The real reason behind the fall of the BBC’s Today show

PUBLISHED: 11:34 06 August 2018 | UPDATED: 12:14 06 August 2018

Editor of BBC Radio 4's Today programme Sarah Sands speaks to a live audience at Wigmore Hall. Picture: PA

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There’s more than just misguided coverage behind the Today programme’s malaise, says MIC WRIGHT

The Today programme — required listening for anyone who works in politics — took a beating in the latest Rajar figures. The body, which monitors UK radio listening, reported last week that the audience for Radio 4’s flagship current affairs show has dropped by 839,000 listeners year-on-year. Meanwhile, over on BBC 5 Live, that station’s breakfast show, presented by Nicky Campbell, lost 337,000 listeners over the same period.

The BBC’s explanation for the fall in listenership is that the news simply hasn’t been as interesting in the second quarter of 2018:

“There were record figures (7.82m) last year as the nation turned to the Today programme during significant news events. Audience figures fluctuate for news programmes across TV and radio in line with new events and the latest Today programme figures show a sustained loyal listenership and an overall increase since 2014.”

There’s obviously something to that argument. Last spring saw a snap general election, three terror attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire — a combination that certainly increased general interest in the news. However, criticism of the Today programme has been growing since Sarah Sands became editor in May 2017.

Every morning, Twitter hums with dissatisfaction from listeners who are tired of the hectoring tone of some interviews compared to the fawning nature of others, a desperation to give ‘balance’ at the expense of facts and logic, a sneering attitude to popular culture, and a preference for increasingly lightweight items including the execrable ‘Puzzle for Today’.

But I don’t think those are the reasons for the audience exodus. Complaining about Today is a longstanding British pastime that’s merely been more efficiently enabled since the advent of social media. And the notion that the news is boring — when President Trump throws boxes of spanners into the works every day and Brexit negotiations trundle on with all the grace of an ageing clown car — isn’t convincing either.

I think that many people are suffering from news fatigue. Brexit and Trump are so dominant on the agenda that mornings are increasingly suffused with a sense of déjà vu. You can be certain that Trump will have said or done something appalling and utterly outside of the established norms of international politics, and that our government will be engaged in some monumental cock-up surrounding Brexit. Meanwhile, Labour will still be in the middle of the political equivalent of when hamsters eat their young.

It is not that the repetition of these news strands is boring but that it feels bludgeoning. Day after day, an attrition of awfulness and ugliness, that makes you feel helpless. And in the middle of each of these stories there are opposing groups of ultras, taking the most extreme partisan position on the issue. In that climate, who can blame people for deciding to start their day with a music station or even just some blessed silence?

We’re living in an age of news production where every single development in a story can be pushed to us instantly in the form of notifications on our phones. The 24-hour news operations descend on any major event like a swarm of microphone-wielding locusts. When there are debates like the ones around Brexit and Trump, this environment is optimised to generate plenty of heat but very little light. Very often, turning the radio news programmes on in the morning can feel like inviting a prophet of doom, complete with The End Is Nigh sandwich board, into your kitchen.

No doubt the BBC will see a lift in the audience figures for Today and 5 Live breakfast the next time we have a confluence of events like we experienced last spring, but it should still be a little more self-critical. The Today programme can and should be a lot better. Buying John Humphrys a carriage clock and gently nudging him towards retirement (or at least just presenting Mastermind) would be a very good start.

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