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The Feedback listener panel tackles Today

Friday 26 March 2010, 13:55

Roger Bolton Roger Bolton

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Sarah Montague and James Naughtie

Editor's note - we're trying something new. We're going to publish one item from Radio 4's weekly accountability programme Feedback here on the blog. We're keen to know what you think of this new way of spreading the Feedback word: leave your reactions and questions in a comment below - SB

When I first met Ceri Thomas, the Editor of Radio 4's Today after his appointment to the job four years ago, he had a young unlined face.

I wouldn't say he now looks like an old man, e.g. me, but the lines on his face have multiplied I reckon and cut deeper and I think I spy a bit of baggage under his eyes.

That's not surprising given his punishing weekly schedule.

Up before 6am to listen to the programme go out, then into the office for a day's work that ends around midnight when he has read the first editions of the next morning's papers and discusses them with his night editor.

And in between quite a few calls from party politicians and spin doctors trying to influence the agenda, and doubtless the odd visit from a presenter wanting to know whether or not she, or more usually he, will get any of the big party leader interviews to do.

It can only get worse for him in the next few weeks as the general election, which looks like being the closest in almost 20 years, draws closer.

I do hope Ceri Thomas gets an afternoon nap.

He didn't get one on Wednesday when he came into the Feedback studio to answer criticisms from three listeners who consider themselves to be candid friends of his programme.

Kate Francis has listened to Today since Jack de Manio presented it and she was at university. Kate thinks the interviewing styles of Today's presenters are too aggressive and thinks there aren't enough women presenters and reporters on the programme.

Andy McIntyre-Pell thinks some items are too short and would like to see political interviews run longer. He doesn't want to hear any more so-called light items.

Peter Hodder joined our discussion down the line from a Birmingham studio. He thinks the Today programme is sometimes politically biased. I asked him for evidence of this:

Roger Bolton presents Feedback on BBC Radio 4

  • Feedback listeners Peter Hodder, Kate Francis and Andy McIntyre-Pell are on this week's Feedback with the editor of the Today programme Ceri Thomas. Listen to the whole programme on the Radio 4 web site.
  • Feedback will be recording more listener panels in the future and if you would like to take part we'll give details here and on the programme in the next few weeks. You can also find out how to join our listener panel on the Feedback web page.
  • The picture shows Sarah Montague and James Naughtie presenting Today. It's from the BBC's picture library.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    "Kate thinks the interviewing styles of Today's presenters are too aggressive and thinks there aren't enough women presenters and reporters on the programme."

    Not aggressive enough, I'd say. But I don't mean presenters should be rude, and I, along with many, do get annoyed when the interviewee doesn't get a chance to get a word in edgeways. The best way to assess an argument is at least to give each side a chance to expand a little before butting in. But when I say aggressive I mean probing, and not letting interviewees off the hook. I once emailed Eddie Mair of the programme at the other end of the day, PM, and, in fairness to him, he emailed back and said he didn't have chance to fire such-and-such a question at So-and-so because the producer was giving him the cutthroat signal from the other side of the glass.

    But presenters should be encouraged to make interviewees who have an axe to grind (I'm not talking about the nice person from a charity here or someone on a lighter story) stand by their stance, as it were, and, if they're put in an embarrassing situation by a skilled, forensic interlocutor, then so be it. It will sort the wheat from the chaff.

    Come on, people, you're often the only thing we have between us and the bozos (well, not all of them are, but many) who call themselves politicians and who are so often allowed to give an answer to which your typical listener is saying, "Hang on a minute – he can't get away with that!" and are not challenged with a supplementary question. Often they are, I know, but not enough.

    This isn't a case of being rude. If politicians know what they're letting themselves in for, the parties and government departments will get used to putting the best ones up there for a grilling. There's so much mediocrity in politics, with so many of them being nothing but third-rate careerists (with or withoug a moat or a duck house), that it behoves our broadcast journalists to make 'em have it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Sarah Montague is a great interviewer for the listener because she asks the questions, then actually listens, allows the person to answer before she pushes the point or moves on.

