In four years’ time Jeff Randall is planning a gap year. He is going to stop working for a whole 12 months, watch some sport, travel, play some golf and enjoy life.
But until then, he will be working six days a week writing two 1,200 word columns a week as The Daily Telegraph’s editor-at-large, presenting his BBC Radio Five Live show, Jeff Randall’s Weekend Business, every Sunday and, as of last week, he will also host Jeff Randall Live, Sky News‘s new weekly business discussion show.
‘I’m about to be massively over-stretched,’says the 52-year-old. ‘But that’s how I like it.”
During the show, Randall mixes interviews with industry ‘big-wigs”, discussion and, whenever a big story breaks, live news coverage.
‘Sky experimented with programmes that took Sky News off the news agenda and clearly Sky didn’t like it,’says Randall, adding that Sky News is ‘very committed’to the idea that viewers shouldn’t have to wait 15 minutes while he chats to a ‘big-wig’to find out what’s happening.
‘Whatever’s going on, they want to feel that they have one wire plugged into the news agenda,’he continues. ‘If I’m talking to ‘some business big-wig’and a major story breaks, I will say ‘Sorry, I’m going to stop the interview here because we’ve got some news coming in, a man’s gone berserk with a gun and there are details to come’. And then it’s back to the interview.”
The first ‘big-wig’from Randall’s bulging contacts book on the first show was Marks and Spencer chief executive Stuart Rose – who Randall cites as the ‘man who got me into this mess in the first place”.
It was Rose who suggested the idea for a show while having dinner with Randall and Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth. Randall told them over dinner that too much broadcast news is influenced by politicians, in situations where business people could give a better answer. James Murdoch, CEO of BSkyB, who joined the group later that evening, asked him to do something about it.
‘In British broadcasting, you’re up to your ears in politicians and politics,’says Randall. ‘Business people are equally, if not more, important and it’s very rare that anything is filtered through the prism of business.”
Randall, who spent six years as the BBC’s first business editor, believes the ‘intellectual calibre of business journalists is generally much higher than in other sorts of journalism”. Some news organisations don’t value their business journalists and many of the reporters themselves simply see it a step towards another role.’Well, to be a business journalist here [at the Telegraph] is a very sought-after position,’he says. ‘At other organisations, that’s not necessarily true. I mean, for broadcasters, business journalism hasn’t always been a priority and a lot of their business journalists are only there because they can’t get jobs elsewhere and when they do, they’re off.”
Randall says this applies ‘to some extent’to the BBC: ‘Some business journalists at the BBC, see it as a way-station to progress their careers, they can’t wait to get out and do something else like politics or foreign affairs, whereas certainly on The Times and the Telegraph, business journalism is hugely valued. The city editor of The Sunday Times sits next to the editor at big swanky dos whenever the proprietor is in town.”
Randall says he is often asked if Rupert Murdoch ever told him what to write when he was business editor at The Sunday Times, and ‘absolutely not’is the answer he always gives. ‘But he did call me up from time to time and say ‘Hey Jeff, what’s going on, give me the gossip’,’he adds.
Now he’s working for Murdoch again, does he see any of his influence over the output of Sky News similar to that which people accuse him of having over his other titles, notably The Sun?
‘That criticism – I’m not going to comment on it – but it absolutely exists. I don’t think Rupert would deny that he is heavily involved in The Sun,’says Randall.
Sky News, however, is ‘completely different”, Randall argues, pointing to the fact that it is regulated by Ofcom: ‘I don’t think even Murdoch’s most dire enemies would ever say that Sky News is influenced by him, it’s simply not,’he says. ‘But that’s not the same thing as the main shareholder saying ‘I want more of this or less of that’.
The launch of online news services such as The Daily Telegraph’s Telegraph TV, which includes news, commentary and opinion, shows how newspapers, unhampered by the requirements of impartiality upon traditional broadcasters, are developing a more opinionated approach to news. ‘The game has changed and I think you are going to see more opinionated TV but not the traditional broadcastersâ€¦ actually, you’re starting to get biased TV but the newspapers are doing it.
‘Pretty soon, at the other end of the spectrum, you’re going to get Guardian TV. Great, love it – I’d watch that as much as I’d watch Telegraph TV, if only to know what I don’t think. Sometimes it’s enjoyable to read something you can’t stand. I know my column drives people crazy because they insult me on the website.”
He is proud of not ‘betraying anyone’s confidence’during his career and says he is happiest when he is breaking stories and explaining the City to readers and viewers.
He is at his lowest when being responsible for staff, he says, something he learned the hard way as the founding editor of Sunday Business (now The Business).
This partly explains why Randall didn’t, as many had expected, take up a newspaper business or City editor position when he left the BBC in 2005. Prior to the BBC he had performed that role at The Sunday Times for six years – the longest he’s stayed at any job – and had left feeling exhausted. Now he simply wants to meet people, find out what’s going on and write stories, nothing more than ‘being a reporter”.
He was offered two ‘excellent jobs’on national newspapers. He declined to say where, claiming it would be unfair on the people who have the job now and make them look as if they were second choice. He did say one was editing ‘a very big part’of a paper, while the other was deputy editor. But he was ‘absolutely not tempted,’he says.
‘It was terribly flattering and I turned them down,’he adds ‘I made a decision at the end of Sunday Business not to manage a large-scale operation again. What I’m interested in is journalism.”
He says that if Ian MacGregor, the editor of The Sunday Telegraph, and his staff were bowled over with chronic diarrhoea, then he would step in: ‘But it wouldn’t be a career decision,’he says.
‘At Sunday Business, I started to get jealous of my journalists – no one asked me to lunch – I missed that daily banter with the people who matter.”