The dawn chorus
I’m up at 3:30am. I’ve laid out all my clothes in the bathroom the night before so I don’t disturb anyone. I live in Camden with my wife Nicolette, who’s a secondary school teacher. I’m at BBC Television Centre by 4am. I read all the newspapers at my desk and have a briefing with my producer about what we’re going to cover.
I’ve been Today’s business presenter for eight months. The advantage of a morning show is that we’ve got the whole of Asia and a bit of America happening while I’m asleep. Things change really fast – and often when we’re on air. This morning, we dump our main story on our 8:40 slot and put in a new one about people taking a major bank to court over their pension funds. Incredibly, we find the head of the local authority pension fund who agrees to be interviewed just 90 seconds before we go on air.
I do a 5:30 slot on morning news, and then Today’s main 15-minute business slot at 6:15. We then do at least three bulletins throughout the morning. All the companies make their announcements at 7am, which can be really problematic because I do a bulletin at 7:10. Often I have only four or five minutes to digest a 40-page press release, then write my piece and prepare for an interview. There’s no time even to talk to my producer. It can be quite tense taking on a company’s senior management in a combative interview about figures that they’ve known about for weeks and you have seen literally four minutes beforehand. You’re having to make very fast judgments about what you think is the important part of a story and you have to be able to back it editorially.
In between preparing for bulletins, I write a package for all the BBC radio networks because I’m the business journalist on call at this time in the morning. They call me up for guidance about any business news that comes out: whether it’s important and what the complicated numbers actually mean. For example, it can be difficult working out profits as companies present figures in so many different ways. In fact, you can often say the same company is making a loss, a small increase in profits or a massive increase in profits and all three would be correct… it just depends how you change your measure. I did one of those today.
At 9am, we have a debrief. Sometimes I stay in the office to work on other programmes, and other times I meet contacts in the City to get a feeling for trends, but today I get picked up by a car and taken to Lewisham Hospital where I do some background filming for Panorama. I’m making a programme about pensions and savings. There’s been a lot of concern, effort and money going into bailing people and companies out that have got into debt. But there are millions of people in Britain who haven’t got into debt and who have saved all their lives in bank accounts or pensions, who are saying, “I feel I’ve done all the right things with my life and yet I’ve been abandoned… I’m earning nothing on my bank account, my assets and my pension have halved, my house isn’t worth what it was and I didn’t do anything wrong here – how has this happened to me?”
I’m then off to meet the MP Frank Field, who’s the former Minister for Welfare Reform. He gives a very revealing interview about his time in government. He thinks that the financial crisis could result in civil disorder – that rioting in the streets is a possibility…
I head home at five. My wife always gets in later than me, so I tend to do the cooking. I’ll make a nice crab cake, or ridiculous things like Parmesan crisp salad. The problem with my cooking is that I like the novelty of making new dishes so I never get very good at any one dish because I’ve moved on before I’ve perfected it. I don’t drink at all during the week because of the hours, but I don’t drink much generally – two beers is plenty!
I go to bed at about nine and try to watch TV until ten. I’m getting around five hours’ sleep a night at the moment.
I catch a 6am flight to Spain to film a piece for Panorama about a woman who bought a house in Spain to retire to and can no longer afford it. We made the trip to interview the woman because one of the problems with filming anything to do with finance is that billions change hands and all you see is someone like me – a bald-headed man sitting at a desk touching buttons.
I spent 12 years with Adrian Chiles on Working Lunch and I was always looking for ways to make business more appealing and accessible. At the time we did some new things that are now part of television grammar, such as outside broadcast being done very quickly and cheaply with a mini-van. I don’t know anyone who wants to talk about pensions – they’re dull and complex – and yet they’re vital. If you watch a news programme on Afghanistan it’s important in a global sense, but if I talk to you about your pension, I could genuinely change your life and, if you make the wrong decision about your pension, you could ruin your finances for the rest of your life.
Five hours of sleep and I’m back in the Today studio for the morning bulletins. I work my way through four cups of coffee and – a BBC speciality – toast with the consistency of brick that appears every morning at five. Straight after the debrief, I have a meeting with a financial analyst to keep me abreast of what is going on in the City. I don’t do much ‘lunching’. To be honest, I’m just there for information so I would much prefer to sit down with a glass of water and find out whether someone would be a good guest for us. The way I do it is more efficient.
