Radio 4’s Today – It’s a visual thing

I’ve stared into the eyes of the inquisitor-in-chief. For five minutes earlier this morning, all the separated me from John Humphrys were a couple of microphones and the desk from which BBC Radio 4 broadcasts its flagship Today.

He treated me gently. I’m not a government minister and I don’t qualify as a ‘guilty party’ in the great High Speed 2 debate. That’s probably just as well.

Nevertheless, anyone appearing on Today needs their wits about them. The programme is serious. It sets the day’s agenda. That said, there is room for humour. Presenter Justin Webb forgot what day of the week it was (only Monday, I’m afraid) as he wrapped up an interview about chess with Dominic Lawson.

Then it was High Speed 2. And High Speed 3, the mooted trans-Pennine route that promises much reduced journey times between the great cities of Northern England. Or at least between Manchester and Leeds. Sheffield is sometimes mentioned but I’ve heard little about that other great city, Bradford.

Humphrys suggested that high-speed rail was not needed with today’s modern telecommunications. Business could be done over the phone, he argued. Certainly it can. But we humans still need to see people. To eyeball them. It’s how we tell if someone’s honest, above board, telling the truth. Radio interviews can be done ‘down the line’ and they often are. Indeed that was how Humphrys had earlier quizzed HSR report author David Higgins.

However, the best interviews are done face-to-face. It exposes a wider range of emotions. You know if someone’s looking at their notes all the time. You can see if they look evasive. It works the other way too. An interviewee can see if their arguments are making sense – can see if they’re winning.

It might be radio but it’s all very visual.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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