    So many of the male interviewers on Today are aggressive in style, rather like terriers yapping around the feet of the hapless person being interviewed. Often the interviewer talks loudly over the reply, repeating the question even while the answer is being given. For the listener, there is nothing more irritating and counter productive than hearing several voices at once, each trying to outdo the other, and you end up either switching off (sometimes literally) or not understanding either the questions or the answer.

    Recently, John Humphreys spent so long noisily interrupting and repeating the same question that the item was over and the listener had gained no insights whatever into the subject.

    I might say the same for Andrew Marr Sunday TV programme which is so much nicer when presented by Sophie Raworth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    #1. At 2:31pm on 26 Mar 2010, AndyInWales wrote:

    "Not aggressive enough, I'd say. But I don't mean presenters should be rude, and I, along with many, do get annoyed when the interviewee doesn't get a chance to get a word in edgeways."

    Far from me to put words into mouths but I think the word you might have been looking for is "assertive", there is a lot of difference between being aggressive and being assertive - put it this way, when driving a car you are highly likely to be stopped and booked for aggressive driving, the only time you'll get stopped for assertive driving is to be commended!

    I think the real problem is that the editors (over recent years, not just the current editor) have been attempting to package to much into the programme, the presenters are always chasing the clock rather than allowing someone to develop their replies, less can be so much more, most audiences (and certainly the Today audience) can tell for themselves when an interviewee is filibustering, we don't need it rudely pointed out...

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I agree with your last point, Boiler, but it is a failing which is endemic in many BBC programmes.
    My particular hates are MoneyBox Live and Any Answers.
    Why, with only seconds left,does a producer feel absolutely compelled to introduce something new. Why not just relax, allow the current item to flow naturally to an end. This leaves the presenter and the audience feeling pleasantly mellow and not gasping for air.
    So often I can almost hear the "Phew! Made It!" as the mic goes dead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    4. At 5:10pm on 26 Mar 2010, RCWhiting wrote:

    "So often I can almost hear the "Phew! Made It!" as the mic goes dead."

    ...or they crash the 9am pips, and sometimes one can hear the presenters utter "Phew! Made It!". :-(

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Anyone interested in "broadening the agenda" of Today's coverage should think about the coverage of European news. We are deluged with stories from the United States, to the extent that events there often seem more important than domestic issues. But stories from Europe, apart from personality stories, are very thin on the ground - unless they are all reported between 7 and 8am, when I do not normally listen.
    The BBC used to have an excellent team of correspondents in European capitals who reported on the issues making the news in those countries. Surely a regular survey of the news and the public mood in other EU countries is worth more than some of the rather trivial arts stories around 8.25.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    #6. At 10:18am on 27 Mar 2010, savetheletterTinspeech wrote:

    "Anyone interested in "broadening the agenda" of Today's coverage should think about the coverage of European news. We are deluged with stories from the United States,"

    Agreed (but it's not just a problem with "Today", it's BBC wide. Last week was a good example, reams of script given over to Obama's (the largely irrelevant to the UK) health care Bill but little or nothing about events European events that are far more likely to have 'knock-on' events to the UK and the wider EU, I eventually had to resort to watching France 24 to find out details relating to the French mid-term elections but only last night the BBC News Channel carried Sarah Palin's attendance at a John McCain hustings - I guess that the BBC saves money by using such feeds from the USA, not having translators and all that...

    Not good enough BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The extraordinary thing about the discussion on political bias on Today was that they found 2 Tories to comment and no supporter of the Government. Bias in Feedback!!
    I think the primary bias in the programme is constant hostility to the Government and rudeness to Government Ministers. This goes across the BBC, where all the arrogant presenters, some clever and some definitely not so, feel it is ok to have a go at the Government and to be rude about Gordon Brown. The quality of journalism is so poor now that they constantly refer to whatever is in the morning newspapers, another hidden form of bias because virtually all of them are wholly hostile to the Government.
    I turn Today off whenever Humphreys is on and now I also switch off when the insufferably unpleasant Sarah Montague is on. Clever interviewers ask real searching questions, rudeness just covers up their own lack of knowledge of the subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    In reply to comments made @ #8:

    Bias and rudeness:

    Bias is always in the eye of the beholder, a bit like beauty and just as rudeness is...

