Anyone who follows me on Twitter may have noticed my occasional outbursts of frustration about BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. You may have asked, “Why don’t you switch it off, or listen to something else?” I didn’t, because I wanted to believe Today could be good, that it could live up to its reputation as the premier agenda-setting news programme. But from today, I’ve given up, it’s over, we’re finished, no more. Today, it’s not me, it’s you.
Which is a shame. As I said, I want Today to be good. I want it to be in-depth and have an interesting agenda. I want it to be the radio equivalent of, say, the very best of broadsheet newspapers (not the highest bar in the world, but you’d think it might be possible). Instead, it all too often ends up as the radio equivalent of mid-market tabloids, leaving me with the same queasy, angry feeling I have if I glance through the Express or a shrieking local paper.
It’s not even like I listen to a lot of Today. I only ever hear a few minutes each morning, before I get up or while making breakfast. But that’s always more than enough. This morning for example, after dozing through ‘Thought for the Day’ (don’t get me started) I heard some treasury minister doing nothing but avoiding answering a straight question. So, fair dues, this isn’t directly Today’s fault but it’s so common, this non-interview with politicians, that there seems little point bothering. But the programme is so pleased to have interviewed a politician that the minister’s non-answer is the bit that is used, out-of-context, as a quote in a news story a few minutes later, making him sound quite reasonable, rather than the evasive, weaselly little shit he seemed at the time.
A little later Today covered the cat thrown in a bin story. They’re far from alone in this — it’s everywhere today — but I’d hope for some intelligence from a quality news programme. They started with a report from Rory Cellan Jones on the reaction to the video online, which is potentially the only interesting part of the story — how something like this goes viral, the over-reaction from people, the posting of her address, the police protection… it could be tied in to many previous internet witch hunts, like 4chan’s hounding of Jessi Slaughter. Instead Jones’s report was little more than detailing the numbers of people who’d watched the YouTube video or Liked the Facebook page. The rest of the report was an interview with reknowned animal-rights-fanatic, author Jilly Cooper. Can you guess what she thought about a cat being dumped in a bin? Yawn. This doesn’t illuminate or inform the story at all. “Obsessive animal rights author outraged by cruelty to cat” is not news.
This morning’s show didn’t even feature the whining, faux-dumb, overly antagonistic and superior presence of John Humphrys who manages to make the daily escapade unbearable.
But the show’s not all bad. Humphrys aside, the presenters aren’t, generally, annoying or dumb. I could listen to Evan Davis for hours, especially talking about the economy, something he manages to do both in-depth and with clarity. There are some good reports, but these get over-shadowed by all the dumbness that stands out, and the frustrating choice of other stories. Too often Today is an attention-grabbing, overly-brief, politician-pandering, technophobic embarrassment.
Which is such a shame. It’s supposed to be the UK’s premier radio news show. What’s worse, this is probably still true. As far as I know, there are no other decent, quality news options, particularly on analogue broadcast radio. (I’ve been told the World Service is worth a listen at that time of the morning, but I don’t have a radio that picks it up.) I don’t even know if there’s an alternative UK-based radio news programme I could listen to by any means that would be decent, digital or online. Is there? Surely, in this age of fragmented, multi-channel, distributed, bottom-up media someone in the UK is making something that reports the news with consistent intelligence?
I know a lot of people who listen to Today. But I know the same number of people who are always moaning about how awful it is. Which makes me think there must be a market, somehow, for a better thing. I don’t know what it is but I hope it’s out there somewhere.