I was at a dinner for important media people the other night. Do you ever find yourself at these affairs? You can always tell important media people. They work in the media and sound important. And they all know how the BBC should really be run. I never learn much from them, but I try to enlighten them as much as possible. Especially about the way the BBC should be run.
Eventually, of course, the subject of Radio 4’s “Today” programme came up.
“ Why HAS it moved?” said a man called Jim, who owned a TV company, or at least behaved as if he did. “Why has it moved from its traditional quarters in Broadcasting House out to the wilds of the White City? There must be some strange reason for it. The people who present the programme keep mentioning it, as if it were really important. ‘Well, here we are in our new studios in White City, which are a lovely blue...’, they say. Why tell us?”
“I tell you what they remind me of,” said a woman who used to be tipped to be the next DG. “They remind me of those hostages on video who say things like ‘They are treating me very well’ when what they really mean is ‘They are treating me abominably, but if I say so, the man standing just outside camera range will shoot my head off.”
“So what you mean is,” I said, ”is that Jim Naughtie and John Humphrys may be saying here we are in the White City, but what they MEAN is, ‘Help ! - we are prisoners in a small studio in Hemel Hempstead !’...They want us to go and rescue them.”
“N-o-o-o,” said the woman. “I just want to know why they have been moved. Who is being punished for what?”
“What makes you think someone is being punished?”
“Oh, come on!” said the woman. “Everyone knows that almost every promotion or move that takes place at the BBC is really designed to put someone else’s nose out of joint.”
“I thought the only reason they moved the Today programme out of dear old Broadcasting House,” said a man wearing either a ginger beard or a ginger bow-tie - in the candle-powered gloom of the dinner room it was hard to tell which, “was to convert the old studios into a new dining room for BBC managers.”
“Or perhaps it was to obey some whim of the accountants,” said the man called Jim. “Rents and rates are lower in the White City, so perhaps they think that making a programme in the White City is also cheaper...”
They sat there, talking about it as if it were some episode in The Archers. I have often noticed that media people treat life as if it were a soap opera. Everything that happens must have a reason, which will be explained in a coming episode. The Today Programme moves to the White City, so there must be a reason known only to the scriptwriters..........
“ I think John Humphrys is right to be worried about the move,” said ginger beard. “Politicians and ministers may have flocked to BH, but they’re not going to trek out to White City at 7 am.“
“And that,” I said,” is precisely why they’re doing it.”
Everyone went silent. All eyes turned to me. I always enjoy that moment.
“They’re trying to make it MORE difficult for public figures to get out there?” said ginger beard.
“Sure,” I said. “Research has shown that more people switch off during those interviews than at any other time. So they’re getting rid of them.”
“But the interviews with ministers and top figures are the top feature of the programme!” said somebody.
“Rubbish,” I said. “It’s why politicians like the Today Programme, and why the presenters like the programme, but it’s not why anyone else likes it. People are bored silly with party politics. The reason that people switch on to Today is to hear the weather, and the sport, and What The Papers say, and the news headlines, and that’s about it. Even the little five-minute documentary featurettes about traffic schemes in Newcastle or potato growing in Hyde Park are more popular than Jim Naughtie meeting Jack Straw over three rounds at welterweight. So they’ve shifted the whole operation out to White City in the hope that politicians will no longer make the trek.”
There was a silence.
“And here’s another thing,” I said. “So far, it’s only the heavyweights who have gone out to the White City. They’ve left the sports guys behind at BH, Steve May and Gary Whatshisname. At the moment they’re doing the politics from White City and sport from BH. And weather from somewhere else. Know why?”
“Because all the guys who have gone to the White City are going to be dropped, and the programme will continue from BH with the sports guys as a nucleus. A brand new Today Programme with brand new people, and no politics. Meanwhile, the Naughties and the Macgregors and the Humphryses will continue talking into the mike at the White City, unaware that none of it is being broadcast!”
“Well, maybe James Naughtie is aware of it. That’s why he’s building a lateral career in book programmes and opera talks.”
More silence. Then someone changed the subject. A pity. I was beginning to believe in what I was telling them.
The Independent Monday July 13 1998