Making news and enlightening audiences: BBC's flagship news show in the pandemic

Sarah Sands explains how she and her team at the Today programme dealt with the government's boycott and how they covered COVID-19
BBC

Pedestrians walk past a BBC logo at Broadcasting House in London. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Sarah Sands

This piece is the transcript of the opening remarks Sarah Sands gave during a recent seminar hosted by the Reuters Institute and chaired by Meera Selva. Her remarks have been lightly edited for clarity and length. You can watch the seminar in this link

Conservative MP Edward Argar is not what you would call a household name. Except in the BBC Radio 4 Today programme household. At about ten past eight on 29 February, he became the first government minister to appear on the BBC Radio 4 morning show since Boris Johnson’s election victory in December 2019.

Since Mr Argar appeared in the studio, barely a day has gone by without a minister in the programme. 

At the start of the boycott, a government insider accused us of talking only to a “pro Remain metropolitan bubble”. What they were signalling was a clearing of the Augean stables. The Today programme must be punished for interviewing some of those Remainers – they used to be called members of the government – in the run-up to the election. But it turned out our reach went a lot further than that, after all. 

Today I would like to talk about how we at the Today programme see our role, the editorial decisions we take and the extent to which we are left to take them ourselves. Because this crisis is so closely tied to the government and its response to it – this is a health and economic crisis that has developed a strong political element – I’m also going to talk about how we fell out with the government, how the relationship was patched up and whether it will last.

What the Today programme is 

First, a little explanation of the Today programme. In the BBC’s own words, we are “the flagship news programme on British radio”. We are, and I am quoting from the advertisement to find the person who will do the job after me, “the BBC’s primary news-making outlet, extending its insights and expertise across the widest range of topic areas, scrutinising events and key decision-makers and making full sense of the changing UK and world”.  

There are a few phrases in there to bear in mind: “news making”, “insights and expertise” and “scrutinising…key decision-makers”. 

We reach about 7 million listeners a week. The number tends to move up and down depending on what is in the news. Generally, more people come in at the start of something big – and move out again if it goes on so long that they start to find it boring. Brexit was perhaps the clearest example of that. COVID-19 is in danger of becoming another. Our listener numbers are up at the moment. That may not last, for while COVID-19 is more encompassing than anything else, it doesn’t change much from day to day, people get out of bed later in lockdown and it’s pretty depressing news – particularly when it is so sunny outside.  

Why I got to edit the Today programme 

I came to edit the show three years ago, a wildcard appointment as a BBC outsider. My brief was to get bigger and more varied voices on. To make the Today programme more noticed. To have it set the news agenda. 

I’d spent 30 years in newspapers. I soon noticed the difference between papers and the BBC. Not so much in the journalists – journalists are pretty truculent and demanding wherever you go – but in the corporate attitude. 

The thing about newspapers is that – unless you do something so wicked that it breaks the law – what you publish is nobody’s business but yours and your readers. The thing about working for the BBC is that what you broadcast is everybody’s business.

Newspapers have agendas. Newspapers are biased. Left, right, upmarket, downmarket. Readers are self-selecting. They come to a title knowing what to expect and wanting it. The BBC is not biased. 

What I reckon it does have, having been inside for three years, is a slightly wistful impulse towards social cohesion. It desperately wants to do the right thing. It likes community rather than sowing division. This can mean a wish to police language. 

Mischief makes papers happy. Mischief makes the BBC anxious. 

That anxiety is exhibited in many different ways. We saw it recently in the BBC’s response to a monologue by Emily Maitlis at the opening of the BBC2 late night news show Newsnight. The BBC decided she had stepped over the boundary between news and comment.

Tension with the government

At the start of my new job, I had a conversation with the Princeton historian David Cannadine. He warned me that the BBC’s relationship with the government is inevitably paranoid – the government controls the money, which leaves the BBC anxiously asserting its independence.  

The BBC needs to assert that independence, for the government is quick to seek control. When I arrived, I was surprised to discover that a figure named Robbie Gibb, a BBC editor who had become Theresa May’s media spokesman, expected not only to choose the minister we might interview, but also the time at which the interview would take place.  

When I explained that I believed those decisions were for me and that, on this occasion, we would be perfectly happy without a minister, he sounded cross. Within hours, the first complaint from Mr Gibb was on its way up the news hierarchy. Happily, no one suggested I change our commissioning style.  

By last December, of course, Mrs May was long gone and Robbie Gibb, newly knighted, with her. If the government of Theresa May was sometimes irritable with us, the anger was mild compared with what followed.

On election night, December 12, the climax to an occasionally fractious election campaign, I discovered that the next Conservative administration believed we were too big for our boots.   

I texted the Number 10 press office that night to ask if my old Daily Telegraph colleague Boris Johnson would be coming on the programme to discuss his resounding victory. The response came at 2:38 am: “We won’t be putting anyone up for the programme.”  

Some figures, outside the BBC, suggested I throw myself at the feet of Number 10. But I did not intend to beg for forgiveness. We did not regard ourselves as being at war with Number 10, so I saw no reason to sue for peace. 

I was meant to get big names on the show and to set the news agenda, but was unable to put up members of the government. They’d made the calculation they could reach their audience through social media and less challenging programmes. An American official told me that the Today programme was considered essential listening to them but if we went too long without any Government representative, they would need to think about recommending some other outlets, in order to find out what Downing Street was thinking.

How the Today programme works

Before we go on, perhaps it is helpful to explain the set-up at the Today programme. The programme goes out for three hours a day from Monday to Friday, and two on Saturday. There’s an assumption we are a highly-staffed organisation within the BBC. We’re happy to have people think that, but the reality is different. 

