"John Humphrys would be a hard act to follow": Martha Kearney on joining Radio 4's Today
New Today host Martha Kearney discusses the BBC pay gap and why she doesn't want the top job - yet
"Good morning,” says Martha Kearney. “It’s six o’clock on Wednesday the 23rd of May. This is Today with Nick Robinson and Martha Kearney.” Then she disappears. I listen to Nick Robinson announce the headline stories. Zeb Soanes read the news. Then Robinson again, followed by the weather report until, a long seven minutes in, Kearney finally returns. She delivers an item on the death of the American novelist Philip Roth, which requires her to step delicately around the subject matter of his most famous work, Portnoy’s Complaint. Then it’s Robinson again with some serious political news before Kearney, a keen apiarist until she was stopped by a sting allergy, has a story about Prince Harry being attacked by a bee.
Is this any way to treat a former Political Commentator of the Year and Radio Presenter of the Year, I fume at the radio, giving her the fluff while the bloke gets all the big stuff?
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Two hours later she’s in a pub near the BBC, telling me just how wrong I am. “Philip Roth’s one of my favourite writers,” Kearney says, “and we heard he’d died just after 5am,” so the coverage in a show that began less than an hour later was a small miracle that required frantic readjustment, with her guidance. “And I also went on to interview the Attorney General this morning.” So, there isn’t a best-jobs-for-the-boys policy at Today? “It’s not happening,” says Kearney. “And if it was I would be concerned.”
I t’s two months since Kearney joined Robinson, John Humphrys, Mishal Husain and Justin Webb, poached from The World at One by Today editor Sarah Sands in a straight swap for Sarah Montague. Kearney points out she has already bagged a David Attenborough interview and presented from Jerusalem, when she went to Gaza and the West Bank. She has also lost 65,000 listeners, according to the latest Rajar figures. “You’re not going to pin that one on me!” she says. “And it’s less than one per cent. Very small.” Still, I suggest, listeners are going – and there are 300,000 fewer than this time last year – because they don’t like the hectoring interviewing style that dominates the show. “That’s unfair,” she says. “Politicians are so media-trained now, if you don’t interrupt them they’ll take up the entire allotted slot with one answer.”
When Montague and Husain co-presented, the programme was less confrontational, an altogether different experience. “I agree with you,” she says. “Long ago I did some holiday shifts presenting with Sarah, one of the first times that they’d had two women presenters. It was very, very unusual. Now, you don’t get any of that nonsense about, ‘You can’t tell the women’s voices apart.’” Then why haven’t Kearney and Husain done a programme together yet? “I keep meaning to ask,” she says. “Is it deliberate? I don’t think it is.”
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Kearney rejects any suggestion she was brought in to make the show gentler. “My interviews on The World at One were all quite challenging. One of the reasons Sarah Sands wanted me to come was because of my political interviewing style.” She hasn’t been asked to change the tone? “Sarah said, ‘Let your personality shine through.’ I’m very much aware that people are having their breakfast, so there should be a friendly tone to the programme as well.”
Humphrys might disagree with that, but she won’t criticise the man who co-presented her “nerve-racking” first show. “It was frightening,” she says. “I didn’t get much sleep the night before. I’ve been a radio broadcaster for such a long time, but Today is so high-profile and you have so little time to prepare and so many people listening. The stakes felt high and John was very helpful to me.”
But what about his money? Kearney joined on the same pay band as Husain, which has an upper limit of £249,000. Humphrys’s salary was £400,000 higher than that, though he has subsequently taken a pay cut. “There was anger and shock when the pay figures came out,” she says. “Now the BBC is moving in the right direction, but the pace may not be as fast as we’d like. I’ve done enough stories about equal pay over the years for Woman’s Hour to know about the structural problems there are, and the need to make workplaces more family-friendly and so on, but there’s something else going on, I think it’s unconscious bias at all large organisations.” And the BBC? “I think we wait and see what happens and whether the BBC makes good on its promises.”
If that sounds a little powerless, don’t be fooled. Kearney can get a direct line to director-general Tony Hall and says she has been talking to him about “bringing people from different backgrounds into the BBC”.
Kearney is a very youthful 60, who breezes through the pub, offering good cheer to all she encounters. Born in Ireland to academic parents and brought up in Sussex and Scotland, she’s been married since 2001 to Chris Shaw, the editorial director of ITN who she met at Oxford, where she read classics in the late 70s. “When I was on Newsnight, I’d keep stories that I was working on from him.”
Newsnight was the pinnacle of a prestigious career as TV reporter that included spells in Northern Ireland (for which she gained a Bafta nomination). Before TV there was local radio in Sheffield, and she was at LBC in the 80s where she had to put up with men’s wandering hands on her bottom. “It was horrible and humiliating,” she says. “I didn’t complain. It was the world of work, the rough and tumble of the newsroom. The young women I work with at Today have zero tolerance. I hope #MeToo will make a difference.” Did she ever snap? “No, and I regret that. I wish I’d felt stronger, less intimidated, but in my 20s, bosses were powerful people.” Some say coming through such things is character-forming. “No, I don’t think that at all.”
The experience has left Kearney with a distaste for macho posturing in journalism. “I feel very strongly that a bullying culture at work stifles creativity. People know when they’ve made mistakes and feel very bad about it. They don’t need to be bawled out in a newsroom. If somebody has made a mistake in my brief I don’t need to shout, ‘You idiot’, because they know that themselves and feel dreadful about it. Bullying just doesn’t work. It’s dying out.”
Today is not like that, she says. “This might surprise you but there is a spirit of camaraderie. That has surprised me and I’ve been very appreciative of the way they have all been so helpful. When I’ve looked slightly rabbit-in-the-headlights, or I’ve not had my script to hand, they have stepped in for me.
Privately educated Kearney is just as privileged as fellow presenters – only Humphrys went to state school – though she claims not to know much about them. “I’ve only just started,” she says. “I know Nick is from Manchester and John is a proud Welshman, but there isn’t that much time for chit-chat when you get in so early in the morning.” She gets up at 3.15am to make it into the office for 4am.
Kearney came of age at the end of hippiedom in the mid-70s but gave it up for punk. “I remember going to see Talking Heads and all the Stiff tours and Elvis Costello in Aylesbury,” she says. “It felt we were at the cutting edge of a fantastically vibrant and exciting, rebellious music movement. It was great.” Her drug-taking extended only to “drinking quite a lot of Guinness and taking the odd Pro Plus”; 40 years on, she feels slightly more hippy than punk. “I’m not a religious person in the sense of going to church regularly,” she says. “But I tried that Headspace [a mindfulness app]. I did like it but I don’t sit still for long enough. I’m sure it would do me good.
She says, “Everyone has a spiritual dimension”. Does she enjoy Thought for the Day? “In the past, I would have run to the radio to turn it off. It sometimes reminded me of an Alan Bennett parody on That Was the Week That Was, but it has changed. I’ve come around to the view that a time for reflection in the morning, which is only a couple of minutes, isn’t a bad thing at all. Though I know John has strong views.” In 2017, Humphrys told Radio Times that Thought for the Day was “deeply, deeply boring”.
Humphrys’s opinion still holds sway, but he is 74 now and can’t go on for ever; who should take the senior role when he leaves? “That’s so above my pay grade. My impression is that John will be continuing for a while. Sitting next to him in the studio, he’s crackling with energy. There’s no sign there that I can see. I think he would be a hard act to follow. There are two very good male presenters already on the programme.” So, she’s presuming it would be a male. “Oh,” she says, “Touché!”
Today is on Saturdays at 7am and at 6am Mondays - Fridays on Radio 4