Magazine article The Spectator

Diary: Sarah Sands

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary: Sarah Sands

Article excerpt

Next month, the Today programme marks its 60th anniversary, so I have been mugging up on the archives. If there is a lasting characteristic, I reckon it is curiosity about how the world works. After four months in this job, my sense of wonder is undimmed that global experts on everything from nuclear warheads to rare plants can be conjured on to the show. Political debate is at the heart of Today, but it is knowledge rather than opinion that I prize most, and even the most avid political interviewers have a hinterland. They also understand the cumulative effect of unsocial working hours. The great Sue MacGregor, who is chairing a reunion of Today old hands as part of our anniversary programme, reminds me that she once fell asleep while interviewing Michael Heseltine.

I recite the Reithian principles of educating, informing and entertaining like morning prayer. I didn't go to one of the grand universities that can no longer appear on CVs at the BBC, and so regard Today as a news version of Open University, an educational utopia. Some commentators have objected to the 30 seconds we devote each day to a puzzle, set by GCHQ and other brainboxes. It is there to celebrate mathematics and to remind us that problem-solving and decoding run deep in the nation's past and its future. A tech entrepreneur told me it has become the perfect start to her day.

There has also been grumbling that science, arts and culture feature more in the programme than they used to. I refer back to our origins. The late Robin Day, who conceived it, was steeped in politics, but one of his first ideas was for a daily item on an arts first night. Coming from newspapers, I find it natural to mix subjects. A New York Times journalist asked me just before I started whether all its listeners were in hospitals or prisons, because those subjects always led its news. A daily show must be familiar but not predictable. Real news needs to advance and expand our knowledge.

The team teases me for having a fondness for ambassadors, but the best provide the kind of enlightened conversation that our listeners appreciate. Some come with large entourages, others, such as the Norwegian ambassador to London, Mona Juul, slip into the studio alone. The hefty entourages tend to come with business folk or with Jonathan Sacks for Thought for the Day, two very different types of security needs.

So far as domestic politicians are concerned, I understand that the former chancellor George Osborne always used to bring the biggest crowd, a detail which plays to his recent Don Corleone image. …

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