We have a team of about 40, including around three reporters who work primarily for the programme. There are four presenters, who work rotas based on three shows a week. The news bulletins come from the BBC news department, the sport from the BBC sport team, business from the business department – with some consultation. And Thought for the Day comes from the religious affairs unit.  

So the reputation of the programme is based on the items we choose to cover, the people we interview… and what they say. The presenters arrive each day in the small hours, spending a couple of intense hours before the programme to master briefs written for them by a talented and hard-working team of overnight producers. The presenters need to be barristers, journalists and entertainers; it is a demanding job. When the programme finishes, the next rota of producers get to work setting up interviews and reports for the following day.   

There are no instructions from the BBC.  

There are daily inquests – some involving BBC management – on what we think we did well, what we could have done better, what was a disaster.  

What did we find out on that programme? What was the tone? Did we ask the right questions? How was the balance of guests?  

So if there is a problem with the show, it’s down to me.

And having no ministers is a problem.  

I said I would not beg, and I didn’t. But I did go to Downing Street to see if we could find a way through. Serious issues were on the agenda – floods, a big decision on HS2, Huawei. The Today programme seemed the right place to talk about them. Downing Street wondered what was in it for the government.

How Today responded to coronavirus

On January 29, Chinese nationals at a hotel in York [were] reported to have fallen ill, the first coronavirus cases on British soil. 

Over the following month, coverage of the crisis increased by the day. We talked to doctors, to epidemiologists, WHO officials, to the brightest minds we could find. They came on willingly and shared everything they knew. Everyone seemed happy to answer intelligent questions for an intelligent audience. Everyone, except the government.    

And something really interested happened during those weeks.  

One of my guiding principles on taking the job was to have a programme from which people learned things. So I wanted clever people who knew things, who could share what they knew with a receptive audience. Men and women – the more women the better – from science, medicine, the arts, business. 

I wanted the Today programme to be the best that is thought and said across the world. And I wanted policy makers to be joined by those directly affected by those policies. Recently, we interviewed a Syrian refugee and filmmaker working for the NHS as a cleaner, and questioning the surcharge he was obliged to pay for using the NHS. The government changed its policy within days.  

The key word I sought for the Today programme was enlightenment and during those weeks without ministers we achieved it. Suddenly our interviews offered fascinating exchanges of real information. Scientists and health experts [were] talking about the growing problem of the coronavirus without any need to be defensive, offering pure, rational information and analysis. Several friends remarked how much they enjoyed it. Listeners began to compliment the Today programme. Fewer pieces of crockery were being thrown at the radio.  

The government was beginning to take measures to combat the virus. Our large audience could reasonably expect to hear them come on to explain what they were doing and why.

The government boycott ends

It was a Conservative MP who made the difference. The former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who had turned down the offer of a ministry under Boris Johnson, was a guest at 10 past eight – generally regarded as the programme’s most important slot – to discuss the growing crisis. He was highly informed, articulate and – as a backbencher – free from any political line. In other words he could say what he thought. 

At the end of a wide ranging and hugely informative interview we informed listeners that we had invited a member of the government to come on, but that the government declined to speak to listeners of the Today programme. 

There was a big reaction on social media, the gist of which was that Jeremy Hunt had spoken very well, and that it was outrageous that the government did not appear. 

The next day we were delighted to welcome Mr Argar to the studio. 

A former minister texted me as the interview went out: “I can’t believe you had to start a plague to get government ministers back on the show.”  

The role of the Today programme during a crisis

So what is the proper role of a programme like ours at a time of national crisis? Are we to be a public information service  relaying whatever messages the government wishes to give? Should we interrogate the science and the political decisions made on the back of it? Should we merely sit there and encourage successive ministers to repeat their mantra: “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.”   

I am in no doubt about one thing. We have to continue to make the news. The BBC is often accused of taking its cue from the papers. One of the great satisfactions of the Today programme is having the newspapers follow us. We get interesting people saying interesting things. The papers report that. Sometimes they even acknowledge where the quotes have come from.  

Across the whole of the programme, I want our interviews to be a mix of examination, enquiry, and the adversarial. Too much of any one of these can become repetitive. I should say there is an intensely subjective element to this: what one listener regards as a challenging question another hears as a negative impertinence. When we stop asking tough questions, we are accused of going soft. 

What is the right way to talk to politicians? It’s a question we ask constantly. A generation of journalists has been brought up to believe in the “gotcha” question, the one that reveals a minister is making things up. A generation of ministers has been brought up to find ways to avoid answering it.

At the end of one particularly tetchy interview, the minister involved texted: “Do you have a moment to talk later? There must be a way for Today to do better interviews than this?” 

They’d preferred their chat with Chris Evans, on Virgin Radio. Evans hadn’t pushed them on protective clothing, had ignored issues about testing, didn’t raise the failure to meet some of the timings promised the previous week. He’d asked a simple question: “When can we go on holiday?” 

The danger is that we can end up looking opposed to the government, when we are actually merely asking questions of it.

So what have we learned? 

Audience research has shown the BBC to be by far the most trusted source for information. Television audiences for the news breaking events have been astonishingly high.  

But, as in the great Brexit debate, there tends to be polarization among the audience depending on political sympathies. Our high scores on impartiality and trust will suffer if we appear too soft on the government or too condemnatory. That delicate middle ground is where we need to be. 

Remember I speak as a relative newcomer to the BBC. I’ve been in only three years, and I am out in September. When we’ve got things right, it’s been down to the professionalism and hard work of the Today team, enhanced by those I call the Friends of the Today programme, the best correspondents and their producers at the BBC.  

The BBC has let us get on with it. When I looked through the job description, which has attracted more than 100 impressive applications for my job, I noted the qualifications include “openness and collaboration with other programmes” and “long experience as a programme maker”. I text my boss to say I wish the BBC all the best and note that I don’t actually qualify for the job.