Today presenters talk Brexit, diversity and Thought for the Day

As Today turns 60, Mishal Husain, Nick Robinson, John Humphrys, Sarah Montague and Justin Webb sit down for breakfast with RT

Today presenters (RT shoot by Ray Burmiston, EH)

Almost eight million listeners invite the Today team into their kitchens for breakfast every week to hear the great and the good, and occasionally the very bad, held to account by a formidable team of interrogators. And yet, remarkably, when RT invites the hosts to breakfast we discover that all five presenters of Radio 4’s flagship show have never before been in the same room at the same time.

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In 1957, RT billed the very first edition as “a breakfast-time magazine bringing you news, views and interviews”. Now, 60 years later and with new editor Sarah Sands ringing the changes, it’s the perfect moment to quiz the team.

With the kettle on, the familiar voices arrive. Sarah Montague sounds brisk and business-like – until she slips outside for a crafty smoke. Mishal Husain wafts in with the poise of a polished TV performer. Nick Robinson crashes in, a flurry of arms and anecdotes. Justin Webb bounds up the fire escape, and finally John Humphrys, hot-foot from the studio. “Have you booked my car for 11.15?” he demands, making clear he’s not here to waste time. We’d better get on then…

We’re living through a very heavy time for news. Which is good news for you…

John Humphrys Extraordinary times. It’s one of the reasons that the audience figures have gone up so much. Some argue that when you’ve got a big news story like Brexit, the audience goes up. But I’d say – and this is going to sound boastful – so what? They’re turning to the Today programme because this matters to them. This affects everybody’s life. They know it, and where do they go? They go to the Today programme.

Jeremy Vine said recently that if you were listening to Radio 2, you wouldn’t have been surprised by the Brexit referendum result. But if you were listening to Radio 4, you were shocked… that there’s a metropolitan mindset on Today that means you got it wrong. You are out of touch with the country.

Sarah Montague Hold on a second! The result was shocking but was it totally surprising? I think we would all say that we were aware of that possibility in advance.

Mishal Husain I made a documentary on immigration just before the referendum and went right around the country, and I think it was clear that there was a big division of opinion and that people in other parts of the country knew it was never a cert.

The morning after the referendum all the BBC bosses looked stunned
John Humphrys

John Where Jeremy is right is that there’s a disconnect between the people who run the BBC and a large chunk of the population. You could argue that that’s inevitable, because an awful lot of people want to work for the BBC, so you attract the brightest and the best, and they tend to come from a particular background.

When I joined, it was almost essential that you’d been to Oxford or Cambridge, although we gradually got the idea – certainly on Today – that maybe there were people out there who hadn’t been to Oxford or Cambridge who’d do a good job of being journalists. There was a brief period when it was almost a disadvantage to have been to Oxford or Cambridge. I don’t know whether there is or not now. But they tend to come with a set of liberal values that permeate their thinking, and therefore the thinking of the BBC – and for a while there’s no doubt that the BBC had a strong liberal tinge.

I noted on the morning of the referendum that in the BBC almost everybody who came in, above all, all the bosses, looked absolutely stunned. And I suspect if you walked into a café round the corner frequented by a rather wider mix of the population, there wouldn’t have been that same sense of being utterly stunned. They’d have been maybe a bit surprised, but perhaps not even that. I think we sometimes do lose touch with the population.

Mishal Husain hosts the BBC Leader's Debate (Getty, EH)
Mishal Husain hosts the BBC Leader’s Debate

Were you all stunned?

Sarah Yes, do you remember that morning? We arrived earlier than usual and I remember standing there thinking, “Whoa… how do we tell this story?”

John Yes, I was surprised. In my own defence I’d been saying to lots of people it’s not necessarily a done deal, purely based on being in a do-it-yourself hardware shop in Hammersmith. The bloke behind the counter was serving another bloke and they were talking about the referendum and he asked him if he’d voted yet. He said, “Yes, I voted.” “How did you vote?”. “Oh, well, I voted to pull out, of course – it’s 350 million quid for the health service, innit?” And I thought, “Hmm.”

