Sarah Sands

Diary - 21 September 2017

Also: Falling asleep interviewing politicians, a puzzle a day and why Today seems obsessed with prisons

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Next month, the Today programme marks its 60th anniversary, so I have been mugging up on the archives. If there is a lasting characteristic, I reckon it is curiosity about how the world works. After four months in this job, my sense of wonder is undimmed that global experts on everything from nuclear warheads to rare plants can be conjured on to the show. Political debate is at the heart of Today, but it is knowledge rather than opinion that I prize most, and even the most avid political interviewers have a hinterland. They also understand the cumulative effect of unsocial working hours. The great Sue MacGregor, who is chairing a reunion of Today old hands as part of our anniversary programme, reminds me that she once fell asleep while interviewing Michael Heseltine.

I recite the Reithian principles of educating, informing and entertaining like morning prayer. I didn’t go to one of the grand universities that can no longer appear on CVs at the BBC, and so regard Today as a news version of Open University, an educational utopia. Some commentators have objected to the 30 seconds we devote each day to a puzzle, set by GCHQ and other brainboxes. It is there to celebrate mathematics and to remind us that problem-solving and decoding run deep in the nation’s past and its future. A tech entrepreneur told me it has become the perfect start to her day.

There has also been grumbling that science, arts and culture feature more in the programme than they used to. I refer back to our origins. The late Robin Day, who conceived it, was steeped in politics, but one of his first ideas was for a daily item on an arts first night. Coming from newspapers, I find it natural to mix subjects. A New York Times journalist asked me just before I started whether all its listeners were in hospitals or prisons, because those subjects always led its news. A daily show must be familiar but not predictable. Real news needs to advance and expand our knowledge.

The team teases me for having a fondness for ambassadors, but the best provide the kind of enlightened conversation that our listeners appreciate. Some come with large entourages, others, such as the Norwegian ambassador to London, Mona Juul, slip into the studio alone. The hefty entourages tend to come with business folk or with Jonathan Sacks for Thought for the Day, two very different types of security needs.

So far as domestic politicians are concerned, I understand that the former chancellor George Osborne always used to bring the biggest crowd, a detail which plays to his recent Don Corleone image. Incidentally, a former cabinet member, possibly unversed in US jail culture, takes issue with Osborne’s description of Theresa May as a dead woman walking on both political and literal grounds: ‘If she is walking, she can’t be dead.’

On Brexit bias, tone has become almost as important as argument. I notice that cheerfulness can grate on some, who regard it as political comment. When the Australian high commissioner asked on the Today programme why Brits were so gloomy, it was categorised as an anti-Remain intervention. It is true that whoever came up with the word ‘Remoaners’ delivered a lasting blow. The Brexiteers own optimism just as Remainers claim reason.

I want to try to tell the story of Brexit through concrete examples rather than positions. We looked at the fashion industry the other day and the designer Patrick Grant made a simple case. When he is making a suit, he imports parts from different countries. He can order a zip from Italy overnight. If he deals with America, he has to fill in a great pile of forms. He dreads the additional regulation. Boris Johnson wrote in his 4,000-word article that was meant to have been a speech (journalists so hate wasting material) that leaving the EU would lessen regulation. Can he explain to Patrick how?

We are all trying to figure out China and our relationship to it. A friend in the arts world who spends much time there, shrugs that it is ducks and drakes. He says there is less worry in Beijing about the military capabilities of North Korea than of triggering a humanitarian crisis, with refugees pouring into China. Meanwhile, Chinese leaders are fearful of a ravenous capitalist appetite among the young. They believe materialism will lead to spiritual impoverishment. So the government is commissioning art and music ventures on a grand scale to restore a hinterland among their population. Imagine it happening here.

The Civil Service, like the BBC, is looking for a workforce that represents equality of opportunity. Having examined age, race, gender and class, they are keen to search out invisible anomalies. I am told they have introverts next in their sights. Presumably one of the less vocal lobby groups.