Then I go on to a ministerial briefing in preparation for a Panorama interview I’m doing a couple of hours later with the MP Rosie Winterton, the minister in charge of pensions reform. I’ve spent three weeks gathering evidence and complaints, so this is a key time for me to be able to place everything at the minister’s feet. I think it goes well. I finish about six and am home at seven. By this point in the week, the lack of sleep is starting to kick in. I’m too tired to watch Desperate Housewives, so I record it.
A different stage
This morning, I’m in the company of John Humphrys and Evan Davis. The main presenters tend to do two or three shifts a week. They’re usually in before me and they’re working very hard so there isn’t much chat before we go into the studio. The regulars are all very welcoming and kind – you might not get that impression from the outside because it seems quite a combative environment. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed at being on Today with people such as John, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of politics. He’s covered so many American elections and met so many presidents that when someone comes up in the newspaper you can actually ask him what they’re really like. Evan is great because he’s a huge source of information. It’s a fascinating place to work.
After the show, I write my regular weekend column for the BBC website. I like to take the stories I’ve covered over the week and give them a different angle. I love writing my column because a typical radio package is about 40 seconds long. It’s nice to take a more interesting, relaxed and reflective view.
I went to Hampstead comprehensive in Cricklewood, then studied economics at Kent University. Ninety-eight per cent of people who did economics at Kent became accountants, but I wanted to be an actor. Acting taught me how important it is that you understand how others see you, so I made an objective assessment of my skills and decided that I was quite good, but not brilliant. I didn’t have a lot of great roles and I ended up doing some very hard work in the Midlands with a touring company with a guy who was in his 40s, and I looked at him and I thought, “I’m not sure I’m a lot better than you and I don’t want to be doing this when I’m 40”. So I got out.
I wrote a book about the history of theatre and the publisher liked the way it was researched and asked me to write a book in eight weeks for the 1987 General Election. It had to be called Political Rhubarb but I could more or less write anything I wanted. So my writing started like that. I went to see The Late Show…and I burst into the office of its editor, Michael Jackson, and said, “I want a job and I’ll work for four weeks for nothing to show you how good I am”. I started and tried to make myself indispensable. As a researcher I worked for That’s Life, Watchdog and Newsnight and a couple of investigative specials.
Because I had an economics degree and had written about money and politics, I left the BBC to work as a reporter for BSB’s business programme. It was a very interesting time around the end of socialism and I did a lot of touring of Eastern Europe (and increasingly Asia) talking about the big changeovers. Then I was asked to come back to the BBC and five of us ran the business unit at World Service television. Then I started presenting breakfast news on BBC1 and an hour-long business show. From there I went to Working Lunch, which I only left last year.
Seeing both sides
Sometimes I do my Today slots from a trading floor to add a bit of an atmosphere to my bulletins if there’s a big event happening. Because people no longer shout and wave their hands at the Stock Exchange, today I visit BGC partners – a company where the traders still genuinely get up and scream at each other as millions of pounds are changing hands.
I think watching the stock market was once a spectator sport for a lot of people, but in the last 12 months, the market has lost 30 per cent of its money. That’s horrific because it represents people’s savings… even those who don’t own shares might have a pension (company or private) and it’s their future that went up in smoke this year.
It’s also important to reflect the other side…that there are a lot of people who don’t have shares and can’t afford a house and who are actually rather happy that house prices are falling because suddenly they can buy a home. There’s a view that the ecnomic dowturn may make people less consumerist and money-grabbing. Journalists tend to make judgements about whether it’s good news for people or not and we shouldn’t. As a journalist it’s very important that you don’t take sides but that you just report.
I’m then back at the Beeb to do a pilot for a new television quiz show, where I’m one of several presenters who are experts in their fields. The whole thing’s all in a state of flux at the moment, but it’s a good show so I’m very keen for that to work.
I’m a freelancer so I have the constant dilemma of worrying when I think I haven’t got enough work, and thinking “I shouldn’t be working so hard” when I have. I’m aware that more and more people are turning to business editors and journalists to make sense of the current economic crisis, so I have to be out all day learning about all the important issues involved in order to be able to make snap judgements within four minutes at seven in the morning. So although I finish in the studio by 9:30, the Today programme is really a full-time job.
I try to keep fit so, if I get time later, I might have a boxercise lesson. Or I might practise the piano. Then again, I might just sleep…
The Today programme is on BBC Radio 4 weekdays from 6-9am and Saturdays 7-9am
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