Nick Robinson Let’s be careful of saying, “If only you’d talked to the right people, you would have known.” Not true. The only people who knew, knew from a hunch. They didn’t talk to better people or interview better people. Point to the programme, the newspaper, the pollster, the politician who got it right? Because you won’t find one. There isn’t one.

Justin Webb We didn’t get it wrong. We report what people say and think about things. We’re not in the prediction business, very wisely. People who feel strongly that they’re on one side or the other assume that we all feel strongly, too. But actually our first thought is about doing the job. You wouldn’t do this job if you were a passionate political person, because you’d go mad. You know, we are passionate about different things, like getting things right. Like telling the story. Like allowing people to tell their own stories. That’s what the Today programme does at its best. That’s what drives us. People on both sides of the argument just assume things about us.

Sarah Exactly. Yes, we’re broadcasting from a London studio, but you know, all of us spend a lot of time outside London, in our home lives. So we are in very different milieu… than this supposed metropolitan mindset.

John Exactly. And we don’t all have the same set of values, obviously. I couldn’t tell you how any of these guys voted at the last election.

Sarah Same.

John And I absolutely don’t want to know, but if I did, it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference. We genuinely park our politics outside. You leave them at the studio door…

Sarah But come on, all of us do bring our biases in.

John Ah, bias is different. I’m talking purely politics here.

Sarah Yes, yes, you’re right. I wouldn’t know how any of you voted.

Mishal But even when we have certain views, I think all of us work really hard to find another point of view. Perhaps even harder when it’s something that you think is pretty obvious.

But – with the notable exception of John – you all came from English public schools. And two of you, Nick and Mishal, went to Oxford and Cambridge. Justin was at the LSE, Sarah at Bristol University. How can you represent the whole country?

Justin John is our nod to diversity! [Laughter] No, I’m serious. He’s a really important part of the programme. He genuinely did leave school at whatever it was, at 15. But the interesting thing, it seems to me, is that is not a route that’s open to a modern person who wants to present the Today programme.

So how do you make sure there are more Johns coming through?

Sarah Oh, no, we’ve got to stop that! [Laughs]

Nick Ofcom are talking of publishing data on the number of people of different class backgrounds, who are in different broadcasters. The BBC has already talked about it – this is a live debate already.

Today has had a problem with the lack of women’s voices on air
Mishal Husain

So is the answer to get out into the country?

John I think that’s patronising. The idea that you can’t find people with different values and different views in London, a city of ten million people, is pretty bonkers, isn’t it?

Mishal I don’t think it matters where you broadcast from, if you work hard enough to find the proper range of voices. Historically, Today has had a problem with the lack of women’s voices on air – I don’t mean the presenters. We’ve worked really hard to address that. It’s amazing to see what happens when you think, “We really want to make sure the other half of this discussion is female.” You find the answers…

Do you think there’s a difference between the way men and women approach the art of questioning? I’ve heard it said that with you men it’s all fast bowling, there’s no spin…

John Rubbish!

Sarah Well, what do you guys think?

Justin Absolutely no difference at all.

Nick There’s a difference between people. We all have different strengths and weaknesses.

Sarah The direct answer to your question is no. But if you only had men on the programme, as we did for far too long, you have a problem. For years, I had a tag around my neck, “the only woman on the Today programme”, and I only realised how much I hated that when Mishal arrived [in 2013]. It was wonderful to lose that because it felt like a huge weight. I remember trying to explain to you, Mishal. I remember going to work thinking, “Am I seriously representing half the population with my occasional appearances on Today?” It is hard to articulate, but it’s essential you have that mix.

John I agree with that.

Mishal And it’s something you can’t take for granted and you always have to be mindful of. You never want it to become a regular pattern, that the man does the Secretary of State and the woman ends up with the so-called softer item. I don’t think we do that…

Sarah It’s taken a long time getting there.

Mishal I remember as a listener, it was something that used to irritate me.

Sarah I remember as a presenter! I tell you. I’ve still got the scars to prove it!

Nick There’s a load of built-in assumptions about how any programme works. A few people set a trend, like John did with his approach on Today, and then you get a series of people, be they men or women, impersonating John’s interview style. Or impersonating Jeremy Paxman. Thinking, “I must be like Paxman. I must kick the s**t out of somebody.” Now actually, he was very good at it. Most people impersonating him were not. And the reason you need different styles and genders, and different voices regionally, is because we’re constantly trying to do something different…

Sarah Different races and different classes.

