Briefing Notes: BBC Radio 4, Today Programme

Ritchie Cogan
Ritchie Cogan 29th July 2014

IBT off the record briefing

Alexis explained the role of the planning desk – it gets a first look at stories being pitched by outsiders and by BBC correspondents. He receives a huge number of proposals and only has time to scan them quickly to decide whether he’s interested or not. There is no easy way of saying what will interest him – but he is looking for something that surprises or tells him something he doesn’t already know. Does it feel new?

The programme has been affected by cuts and therefore everyone is very hard pressed – they don’t have time to investigate stories to see whether or not they stand up – so they often end up taking instant decisions.

Alexis is personally interested in malaria and landmines but he freely admitted that others on the programme will not necessarily be interested in the same issues as him.

He is always on the look out for stories with strong characters so that the audience can get to know someone at the heart of a story.

The BBC developing world correspondents, Mike Wooldridge and David Loyn also pitch to him. Today is lucky as it is high in the pecking order and BBC correspondents invariably want to do stories for Today if they can, so they will often pitch to Today first before taking the idea elsewhere. Some correspondents also pitch directly to the editor, Ceri Thomas or the deputy editor, Jasmin Buttar, but it is hard to get them to answer emails.

NGOs can pitch direct to the planning desk – see list of contact names and emails below – or to a correspondent. If it’s a specialist subject like an environmental story, it’s probably better to pitch to the specialist reporter like Roger Harrabin. Alexis is happy to be copied in on emails to correspondents.

There is not one person on Today who decides whether to run a story or not – the individual editors have a degree of autonomy. There is a key morning meeting at 11.30 every day which looks at the following day’s programme. The planning desk will hand over stories to the day editor who works from 10.30-8.30pm (on the following day’s show) and s/he will hand over to the night editor who works from 8.30pm-6am when the programme goes on air. The night editor has the final say and may spike a story which the others have liked or may change the focus or approach.

The planning desk has a budget to commission stories from BBC correspondents around the world and it also commissions reports from Today’s own 5 reporters, which include Mike Thomson who covers the foreign affairs brief.

Alexis says that the quality of press releases coming from NGOs is generally good. He likes press releases that have lots of information in; he’s less keen on ones which talk about campaigns. He agreed that the BBC generally has an aversion to NGO campaigns although they are sympathetic to NGO appeals. He also thinks one of the strengths of NGOs is that they have good expertise and experts out in the field who can give first person testimony.

One of the recent achievements of Today has been its coverage of Liberia. The decision to send a presenter to Liberia and look at a country in Africa which was not in the news was taken as a result of a conversation with Save the Children. The original plan had been to go to Ethiopia but that didn’t work out and Liberia was chosen instead. The first trip involved John Humphrys and attracted criticism for the tone of his reporting which Alexis defended as reflecting the views of a large part of the Today audience. Save the Children provided a lot of help with the first trip and there have been two subsequent trips; two more trips are planned. Today has decided to twin with a village in Liberia which also attracted a certain amount of criticism. Audience feedback to the Liberia project has been largely positive.

Today does take criticism on board – for example the fact that it does not have many women appearing on the show as experts has resulted in a producer being given the task of updating the show’s database and finding new experts, especially but not exclusively women.

Alexis gave a couple of examples of stories which were commissioned and the reasons why.

Mike Thomson did an investigation into children in India working on low wages producing goods for companies like Marks and Spencer and Tesco. The story was pitched to Mike by Anti Slavery. Alexis thought it was strong but he also liked the fact that it required the BBC to do some journalism themselves and Mike ended up making two trips to India. Today really got behind the story and eventually broadcast a 14 minute piece which Anti Slavery were very happy with. The relationship with the NGO worked well.

Alexis also spoke about a story which had been on earlier in the day when a reporter in Pakistan, Tulip Mazumdar, filed a story about women in arranged marriages left behind without their husbands and children. This story had been pitched to BBC Impact, a special unit run by Mark Perrow which has its own budget to do stories that can have maximum impact by running across a number of BBC outlets.

Today had the first run of Tulip’s report but they are generally happy to share with other outlets that are on at the same time for example Breakfast and Newsday.

Studio discussions – these also come through the Planning desk and if you have suggestions for suitable experts then let Alexis know. They are usually looking for opposing views on an issue of the day or something more quirky and offbeat. Each studio discussion usually has a clear question which is being addressed. They are trying to feature more women as experts, following criticism from Broadcast magazine and City University. A producer on Today is currently building up their database with some new names so let her know if you have suggestions – it’s Clare Thorp.

Alexis spoke about Thoughtfor the Day, which comes out of the Religion/Ethics team in Salford, and the business news on Today which comes from Simon Haymer’s team.

He talked us through how the running order works – the first hour of the show is mainly about business news and quick factual updates on the main stories of the day, usually single interviews and short packages and Yesterday in Parliament. The 7-7.30 slot is when they start interviewing key players including Ministers and running longer packages from correspondents. 7.30 will be something on the lead story of the day. 7.40 will be something more textured, maybe about the Arts. 7.50 – this is the lead slot apart from 8.10 so it will take the main story of the day. 8 is the bulletin. 8.10 is the big interview.

There was a discussion about the fact that only highlights of each programme go online but Alexis said that reporters often audioboo a piece so that it can be circulated via social media. The BBC is generally happy for its reports to be distributed in this way provided that it is acknowledged that they originate with the BBC. The only problem arises is if there is a rights issue – usually with music or sports.

There was also a discussion about whether Today should be using more indigenous reporters in its international coverage – for example from Liberia. Alexis said there was a place for both but they will be using more World Service reporters on Today as a result of reductions in the numbers of foreign correspondents and the fact that there is now much closer collaboration between BBC News and the World Service. The Today team sits next to the Newsday team now that both are in New Broadcasting House.

The audience for Today is higher than ever – the peak audience is at 7.40 and people typically listen for 40 minutes. The audience has been described as ‘middle England’ and its average age is 52.

Alexis was asked how the programme viewed NGOs and he said that sometimes NGOs will be the story and in the past when they tried to get NGOs to take part in a discussion about whether there were too many DEC appeals, the NGOs chose not to participate. He was surprised by that decision.

He was also asked how he would like to see the programme change in the next few years. He said he would like it to be less ‘fuddy duddy’ and for there to be more interaction between the presenters. On some days it feels very formal.

Contact names and emails Today Planning desk BBC Impact Today database of contacts Business news for Today programme

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