Me­dia Mat­ters Stephen Glover

The edi­tor of Ra­dio 4’s flag­ship news pro­gramme is nav­i­gat­ing hos­tile ter­ri­tory – a Cor­po­ra­tion that pun­ishes free spir­its

The Oldie - - NEWS - stephen glover

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’

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