Evan Davis on succeeding Eddie Mair: ‘There isn’t a new vision to change PM’

The Newsnight anchor has taken over as presenter of Radio 4's PM — but is he feeling the pressure?

Evan Davis, Getty

Evan Davis is alone in a Perspex meeting pod at the BBC. “I thought you’d like the full W1A experience,” he says, as I struggle with the sliding door. “Try pulling it!”

Advertisement

I can’t get in, and it looks like Davis can’t get out. He’s been working for the BBC for more than a quarter of a century now, starting first as an economics correspondent in 1992, then rising to economics editor. He joined Today in 2008 and then, in 2014, followed Jeremy Paxman as Newsnight’s chief presenter

Davis replaced Paxman’s cartoon ferocity with something a little odder, as anyone who recently saw him ask a bemused David Attenborough if he watches Love Island will know. “I liked that question,” he says. “He could have got us into the anthropology of human behaviour and a comparison of humans to animals!”

Did Attenborough mind? “He was really nice afterwards. He said, ‘You weren’t going to let me get away with anything there, were you? Here I was, thinking I would come in and give you a load of lovely anecdotes.’ But that interview got a lot of views on social media, which is a big metric everybody uses these days.”

We’re yet to know the metrics of his new job – still in the corporation of course – replacing RT’s own Eddie Mair, who left PM in August to present a show on LBC. The last time we spoke, in July, Davis told me, “I will do whatever the BBC management tell me to do,” adding, “There’s going to be a bit of chair-swapping.”

Did he know what was going to happen? “No, I had no idea,” he says. “I was shocked, actually, because I thought the programme and Eddie were made for each other.”

So did everyone else, which makes Davis’s decision all the more courageous. “When it was announced, I tweeted, ‘Enjoyed four years of being told I’m not as good as Paxman, I now look forward to people saying I’m not as good as Eddie Mair.’” Is he being brave? “No, I’m not brave. I’m lucky.”

How will his PM be different to Mair’s? “I’m almost sorry to disappoint you,” he says, “but there isn’t a manifesto, there isn’t a document, there isn’t a new vision that says ‘Let’s change PM’. It will be building on Eddie. I may fail to live up to them, but the two words in my mind that will guide me are curiosity and warmth.”

One of the predominant tones of Mair’s PM was a kind of ironic distrust of politicians. Will Davis follow a similar route?

“If journalism has become so distrusting of power and administration and has become scornful or sneering of the uselessness of politicians, that has real dangers,” Davis says. “If you have a financial crash and you have to put up taxes or cut spending, to just blame the politicians for making difficult decisions seems a bit unfair to me. Someone’s got to do it.

“We need to be careful about humiliating people who have to make difficult decisions. At the same time, we don’t want to let the political class pull the wool over our eyes, deceive us over what they are doing, sell us stuff. That’s a lot of what they do – they are selling us something. We don’t want to buy that second-hand car from them without kicking the tyres.”

From the outside, the goings-on at BBC News and Current Affairs look like a game of musical chairs where a group of fantastically well-paid people periodically battle for places. After all, Davis got the chance to replace Paxman in 2014 after the favourite, Eddie Mair – who had recently told Boris Johnson, “You’re not a very nice man, are you?” while guest-presenting the Andrew Marr Show – wasn’t chosen.

“There are not a lot of jobs to do [at the BBC],” says Davis. “If a really good one comes up and someone else gets it, it won’t be back for another ten years. Essentially, you just jump at it. I would have loved to have done a couple more years at Newsnight, but this is a particularly great job.”

The decision attracted criticism – another major BBC job was going to a man rather than a woman. Isn’t Davis bed-blocking a female presenter? “No. I was occupying one bed before and I will be occupying one bed after.” But shouldn’t women be getting more of these roles at the BBC? “That’s manifestly sensible. But do I think I should leave the BBC to create a vacancy? No. Surprise, surprise.”

Is that sort of thinking affecting the relationship between senior female and male presenters at the BBC? “I don’t feel there’s any antagonism,” he says. “I don’t know anyone who would deviate from thinking it’s right for the BBC to increase the number of women. The presenter portfolio should represent the nation.” Does that apply to gay people as well as women? “Who’s going to know what a person’s sexuality is unless they read a Radio Times interview? I don’t define my presenting by my sexuality.”

