It is a sign of how revered Radio 4’s Today programme is that Government ministers being advised not to appear on it itself makes the news. That reverence seems to be evaporating.
Boris Johnson’s director of communications, Lee Cain, has told colleagues to ignore the show, branding it a “waste of time”.
Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s top adviser, likewise told staff he will not tune in to Today “unless they change the format and actually start explaining subjects in a serious way.”
Channel 4’s Head of News Dorothy Byrne has also weighed in, describing the show as “comfy, metropolitan, middle class… like accidentally walking into a knitting shop in Bournemouth”.
Impact: The blacklisting of the programme may partly be down to personal preference. Powerful people often decide which media to engage with based on their personal consumption habits.
At first glance, it is hard to understand why politicians would avoid Today, with its seven million listeners.
That extraordinary reach should insulate it from many trends transforming the media and consequently the balance of power between journalists and the rich and powerful. As audiences become smaller and more fragmented, politicians and executives no longer see interviews as a “must do”. The risks of engagement remain just as great, while the rewards have diminished.
Instead, they can take their message to the public via social media or appear on podcasts where they are given the space to discuss a topic in depth rather than in soundbites, without pesky hacks questioning their pay or expenses.
Response: As Cummings’ comments suggest, Today’s problems are self-inflicted: about the quality of the content, not the quantity of the audience. Conscious that it is funded by the licence fee, the programme appears to be suffering an identity crisis.
It has sought to broaden its audience through a magazine-style format, with longer and more social-interest stories in peak slots, along with location-based pieces, many from universities and aimed at students.
Far from attracting new listeners, these changes may make the existing ones wonder why they continue tuning in. It is as if The Economist started running pieces on the Kardashians.
This morning, the programme responded to Byrne’s comments by sending a reporter to ask the owner of a knitting shop in Bournemouth whether the comparison was fair. The reporter’s takeaway from the conversation was even an activity as apparently cosy and unthreatening as crochet could be “edgy” and “political”.
He did not draw the obvious conclusion: that to remain relevant, Today should stick to its knitting.