am slot, normally reserved for confrontational interviews with politicians, was handed over to the rather full-of-himself Burberry ‘chief creative’, Christopher Bailey. Sarah responded to her critics, in a spirited email, that ‘it’s worth remembering the contribution that girl’s stuff makes to the economy’. A later tweet by her contended that the phrase ‘girl’s stuff’ was meant ironically, but it did not go down well with the dungaree brigade at the BBC.
I’d say that some, but by no means all, of the criticisms are justified. I don’t agree with those who have grumbled about long interviews with John le Carré and Judi Dench. Surely it is a good idea for the Today programme to take a greater interest in culture. On the other hand, there probably was too much gushing about fashion, and it’s hard not to concur with Roger Mosey, a former editor of Today, who complained in the New Statesman that the coverage was ‘indulgent’.
Two points are worth noting about Sarah. One is that, although she is a sort of Tory, the word ‘anarchist’ should be appended. She loves cocking a snook and annoying the ‘suits’. More than a decade ago, she lasted only nine months as editor of the Sunday Telegraph because the management thought her iconoclastic approach might set the teacups rattling among the core readership. Another point is that there is a certain sort of woman – left-wing, aggressively feminist and careless of considerations of fashion – whom Sarah barely notices. There are quite a few such people at the BBC, where her alleged political sympathies and newspaper background already count against her.
Should her fan club fear for her future at the BBC? I don’t think so. The head of news, James Harding, hired her on the understanding that the programme needed broadening. Nor is there any evidence – at least, not yet – that the average weekly audience of just over seven million people is slipping. But she would do herself no harm if she discomfited her critics by using her reporters on Today to obtain some good old-fashioned scoops.
She also needs to gain the confidence of the presenters. My, what a nest of vipers! The long-serving John Humphrys is like an old boxer who has said he will hang up his gloves but yearns for one more fight. Nick Robinson just about defers to him. He is not so keen on Justin Webb, who has six years’ seniority over him at Today. The two men do not love each other. Sarah Montague is eaten up with resentment after it was revealed in July that her salary is less than a quarter of that of Humphrys, and she didn’t even make it on to the list of BBC stars earning more than £150,000 a year. The painfully politically correct Mishal Husain is still trying to find her feet, and is yet to earn the admiration of John Humphrys. Winning over such a turbulent and vainglorious crew won’t be easy, but Sarah is adept at stroking egos, particularly male ones.
May I, as the would-be chairman of her fan club, offer her – and James Harding – a word of advice? A sound journalistic axiom is that one shouldn’t aggravate one’s core audience. It’s true that the average age of a Today listener is over fifty, and men outnumber women. But the Holy Grail of more young readers is almost impossible to find, as newspapers have learnt. The BBC would naturally like more of them. Who wouldn’t? The likely consequence of chasing them by providing too much frothy content, though, is that some hitherto loyal listeners will become disenchanted.
On the whole, my feeling is that the main danger to Sarah Sands at the BBC is not so much her Toryism or her preference to features over news, as her love of anarchy. If she can curb her joy at offending people whom she regards as old farts, she will have a great future at the Corporation, and probably end up a Dame.
‘Sarah Sands is under attack for turning Today into a magazine-like show’