Evan Davis, the BBC‘s economics editor until his elevation to co-anchor of Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme, is an instantly recognisable figure, known to audiences on radio and television alike. His previous role brought with it frequent appearances on Today as an expert correspondent, so Davis will be a reassuring signing for the programme’s six million listeners. But joining an elite team doesn’t necessary confer equal status with the star players, and divisions between Today presenters are as marked as ever.
Today may well set the nation’s news agenda in a way its rivals on television cannot, but it has its critics. When Channel 4 Radio sensationally launched a prototype rival, ‘broadcast’online and on the now defunct digital station OneWord, it crystallised perennial grumblings about the middle-classness of Today, promising a less Home Counties-centric alternative.
Now, the BBC has plenty to offer those audiences who can’t or won’t stomach the depth and rigour of Today’s more considered journalism, including the fleeting bulletins on Radio 1 and 1Xtra, and the 60-second news bites of BBC Three, but many of Radio 4’s listeners would have been justified in fearing their essential cultural conservatism was about to be challenged by new voices ‘representing’ethnic and regional minorities. So far those fears have been unfounded.
They will consider Davis, born in Surrey, educated at Oxford and Harvard, a comforting, safe, pair of hands. A distinguished journalist with an impressive track record, he is an accomplished broadcaster, cool and authoritative in live situations and endowed with considerable ability to present economics in simple enough terms for the layperson to assimilate advanced concepts with essential detail.
However, in replacing Carolyn Quinn, he unwittingly deals a blow to diversity in the presenter line-up – simply by being male. This is unusual in today’s BBC, where white middle-class maleness may be a considerable disadvantage to some. Today is, after all, the programme that considered Peter Hobday too gentlemanly to fit in and replaced him in 1996.
As Davis settles in to a 12-month contract, the BBC’s press office describes him as ‘on rotation alongside current regulars John Humphrys, Sarah Montague, James Naughtie and Edward Stourton”. However, equality is not the programme’s strongest suit. The real stars of the show are those who attract the ‘grumpy old men’label, Humphrys and Naughtie, and whose Celtic origins belie their own assumed ‘middle-Englishness”.
Until Sue MacGregor retired from the programme, she was routinely sidelined by successive editors despite her similar length of service to Humphrys, and despite Naughtie’s belated arrival in 1994. Rarely did she get the plum ‘set-piece’interviews which often follow the seven o’clock and eight o’clock news bulletins, and which traditionally go to the heavyweights.
That might seem trivial to casual observers, but it means sitting quietly through the long interviews with party leaders, days before a general election, watching while a top politician is reeled in, wriggling like a fish, over the day’s big story and having to forego the chance to quiz the Chancellor the morning after the budget.
Balance of power
Neither Quinn nor Winnifred Robinson before her managed to dent the Humphrys-Naughtie axis, but Evan Davis might just do it. In his first week, he scored two such set-piece interviews in post-news prime slots: an admirable achievement for an established B-lister, let alone a beginner.
But wait. These were both financial items, at a time when banking has assumed an unaccustomed importance – one that we should all hope is fast overtaken by other matters before we end up paying for it in slumping property values and foreclosed mortgages.
So while Evan may be the perfect man for the job when it concerns the intricacies of international finance, he might not be the natural first choice over more usual fare, especially if he isn’t perceived as nasty enough. Yet, and with regret, of course, it is worth noting that neither Humphrys nor Naughtie will last forever, any more than the politicians they take on. In time, the succession may well fall to Davis or someone very like him.
Dr Guy Starkey is author of Balance and Bias in Journalism: Representation, Regulation & Democracy (Palgrave, 2007)