    One persons rudeness is another's pertinent question. I can well remember certain BBC journalists being very rude with previous governments, of both left and right, so we are going back well over 30 years, and who remembers John Knot, in 1982, walking out of the Panorama studio after Robin Day introduced him in less savoury terms - before a single question had been asked, before the programme had really even got under way!

    Although deference does no one any harm there is a time and place for it, I'm not suggesting, and I hope that you are not either, that the BBC should return to the days of total deference, when a BBC presenter would ask: "Minister, is there anything you would like to say to the BBC audience" (or words to that effect) and then sit there unquestioning for the next half hour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    A very illuminating interrogation of Ceri Thomas. The allegations of political bias were shown to be unfounded and the importance of different styles of interview on the programme was made apparent. John Humphry's "battering ram" approach was claimed to be "counter-productive" - this is nonsense.

    Ceri Thomas wobbled a little on the question of female presenters and reporters. He defended the current bias in favour of males, referring to the "skill set and hide that you need" to do the job. Has he forgotten what PD James did to mumbling Mark Thompson!

    Finally, he used the phrase: "The most prized vehicle in the garage" - well, why is it in the garage and not on the road!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Humphrys is "aggressive" because he is not particularly intelligent. He is incapable of looking beyond the "Daily Mail" agenda.

    Sledgehammer interviewing gets you nowhere. It is all too easy for the interviewee to respond with the all too frequent response "If you would just let me finish my answer..."

    Naughtie's problem is that he doesn't know when to stop and let the interviewee answer the question. One day he will disappear up his own fundament.

    Someone should calculate the ratio of the time that the interviewer is talking and the interviewee answering. I'd lay ons on Naughtie coming out nearer to one than is good for a radio programme.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Oh dear - the answers about why not more women presenters sound like the ones that there used to be about women MPs. Lots of us really object to the macho approach which uses bullying as a substitute for challenging interviewing. Its not often I agree with Feedback correspondents but today they were spot on. Women don't have to be like Humphreys or Paxo and to be honest so many of us are just fed up of the fact that we'd like to hear a politician answer before challenging the next point. Listeners are not stupid. We also recognise nonsense but a macho interviewer can undermine His (because its always Him) own skill. The nonsense on the Feedback programme about whether women were ready for this (I paraphrase) was just so offensive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Well done Kate Francis! Politely and without being personal, she went straight to the quick of the male bias in the recruitment and choice of presenters, correspondents etc on the Today Programme. Faced with the apparently sympathetic response offered in return by Ceri Thomas she needed just two quick ripostes to expose his un-self-examined sexism and to demolish the credibility of his argument. It was priceless listening to Thomas explaining that Today presenters needed "hide" and "hard work" which "rookies" (read: females) couldn't bring, and Kate asking how that squared with the appointment of an obvious male rookie last year?! A great Feedback 'moment'! I'm a (male) Today listener who shares the irritations vented about male-ism and overly-aggressive interviewing in the above blog comments. The programme's gender orientation and journalistic ethos are undoubtedly becoming dated. I say let's recruit Kate Francis to the team and get some smarter gender awareness, less barking and more of her quieter kind of interviewing incisiveness!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Just plugged this topic on Eddie Mair's PM Blog. I was rather surprised at Ceri's remarks in response to Female broadcasters, journalists, and in my humble opinion 'the way they are perceived'?

    I will monitor the thread with interest and trust that Feedback will report back 'on air' with a valid summary of the comments?


