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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 February, 2005, 11:31 GMT
Is Today getting too personal?
By Kevin Marsh
Editor, Today programme

All of Today's presenters have at some stage been accused of letting their own views show. Fair criticism? No, says the programme's editor - but he understands why some listeners hold that view.

Sarah Montague in the Today studio
Today presenters are accused of revealing their own views on air

Do Today presenters let their own views show? The short answer is no. But not all listeners see it that way.

The job of Today presenters is the same as it always has been.

It's the job that the former greats of broadcasting - Hardcastle, Day, Redhead - also set out to do. To ask the questions the listeners would ask if they had the chance.

The problem, of course, is that in an audience of 6.3 million, no two Today listeners would want exactly the same questions asked... and we can't ask them all.

Polite but challenging

So it's the presenters' job to find the questions that really test an argument or a policy. And that's a question of judgement.

It's the presenters' duty - and that of the editor and the production team - to use their background knowledge, the BBC's research and their skill and experience to prepare and carry out a well informed interview that is polite, fair and impartial but also challenging; and one which produces some answers.

A Today 0810 interview - usually the big interview of the morning - takes many hours of preparation.

The presenters have in front of them several pages of background, facts, quotations from previous speeches and interviews - all the material they will need to test the interviewee's argument rather in the way a barrister would challenge a witness in court.

Today programme editor Kevin Marsh
There are some issue on which... sections of the audience have firmly entrenched views and for them no contrary view is possible
Kevin Marsh
The presenter will also have talked through the interview with a producer the previous day and with the editor immediately beforehand.

Like a barrister, a presenter has to be able to grasp and question any side of any argument.

Of course, planning and preparation can only take you so far.

A live interview is a dynamic thing; the conversation will always take unexpected turns with unexpected or revealing responses; the interviewee might try to stone-wall and the presenter has to respond.

That will mean thinking fast, adapting all the preparation to the new situation - and those new questions will have to be formulated on the spot.

It will also mean using the full range of interviewing techniques; straight questions, devil's advocacy - and putting a counter proposition to an interviewee to test his or her response.

And it is this that listeners often complain is "the presenter letting his/her own views show".

Low tolerance

James Naughtie interviews Tony Blair for Today
Hot political issues are one of the main areas where bias is claimed

Most listeners, of course, understand that this technique is part of the grammar of a testing interview - interviewees certainly do.

But there are some issue on which the audience is sharply divided and on which their tolerance of interviewers can be low; Europe, immigration, the Middle East - on all of these, sections of the audience have firmly entrenched views and for them no contrary view is possible.

Hearing such a contrary view put as a proposition in an interview is bias, the personal view of the presenter.

There is little any of us can do to re-assure listeners who hear bias - we can never convince those who suspect our motives that those motives are honest.

The only protection we have is in our professionalism and our knowledge that we have prepared well for a fair and unbiased exchange.

And I have to say, that vast majority of our listeners understand - and appreciate - that we do that.



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