The problem with the Today programme: Damned if you do, damned if you don't

I love the Today programme. I adore the Today programme. I listen to the Today programme every morning. It's my anchor in the stormy sea of current affairs; the light that leads the way in the gloom of the early morning.

The problem with the Today programme is that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't, writes Pat Southwell (pic credit: Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images)
The problem with the Today programme is that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't, writes Pat Southwell (pic credit: Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images)

Occasionally, a client will be summoned to the show. Not accepted onto the programme, you understand, but summoned.

Called upon to defend itself in the face of an issue. This is when the problem becomes clear.

There are good reasons to accept live scrutiny from Humphreys and the team. If you don’t appear, you’ll let your opponents write the narrative – and it won’t be a good one.

You’ll also instantly look like you’re hiding something because you didn’t want to be questioned about a suggested failure.

But perhaps an empty chair is better than a battering. Why? It’s all a matter of trust.

The reason I love Today is because I – like many others – trust the presenters and their production team. I trust the organisation they work for.

I trust everything about them. Montague, Naughtie, Husain, Robinson: they’re infallible. But herein lays the problem.

If the audience trusts them implicitly and they’re on the attack, the outcome of any interview is already decided.

The audience hears everything in a binary way. We trust the interviewer and even if their questions are unfair or imply guilt where there isn’t any, we feel that they’re on the side of righteousness.

The interviewee doesn’t have a chance. Whatever they say, they’ll be mistrusted.

However reasonable, clear, and honest they sound, they’re the pantomime villain to be pilloried and berated.

They’re in the wrong and we knew that before the interview even took place, because who could possibly question the truth that comes forth from the mouths of such gilded and esteemed broadcasters?

I’m going to pause here to critique my thinking for a second. Because this argument could belie a woeful – almost criminal – lack of critical thinking on my behalf.

In answer to that, I’d invite you to watch me any morning, shouting at the radio when the questioning gets out of hand.

And, yes, I have heard of fake news and mistrust of mass media. But despite this, over time, my trust in the presenters grows, meanwhile research shows the standing of our political and business leaders has continued to fall.

For this reason, the success of Today is also its greatest downfall. Listeners are so sided with the unfailing presenters that anyone summoned to defend themselves has already lost. Inevitably, they often decide not to appear.

But I’m not going to stop listening. I bloody love it.

Pat Southwell is director of strategy and partner at Berkeley

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