‘Phwhoof!’ exclaimed Evan at 8.27, before reluctantly turning us over to the sport report on Saturday morning’s Today (Radio 4). His intense connection with what he had just listened to in the studio (and we had heard at home while slowly waking up to the day) as Gavin Hewitt and Duncan Crawford reported from the centre of Kiev was palpable. Things were happening in Ukraine. The situation was changing fast. What we had been told at 7 a.m. — that anti-government demonstrators were continuing to occupy their protest camp in Independence Square — had become, in fewer than 90 minutes, very much old news.
Evan Davies was signalling to us in very audible expression that we were witnessing a moment in history, and he was live on air trying to make sense of it. We could hear his excitement, his awareness that something momentous was unfolding while he was on the job. What could be more life-affirming than that? It’s why Evan and the rest of the Today team are willing to sacrifice their sleep, night after night, to be woken hours before dawn by the beeping of an alarm in time to make their sleep-fuddled way to the studio in Broadcasting House. On Saturday, that effort was so worth it. He and his co-host John Humphrys experienced something that happens rarely in a lifetime of reporting from the studio; of being present as power shifts and the political map changes.
As the programme began, there was no sense that the morning would turn so dramatic. Nothing much seemed to have changed overnight, although there were rumours that the President of Ukraine was no longer in Kiev. Duncan Crawford did report that there were no signs of riot police in Independence Square, which did seem strange. But not too much notice was taken of these rumours and after only a few minutes from him we were brought back to London and to a routine review of the papers (‘There’s plenty about Ukraine,’ reported Humphrys) followed by yet another report on cuts in the NHS and a flighty conversation about the 90-year-old male novelist who’s on the shortlist for the Romantic Novel of the Year award.
By 8.10, though, those ‘rumours’ that the President had left the capital had turned into ‘reports’. ‘Things are really beginning to happen,’ said Humphrys, racking up the tension. The BBC’s news producer in Kiev, Kevin Bishop, had wandered into the presidential buildings. There was no one guarding the place. ‘It looks like a surrender.’
The airwaves began to crackle. ‘It’s possible that power may be changing hands even as we speak,’ said Crawford in his next report from Kiev. ‘I have a dozen questions for you,’ Humphrys told him, ‘none of which, of course, you can answer because no one can answer them.’
‘Is there anyone who can take over [from the President]?’ Humphrys wanted to know. But before Crawford had time to reply, he butted in, like an overexcited child, ‘I know what you’re going to say. No idea!’ For once, despite Humphrys’s professional experience, he was at a loss. Events had taken over.
At 8.36, with incredible promptitude, the programme’s producers succeeded in making brief contact with Kostyantyn Gryshchenko, reportedly one of Ukraine’s vice-prime ministers. ‘What is happening now?’ Humphrys asked him. Why is the President not to be found in his office?
‘It’s Saturday,’ Gryshchenko replied, with remarkable cool. ‘I’m not in my office.’ We could hear him thinking, without saying, where else would you expect me to be at the weekend?
His laconic response changed the on-air atmosphere for a second, making the situation somehow less real, as if what was going on in Kiev was everyday, quite normal, nothing exceptional. But he can’t have known we had just heard Gavin Hewitt describing the situation outside the parliament building in Kiev. ‘There are no riot police. The central government has gone. There’s a very eerie vacuum.’ Behind Hewitt’s voice, we could detect the murmur of a huge crowd; nothing tense or hostile, just the ebb and flow of thousands of people waiting for something to happen. ‘Yesterday’s agreement has been almost entirely taken over by the reality of the streets,’ announced Humphrys.
By 8.45 and the last of the programme’s round-ups of what was in the newspapers, Evan was chuckling in the background as John reported, ‘Lots and lots of coverage of Ukraine in the newspapers… [pause for effect]… all of which is pretty much overtaken by events in the last few minutes.’ Humphrys’s grin was by now very audible. ‘As happens to newspapers,’ he added, Evan still chuckling beside him. ‘Stick with broadcast media. That’s where you get it all.’
By the time you read this, of course, the situation in Ukraine may have all gone very murky, with the promise of change and better times held hostage by power-broking among those with most ammunition. But Saturday’s Today is worth holding on to, if only for Evan’s ‘Phwhoof!’