Saturday, 13 December 2008

Night of the long knives at 'Today' programme

The truly shocking news  yesterday (at least for Radio 4 aficionados) was that Edward Stourton has been sacked from the Today programme. Apparently, he's being given the push to make way for Justin Webb, who's joining the programme after his stint as the BBC's North American editor. It seems it was a shock for Stourton too, who first heard the news in a phone call from a journalist.

I may be slightly biased, as Stourton was a contemporary of mine at Cambridge. We both read English there in the mid-70s and I vaguely remember him from university lectures, though otherwise our paths rarely crossed: he was an ex-Ampleforth minor aristocrat studying at Trinity, while I was a shy Methodist grammar-school boy at a much less illustrious college. But he comes across as a decent and likable person, and his warm, thoughtful tones make a pleasant change from John Humphrys' irritable harangue when you're getting up in the morning. And it sounds as though he's been badly treated by the BBC.
As for Justin Webb, I admit to some ambivalence about his appointment. On the one hand, he's been a useful opponent of the fashionable anti-Americanism that infects British public life. And at one time he was our main source of updates on US politics. But he didn't have a good election: he confidently called the election for McCain back in the summer and he's got a couple of important stories wrong since (the most recent example was giving far too much credence to ill-founded internet rumours of early liberal disillusionment with Obama).

What's more, in the age of the internet, it could be argued that the role of the US correspondent, with the job of interpreting America to the British public, has become rather redundant. Why listen to Justin's slightly second-hand commentary, when you can watch MSNBC online or read the latest news and views at Huffington Post? Rather than looking for another Brit to replace Webb, perhaps the BBC should follow the Guardian's example and appoint a top US journalist to give an American view on what's happening across the pond? 

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