Nick Exactly.

Sarah Those are all things that have yet to be addressed.

John Yes, you’re all posh gits.

Justin Can I come back to the diversity? In which John is our only nod at diversity…

John They can’t sack me, you know…

Nick My first few weeks on Today, I suddenly realised I’d have more fun interviewing the three people I probably wouldn’t have chosen to interview that day, who weren’t politicians.

How do you divvy it up? Who gets what..?

Sarah We don’t. For very good reasons.

Nick That’s why there’s an editor.

Sarah When you come in in the morning…

John The editor divvies it up.

Mishal That’s their privilege.

John Humphrys (BBC, EH)
John Humphrys

Well, your new editor Sarah Sands has made some interesting choices recently. John, how did you feel when you got Alexandra Shulman, the ex-editor of Vogue?

John Delighted! Absolutely delighted.

You were happy to talk fashion?

John I could not have agreed or disagreed with being given that interview… [Laughter]

Sarah I can’t go now!

John Where I’ve disagreed with certain people, possibly even my editor, was that the interview I did with her might have been better. There was mild disagreement afterwards about the approach I took. But why wouldn’t I want to interview somebody who’d edited a magazine for 25 years that had a huge influence over the way women dress?

It was massively interesting, and actually a rather important subject, particularly if you advance the proposition, which I did, that magazines like Vogue and the fashionistas in general, pushed the idea for many years, and are still pushing it, though they deny it, that in order to look nice you’ve got to be stick-thin. I’ve always thought it an absurd proposition and damaging to an awful lot of young girls who are susceptible to that sort of pressure. So I was, according to some people, too aggressive with her. I thought I was actually rather polite.

But she didn’t like being asked about that sort of thing and suggested, preposterously, that you’re almost as likely to see chubby women on the cover of Vogue. I think she came up with three examples over 25 years. Well, I rest my case, M’lud! Not that I feel strongly about this, but I did resent the idea that I was being painted as some sort of token, as a man – apparently I’d committed the sin as well of wearing chinos. I’m not sure what chinos are… She said I was “a grey-haired man who wore chinos”, you know? Wow, well I’m sorry.

Mishal I don’t think you do wear chinos.

John But it occurred to me then, that if I’d accused her of being, say, a grey-haired woman who wore whatever, that would have been sexist. But she was allowed to write that about me. I don’t care but…

Justin People say things about John that you couldn’t say about other people. The ageism is outrageous.

Some say that under your new editor there’s too much fashion on the programme. That she’s putting in too many lighter features at the expense of hard news…

Sarah Even on the heaviest news day, you need texture. You need light and shade. Sometimes it can be challenging if there’s a breaking story and you just want to get on with it. But you need stuff to make it digestible. I think there’s room to handle a lot of different issues in a lot of different ways. The editor knows a news story. She likes the mix but she has a news head on… We’ve all got our own opinion about what is and isn’t a news story. We all might raise our eyebrows at the changes in direction. But we’ve seen it before and we’re broadly supportive of somebody coming in and saying, “Let’s do it this way and see if it works.”

Justin We’re up for those changes. It’s a good thing. The programme has to evolve and she’s certainly made an impact.

In this job you're constantly out of your comfort zone
Justin Webb

What’s the biggest challenge? Whether you’re discussing fashion or fiscal policy?

Mishal Well, you’d never want it to be boring or bland, would you?

John That’s the thing.

Mishal We’re interested in high-quality debate and we’re interested in challenge and we’re interested in provocation. And, you know, there are highs and lows in all of that and there are going to be people you offend in the process, and I think we as presenters have to take the rough with the smooth.

Justin The thing that makes it interesting as a job is you’re constantly out of your comfort zone.

Nick And the ones you screw up spectacularly are the ones that you think are going to be fine.

John Exactly.

Nick Like when I patronised a four-year-old who’d just been awarded a medal for bravery because she’d called 999 when her mother was in a state of anaphylactic shock. And to try to get her talk, I said, “Did they put the nee-naws on?” And the mother said, “I think he means a siren.” [Laughter] In the street, people were coming up to me going, “Nee-naws?”