Davis, who also presents the Radio 4 business series The Bottom Line and films BBC2’s Dragons’ Den on Fridays, will only present PM from Mondays to Thursdays and he says he will not be getting any more money (he presently earns between £250,000 and £299,999).

“With the gender pay gap, it’s not a time for men [at the BBC] to be saying, ‘Can I have a big pay rise?’ I’ve always felt I’m generously paid. I have never negotiated with the BBC over salary.” Never? “With one exception: Dragons’ Den were paying me a daily rate and I asked them to round it up. They said no.”

His lifestyle is the definition of metropolitan elite. Davis has an apartment in London that he shares with his partner, French landscape architect Guillaume Baltz, and a place in the Pas-de-Calais countryside. “I love it there,” he says. “But I’m definitely more urban than rural in my tastes.” The couple are already civil partners though he’d like to get married. “We’ll upgrade, just because we want to be in the platinum class. It’s another chance to blow another load of money on a party.”

When he’s not working – which seems to be rarely – he’s walking his whippet Mr Whippy or dining out on the “Remainer dinner-party circuit”. But he hasn’t signed up to the Remainer cause. “It drives me mad,” he says. “A lot of people think the BBC should have said ‘Brexit’s a mess, don’t vote for it’. They think it’s a fact that Brexit is a disaster and so the BBC should report facts. But it’s not a fact that Brexit is a disaster. It’s an economic judgement.

“The BBC must make sure the public know in a debate, be it homeopathy, climate change, astrology, flat earth versus spherical earth, where the bulk of expert opinion lies. What the BBC can’t do is then say, ‘We’re only going to give voice to the expert consensus’.

“So on Brexit, it’s definitely the case that most professional economists who know what they’re talking about think Brexit is really quite bad for our economy. That is a very dominant view among business and professional economists.

“I think the public know that is the dominant view. If they didn’t know, then we let them down and the charge stands correct. Guilty as charged. But I think the public did know that business and economists didn’t think Brexit was a good idea and they voted Leave anyway. People overestimate the degree to which the BBC can dictate to the nation what is right and wrong and the nation just haplessly listens and doffs its caps and thanks us. It’s not like that any more.”

He gets quite testy when I refer to the speculation around which of his current affairs colleagues should replace him at Newsnight and David Dimbleby on Question Time as a soap opera. Some even suggesting that Newsnight’s days are numbered. “I don’t agree with that. People I mix with aren’t asking, ‘What’s the latest plotline?’ What I will concede is that since before it started, literally before Newsnight launched in 1980, people said, ‘It’s not going to work’, and ever since then people have said, ‘Is it news or current affairs?’. I’ve read pieces saying Newsnight’s going to go, but the BBC would be barking mad to do that when we are going through the most difficult experience of our postwar history.”

Is Davis relieved to be back working on radio? On television some people didn’t like his demeanour or appearance – the extreme skinniness of his suits, the slight squint that means he doesn’t always appear to be looking directly at the camera – and they would tell him so.

“A well-placed, vicious critique that is correct goes right to the heart,” says Davis. “But personal insults reflect badly on the insulter. I’m never hurt by the insult about my squiffy eyes, I can’t do anything about my eyes! Everybody who goes on telly gets it, I would imagine. I think it’s worse for women. They probably get more appearance-based insults than men do, just because of the way our society is.

“I think I look a little bit more weird than some people on telly. Though here’s a proposition, maybe being Marmite, some hate you, some like you, is a feature of a quite interesting presenter.”

Will the BBC mind if his PM is Marmite? “The BBC is loyal to its staff. It doesn’t boot them out, it gives them a chance. But you don’t get a permanent licence to be useless at the BBC and if it’s not working, I don’t want to do it.”

When will we know if it is working? “Don’t judge it on the first programme, though a lot of people will. You can begin to tell if this is working after six months. I hope the BBC know enough about me to be reasonably confident it won’t be a car crash.”

Now, how do we get out of this pod?

Advertisement

PM airs Monday—Friday at 5.00pm on Radio 4