Today editor speaks out on John Humphrys - and getting 'impatient' with politicians

Written by Caroline Frost on 6 September 2018 in Culture

Sarah Sands was speaking at a Broadcast Press Guild lunch.

Politicians be warned –spin, soapboxing and sophistry will no longer be tolerated on the Today programme. And, for now, John Humphrys is going nowhere.

“People are really wanting facts at the moment, so perhaps that means being more impatient with politicians who have rehearsed lines, or [feel] that it’s a game,” said editor Sarah Sands in a wide-ranging discussion with fellow media journalists.

“Sometimes it’s theatre, of course it is, and it’s best when you can combine. But at the moment it’s really about holding someone to account, realising it’s not just game, and being on top of it.”

The former editor of the Evening Standard was speaking at a Broadcast Press Guild lunch this week, after around 18 months in the Today hotseat.

Despite the on-going challenge for listeners, Sands said that what sets Today’s output apart is its access to the man or woman of the hour.

“Who’s good is that person, you want the person in the story, like when David Davis comes on, the moment he’s resigned. That’s what we’re looking for.

“Beyond that, you can be more flexible, if someone’s got more to say… I’ve been running some of them longer, Mark Carney we gave 25 minutes to, because you realise this really matters and you can learn something from this.

“Jeremy Hunt in his first interview as foreign secretary, we covered four or five subjects over some length, but you really needed to know.”

Asked for her favourite interview subjects, Sands told Total Politics she thought governors of the Bank of England have always made good radio but finally settled for an obvious but still impressive choice – “Obama was pretty good, I’ll live with that.“

Sands also rejected recent charges that her show has been dumbing down and squeezing out politics in favour of arts coverage and TV reviews.

She said, “The Today programme brand must remain as it is – we are a thoroughbred political programme. In three hours, at least two hours is pretty solid politics. You’re talking about one extra arts piece, but that’s what is picked up, because any change matters more [on Today] than anywhere else. No one asks Andrew Marr why he’s interviewed an arts person.”

Meanwhile as longstanding host Humphrys faces continuing criticism of his presenting style, Sands was adamant there are no plans for him to follow Eddie Maier and Chris Evans out of the door just yet.

"Everyone will decide when it seems right. And he above all will know when it feels right,” she said. “Each day, he bangs in, extremely curious, extremely engaged, fantastically interested in new subjects, new people, particularly real people. He’s very uninterested in his own celebrity.

"The overall purpose for him is pursuit of truth. As long as that remains an imperative and he’s enjoying it and he’s good, those are the criteria. From the mailbag, it’s clear he’s the listeners’ champion."

With the show’s top attack dog going nowhere for now, Sands’ biggest challenge lies in trying to engage a younger audience at the same time as keeping Brexit interesting.

Sands announced plans to launch a new Today programme podcast by the end of the of the year to expand its audience. On Brexit, she said things were moving at “at a glacial pace” – much to the dismay of some listeners.

"While we are there for every twist and turn, we know that not every listener shares our passion. It’s our main complaint, but I cannot and will not lay off the coverage. Ratings matter, but public service broadcasting matters more.”



About the author

Caroline Frost is a freelance entertainment journalist. She is chair of the Broadcasting Press Guild and former entertainment editor for HuffPost UK.

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