The editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme has said John Humphrys is “the person you want when you want to hold power to account”, describing her female presenters as “better on fashion”.
Sarah Sands, who became editor of the programme early last year, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Feedback programme on Friday to discuss recent online criticism of Today with presenter Roger Bolton.
Humphrys, who has presented Today for 30 years and is currently the BBC’s fourth highest paid journalist on £400,000-£409,999, was described by some Feedback listeners as “rudely sarcastic” and “boorish”.
Sands said: “What he has particularly is a quality of holding power to account and in the turbulent times that we’re in, that couldn’t be more important.
“We have five presenters, they all have different strengths. I have said that on the whole, Mishal [Husain] and Martha [Kearney] might be slightly better on fashion, I will certainly give you that,” she added, laughing.
One listener whose views were aired on the Feedback programme said: “I’m afraid it’s John Humphrys that annoys me most.
“I have found that he talks over his more knowledgeable interviewees and becomes impolite, rudely sarcastic, vitriolic, and I found it very unpleasant to continue listening to him.”
Another listener said: “… I was not getting from his interviews, in comparison with his colleagues, what I wanted from a political or news broadcast first thing in the morning.”
A third told Feedback: “The boorish and ignorant manner John Humphrys chose to interview the Rwandan development board was embarrassing and made me feel ashamed.”
In response, Sands said: “I can produce equal evidence on this, so I have some messages here, one that says: ‘Wishing all the best to a most excellent, devoted and compassionate presenter, John Humphrys’.
“Another says: ‘It’s a delight to listen to, you’re my knowledge and information and the truth’.
“All of us have good days and bad days,” she added.
Hayley Barlow, head of communications at Channel 4 News, was among the women who tweeted about Sands’s comments.
Alongside a tweet from Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow about his colourful ties and socks, she said: “Puzzled by editor of Radio 4’s Today programme suggesting her female hosts are ‘better on fashion’ while John Humphrys is ‘person you want to hold power to account’.”
Food author and columnist Diana Henry said Sands’s comments were “quite gob-smacking”, tweeting: “To say that Mishal and Martha would be ‘rather better on fashion’. I’d be shit on fashion, and I’m a woman. What century is she living in?”
Bolton also raised the point that the Today programme lost 130,000 listeners last year.
Sands said: “What you’re seeing is a more polarised news landscape than I’ve ever known in 30 years in news, and an increasing intolerance for views that aren’t shared…
“The particular challenge for the Today programme is that it has to be for everyone and the trouble is that people are hearing views that they don’t agree with, because we’re having to represent all shades of opinion.”
She added: “The Today programme is absolutely the lightning rod for what’s going on in the country. It’s where all issues are being played out and so people are attacking it hard, because they’re angry and they’re polarised.”
“People are finding it very hard to tell the difference between opinion and fact,” she added.
Sands said that she was trying to feature more world news in the programme and “expand the horizons of news”.
She added that she was “future-proofing” the programme by creating a Today podcast aimed at younger listeners which would be hosted by different presenters.
However when Bolton asked twice whether she anticipated making any changes to Today’s team of five presenters in the near future, she replied both times that “they’re a first rate team”.