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Today programme

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This article refers to the BBC Today programme, for the NBC Today Show see The Today Show


Today, commonly referred to as the Today programme in order to avoid ambiguity, is BBC Radio 4's long-running early morning news and current affairs programme, which is now broadcast from 6am to 9am from Monday to Friday and from 7am to 9am on Saturdays. It consists of regular news bulletins, serious political interviews and in-depth reports.

Today was launched on the BBC's Home Service on October 28, 1957 as a programme of "topical talks" to give listeners a morning alternative to light music. It was initially broadcast as two 20-minute editions slotted in around the exisiting news bulletins and religious items. In 1963 it became part of the BBC's Current Affairs department, and it started to become more news-oriented. The two editions also became longer, and by the end of the 1960s it had become a single two-hour long programme that enveloped the news bulletins and the religious talk that had become "Thought For The Day". It was cut back to two parts in 1976-1978, but was swiftly returned to its former position.

Jack de Manio became its principal presenter in 1958. He became notorious for on-air gaffes. In 1970 the programme format was changed so that there were two presenters each day. De Manio left in 1971, and by 1975 the team of John Timpson and Brian Redhead was well established. This arrangement lasted until Timpson's retirement in 1986, when John Humphrys and Sue MacGregor joined the rotating list of presenters. After Redhead's untimely death on 23 January 1994, James Naughtie became a member of the team. Sarah Montague replaced MacGregor in 2002. Edward Stourton and Carolyn Quinn are also presenters.

The show reached a peak in terms of influence in the 1980s, when prime minister Margaret Thatcher was a noted listener. Ministers thus became keen to go on the programme and be heard by their leader; but the tough, confrontational interviewing style they encountered led to accusations that the BBC was biased. Criticism was particularly directed against Redhead, who was widely seen as being on the left. The style of the male interviewers was analysed and contrasted with that of McGregor, who was alleged to be giving subjects an easier time. The "big 8.10" interview that follows the 8 o'clock news remains an important institution of British politics to this day.

Today regularly holds an end-of-year poll. For many years this took the form of write-in votes for the Man and Woman of the Year. This was stopped after an episode of organised vote-rigging in 1990, but was soon revived as a telephone vote for a single Personality of the Year. A further episode of vote-rigging, in favour of Tony Blair in 1996, forced the programme makers to consider more innovative polling questions.

Since 1970 the programme has featured Thought for the Day, in which a speaker reflects on topical issues from a theological viewpoint. Notable contributors to the slot include Rabbi Lionel Blue and Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford. Over the years the slot has featured an increasing number of speakers from religions other than Christianity, though Christian speakers remain in a substantial majority.

Today found itself in the midst of controversy again in 2002, when its editor Rod Liddle wrote a column in The Guardian that was extremely critical of the Countryside Alliance. He eventually resigned from his post on Today.

In Summer 2003, the Today programme once again found itself at the centre of allegations of political bias, this time against a Labour government. The controversy arose after Today broadcast a report by its correspondent Andrew Gilligan. The report alleged that a dossier the British Government had produced to convince the British public of the need to invade Iraq was deliberately exaggerated, and that the government had known this prior to publishing it. Gilligan's anonymous source for the claim was Dr David Kelly, a key adviser on biological weapons who had worked in Iraq. In the furore that followed Gilligan's report, David Kelly's name became public and he was forced to appear before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Shortly afterwards he committed suicide. In the ensuing public inquiry (the Hutton Inquiry) that reported in January 2004, the BBC was heavily criticised. This led to the resignation of the BBC's Chairman Gavyn Davies and Director-General (equivalent to Chief Executive) Greg Dyke. Andrew Gilligan also resigned.

Journalist and historian Peter Hennessy has asserted in several books that one of the tests that the commander of a British nuclear-missile submarine must use to determine whether the UK has been the target of a nuclear attack (in which case he has sealed orders which may authorise him to fire his nuclear missiles in retalliation) is to listen for the presence of Today on Radio 4's frequencies. If a certain number of days pass without the programme being broadcast, that is to be taken as evidence that the envelope may be opened. The true conditions are of course secret, and Hennessy has never revealed his sources for this story, leading Paul Donovan, author of a book about Today, to express some scepticism about it. However, the longwave signal of Radio 4 is capable of penetrating to depths where submarines normally operate.

References

  • Paul Donovan: All Our Todays: Forty Years of Radio 4's "Today" Programme; London, Jonathan Cape, 1997; ISBN 0224043587 (revised paperback edition is ISBN 009928037X)
  • Peter Hennessy: Muddling Through: Power, Politics and the Quality of Government in Postwar Britain; London, Victor Gollancz, 1996; ISBN 057506361
  • Peter Hennessy: The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War; London, Allen Lane the Penguin Press, 2002; ISBN 0713996269

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