John There but for the grace of God.

OK, God. How does it feel when at ten to eight every morning you suddenly have to stop for a sermon in Thought for the Day?

John Deeply, deeply boring, often. Sometimes not. Sometimes it’s good and the guy or woman is delivering an interesting thought in a provocative way. Usually not. It seems to me inappropriate that Today should broadcast nearly three minutes of uninterrupted religion, given that rather more than half our population have no religion at all. Certainly very few of them are practising Christians… we have Hindus of course, and we have the occasional Muslim, the occasional Jew, but by and large it’s Christian. Why?

Justin They’re all roughly the same… “If everyone was nicer to everyone else, it would be fine.” But from my cursory glance around the world, I think a lot of religious people don’t want to be nice to each other.

John They mean the world would be a better place.

Justin Sure. But where does that get you? If we had red-in-tooth-and-claw religion, I could see the point. It really annoys me.

Mishal I think it’s a bit of punctuation in the programme, but actually because you’re going helter-skelter through so many things and it’s actually two minutes where you…

John Yes, but wouldn’t you like to be able to choose where you put that punctuation? Mishal Look, for me it’s the time I need to be out of the house, when I’m late…

John Right, yes. Well, that’s essential. But when you’re presenting it, how many times have you said to yourself, “Dear God, we’ve got to cut a really fascinating programme short because we’re now going to hear somebody tell us that Jesus was really nice, and the world could be a better place if we all…” You know… Oh God.

Nick I’m not one to ever disagree… [laughter]. Do you know what, when Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi, does it, I listen. There are a few people who are just profound. Profound.

John And interesting.

Nick They have things to say. Now are there enough of those?

John Are there, Nick? Are there, Nick?

Nick No, there are not.

Justin But also, they’re not reflecting on current issues?

John Precisely, if it were secular Thought for the Day, I’d have less of a problem with it. Why can’t you have an atheist? Or an agnostic?

Today presenters (RT shoot by Ray Burmiston, EH)

Do you have to like an argument?

John Yes. Absolutely

Mishal Certainly wouldn’t shy away from one.

John Oh! Oh, I’ve noticed that. I noticed how withdrawn you are in your interviews.

Nick I don’t know if it’s even like or dislike an argument. I think you have to believe in the importance of questioning. If you want to hear a monologue, then don’t tune in to the radio. If you want to hear people you already agree with, don’t tune in. If you want to hear people who you agree with, not challenged, don’t tune in. If you want to make sure that people are censored that you don’t agree with, don’t tune in.

Justin If you look at the online reaction to Today, people often say, “I don’t know why you had X on.” Or, “We don’t need to hear Y.” And we should say politely to those people, “Maybe go to Radio 3 then.” But if you come to us, you are going to hear things with which you disagree, and things with which you do agree, and you’re going to hear it fought out. The idea that you protect people from things they don’t like hearing is something we’ve got to be careful about. It’s a pitfall of the modern world. Look at what’s happening in our universities…

John We did go through a brief period after the Hutton business [in 2003, which led to the resignation of the then director-general] where the BBC was timid. One could sense it. When we were putting the programme together in the morning, when we were on air occasionally, you got the sense the powers that be wanted us to pull back just a little bit. Did we really want to be offending people at this delicate time? I think it’s gone away, but it was a little bit worrying because the one thing we must not be is timid. It’s tempting, because the BBC relies on the goodwill of the Government in lots of ways to do lots of things.

Sarah It’s not tempting, though, is it?

John No, no, I don’t mean from our point of view. Absolutely not. But tempting from the point of some management figures to be just a wee bit cautious about how you push and what you push and when you push – and with whom you’re pushing it. Just a little bit timid because the BBC has a number of constituencies, if you will, one of which obviously is politics… the Government.

If we do this in ten years, John, to celebrate Today’s 70th, will you still be here?

John Where else am I going to be?

Well, you were on the team when we celebrated Today’s 30th in 1987. Have you ever thought, at 74, you should call it a day?

John No. Never! Well, I often think that I would like to not get up at half-past three tomorrow morning. But then when I think about it rationally and when I’m in there, when I’m sitting in the office at four o’clock in the morning, I think exactly the opposite. Where else would I want to be?

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