  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    R4 29th March. After the farming programme and before the today prog, you trailed a prog about MI5, there was so much background music over dialogue I didn't catch all the details.
    I would love you to think about your idea of attempting to inform listeners while playing music at the same time...logical, or crass?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Unusually, I thought the 'Today' editor gave a good account of himself. He even stood up to the developing feminist firestorm he and everyone else could see coming. He rightly said that the promise of unbiased political coverage was not achieved merely by 'coverage by numbers' in which the opposing sides must be allotted equal good and bad coverage. Similarly, it should not be necessary to prove the absence of sex bias, by enforcing a balance of male and female presenters. I prefer Today as it is, with the expected balance of things I do and don't agree with, even including TftD.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Surely what matters in a presenter of such a key programme is the ability to do the job. Humphreys is worth his weight in gold, despite his tendency to overcook it at times. At least one of the recent male recruits, although an experienced journalist, has a tendency to lose his way in interviews and to fumble links. Presenting a news magazine, against the clock and in the face of ever changing news, requires a different skill set from that needed to be a good reporter. If the BBC really believes that a woman is likely to be less successful at meeting the requirements, perhaps managers should remind themselves that women excel at multi-tasking while most men tend to go into a flat spin when asked to cope with more than one issue at a time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Three issues:
    1.Re: Biased reporting.
    Listeners to the kind of language now used all over the BBC e.g. Today, News, can be in no doubt about the BBC's political bias. Examples are use of words like 'militant', 'insurgents', 'extremist' when reporting for example the Israeli/Palestinian situation and there are similar others. For a long time now we have been unable to rely on unbiased reporting from the BBC. Skilled factual unbiased reporting should be the norm with reporters being properly trained in this and their language being carefully managed and monitored before transmission. This begs the questions "Who decides what language is used or maybe encouraged? Is the UK being steadily subliminally brainwashed by this national broadcasting company?"

    2.Re: Current reporting today of proposals for Care for the Elderly.
    How is it that Governments avoid planning for the future? Clearly the birth rate gives a reliable clue as to the size of a future elderly population but each consecutive governing party chooses at our expense to ignore the implications until crisis point is reached- presumably hoping that 'another party' will be in power then! Still there is no compulsion for cross-party co-operation on such crucial issues. There is talk about some strategy to be put in place 'by 2016'!! When the armed forces cry out for funding to support action abroad that some of our citizens don't even agree with, their cause gets immediate response.In contrast, thousands of our elderly who have contributed all their lives to national funding will have died in dire conditions and circumstances before our Government of any colour responds.

    3.Funding of Elderly Care:
    Why does the Government allow residential care of its elderly population to be a profit-making business? It's clear to anyone with involvement in this sector that the standards upheld by non-profit-making local Councils were far in advance of most operated in private care homes.Surely there could be some 'happy medium' where local Council services could be properly budgeted for with transparent business plans but without capitalist aspirations to profit!
    The quality of care will only improve if
    a)care workers are properly trained and their training regularly updated as in most other professions; currently profit-focussed Care Home businesses restrict training to the 'legal minimum standards'
    b)care workers are paid for their undoubtedly skilled and vital work and c)monitoring of standards of care are rigorously inspected and improvement demanded rather than the current system which barely 'scratches the surface' without ensuring improvement from vulnerable service users' point of view.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Let's be honest though, the biggest criticism of the Today Programme is that we all have to turn over to Radio 5, the World Service or local radio at 7:45-7:55 so that we don't have to listen to the dreadful Thought For The Day. Of course, this comment will get "reactively moderated", since Thought For The Day technically isn't the Today Programme, despite being introduced and end-credited by Today presenters (rather than continuity announcers, which it would if it were a genuinely separate programme). I count myself as an Anglican Christian and I consider that slot unbearable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Thanks for many useful points. On language and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict you'll find a number of useful posts on The Editors blog, like this one by Paul Brannan and this one by Jon Williams, detailing the difficulty and complexity of covering conflict. And here's an interesting page from the Newswatch web site (from 2006, predating the creation of the Trust), detailing the suggested use of several key terms from the conflict, including 'terrorist' and 'assassinations'.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog


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