One of those newspaper columnists handsomely paid to fulminate about nothing in particular was having a go at my friend and fellow Today presenter Evan Davis. Ridiculous Evan (as the world must now know him) had, prize chump that he is, asked the most foolish of questions, a question that had revealed him as a complete… etc, etc, etc.
Only it wasn’t Evan who asked the question. It was me. I am a little hazy on the correct etiquette in this area; should I have pleaded for the column to be corrected online so that I could insert myself into the target? Perhaps. I think Evan may have dropped the writer a line pointing out that he was on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Seychelles at the time so could not have been the idiot in question, but the truth is that such corrections – in private or in public – are increasingly futile.
The column was but a minor example of a wider problem: Evan/Justin confusion syndrome has reached, in the past few months, quite epidemic proportions, particularly on Twitter, where people attack the wrong man (or occasionally praise him, at least when I am getting the misplaced mention) with reckless abandon.
It seems that we sound alike, or at least have similar broadcasting mannerisms. Another critic says we drop our voices at the end of sentences, but at least she has the grace to accept that we are actually two people. In the wider world, as listeners (or half-listeners) rush from shower to breakfast table to school-run and commute, we are one.
Does it matter? You could make the case that they heyday of the broadcaster as a noticeable individual was passed many years ago and is now – with some honourable exceptions – virtually dead. Perhaps the syndrome is proof that we have reached a new broadcasting world. The slapstick film Anchorman 2: the Legend Continues sees the idiot news presenter Ron Burgundy revivified in all his narcissistic glory, but I wonder what younger audiences make of it – even in America, where “network anchors” are still hugely well paid and famous, they no longer wield much power. The film satirises a target that has, at least for those under 30, no real presence in their lives.
Last year, surveys suggested that more than 50 per cent of Americans received most of their news from the internet.
Crucially, they will not be downloading entire news broadcasts presented by a nitwit in a gaudy jacket. A Person Who Is Trusted can look sad one minute and charmed at life’s little touches of whimsy the next, and never get the two expressions confused. Disintermediation is the clunky word techies use for a world in which the anchor is, ahem, fired.
I fear (hey, I really do fear – I have bills to pay) that as the digital revolution presses on the idea of personalities in broadcasting will fall by the wayside. First they came for the anchormen and we did nothing, then...
So can we fight back? I wonder whether radio is capable of bucking the TV trend. Successful radio is always intimate, and for intimacy to work there has to be contact with an individual, a person, a character. The huge success of Mishal Husain’s arrival on Today suggests that personality is still important. TV can one day do without her (sorry Mishal), but radio demands something more.
For Evan and me it’s still not too late for a New Year’s resolution. We must concentrate on aural contrast. Incidentally, the question that upset the columnist (addressed to the born-again former US President Jimmy Carter) was whether Nelson Mandela could be compared to Jesus Christ. Exactly. Evan, for goodness sake, get a grip. Some basic knowledge of theology. And a personality of your own.
Justin Webb co-presents the Today programme on Radio 4, Monday—Friday 6am, Saturday 7am