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Interview: Sarah Sands, author, former editor

13 November 2020

‘The BBC’s unwritten dictum is “Better be right than first.” It fears stirring things up’

When you edit a newspaper, so long as you are not breaking the law, it is your own business what you print. When you edit the Today programme, it’s everybody’s business. In a sense, newspapers have power without responsibility, and the BBC has responsibility without power. I enjoyed both.

I think you certainly have to watch the Westminster club in broadcasting. When I hear presenters saying things like: “As you and I know . . .”, I pounce. John Humphrys was particularly good at asking what he thought listeners wanted to know rather than the insider question. I think the media can bounce politicians into actions. This Government is rather digging in against this.

It can be perilous to have too many people in mind when you’re broadcasting. On the Today programme, I always thought I had to appeal to both the Telegraph and The Guardian. The one person I did keep in mind was David Blunkett. He once spoke movingly about being blind and alone as a child, and depending on what was then the Home Service, now Radio 4, for his education. I always felt we should be the best that is said and thought in the world for the sake of people like David Blunkett.

If there’s one aim I have in all my writing or journalism, it is that I should impart something worth while.

I think the fragmentation of journalism now is fascinating. Some of the political websites are first rate, and the BBC is suddenly competing for young audiences with TikTok. I’m interested in how much the newspapers still dominate the news agenda, even though they are meant to be in decline.

Serious, public-service journalism will continue to compete with social media; but it has to hold its nerve. The BBC’s unwritten dictum is “Better be right than first.” It’s also fearful of stirring things up, which makes it seem a bit stately compared with social media. But the value of being a trusted source is high, and its impartiality is still its existential purpose.

I arrived on the Today programme as a hothead. With Thought for the Day, I noticed that people of faith complained it was not religious enough, and atheists hated it. There was often a little humanist protest at Portland Place, and I politely took their pamphlets calling for action against the Today programme. I wanted to reinvent Thought for the Day, or a least dump it on Newsnight. But I came to respect its claim on the programme, and was admiring of its best contributors.

It’s an anomaly. It’s in the middle of a news programme; so some people wonder why it’s there. It doesn’t exactly fit. But that’s to take a very utilitarian approach. Even those who go to have a shower during it can appreciate it, because there’s a difference between facts and meaning. The news may be dealing with facts, but people want a lever of meaning. Simon Russell Beale once told me he thought everything should be Thought for the Day, because it’s a pause, a distillation of things, and it’s about meaning. Thought for the Day matters.

At the moment, people are thinking much more about mortality and the meaning of life. They’re realising that David Goodhart might have got it right when he suggests we’ve valued the wrong things. [Head, Hand, Heart: The struggle for dignity and status in the 21st century (Allen Lane, 2020)]. Brains and education are important, but so is caring for people, and this is the moment when people are listening.

I remember something the Archbishop of Canterbury said, talking about the C of E’s whizzy new website, but then saying that nothing replaces the fundamental role of holding the hand of the dying. How important that is!

Now that I’ve left the Today programme, I’m going to do a mix of things. I’m chairing the think tank Bright Blue, which is a relatively new attempt of liberal Conservatism to find a centrist and open-minded way of approaching the world. This is tremendously important just now, and we’d like participation from some of the Left. It’s got mainly an encouraging and charitable role, trying to find something good to come out of all this, re-evaluating things creatively — “building back better”, as the slogan puts it.

Everyone’s hunkering down in their positions, rather, but we need to be non-exclusive, and open up the discourse a bit.

I’m also finishing a book about ten monasteries. I have a wall of a Cistercian nunnery in my garden in Norfolk, and have become engrossed in the 13th century. I enjoy Hilary Mantel’s novels, but they were pretty hard on the monasteries.

We did a little archaeological dig in our garden. There was nothing, but, of course, the nunneries didn’t have much, and this was a nunnery founded in reaction against laxity of the other Orders. Their humility touched me.

I did go and stay at a Cistercian monastery in France, a Trappist monastery, and the power of that silence and stillness was an overwhelming spiritual experience for me. It was so different from the Today programme, where everyone is talking all the time.

I managed to finish the visits just in time before the lockdown, though I wasn’t able to get to Skellig Michael. I went to Greece, Egypt, and then Lindisfarne, just as things were closing. I had a sense of being at the edge of the world, but though these places should be bleak, separate, and lonely, I found them very still and peaceful. The silence is internal.

I originally wanted to work in publishing, and was sent off to learn shorthand, which I did through a journalism course. I like the immediacy of journalism, but I always have a book at my bedside. I’m trying to master moving from the discipline of journalism to a more leisurely prose. Journalism comes more naturally to me, but literature would be the greater achievement.

I’ve done a draft of a book about following in the footsteps of the Queen of Sheba. It’s full of information and action, but I need to do more work on the narrative. I’d gone to Ethiopia for the Today programme with Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, and we went to where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, in Axum.

The nun who received us there mentioned Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and I realised that, although she is so well known, I couldn’t place her. She’s the most fascinating subject, and her relationship with Solomon seems to me to be about the search for truth. The Dean of Canterbury once showed me the two windows in Canterbury Cathedral that show her travelling to Solomon to seek his wisdom, and then the Magi who make the same journey and find this mute baby — two depictions of what glory is.

I spent my early years in Malawi, where my father worked as a civil servant, and then in Tunbridge Wells, which I fled for punk rock in Lewisham.

My brother was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, and I think I felt a divine presence in those top Cs. I hope there will be carols at Christmas. At least, I’d be very sorry if there were no choristers singing this Christmas.

Now I regard my home as Norfolk. I remember my old colleague Simon Heffer taking his wife on tours of Norfolk churches for their summer holiday, and at the time feeling full of pity for them. Now I can’t think of anything nicer.

I’m not devout, but I love the Christian tradition. It was Timothy Radcliffe, the Oxford priest and Dominican friar, who taught me that the religious experience can be in music, art, and literature; and that’s where I feel it.

What makes me happy? Clouds, Mozart, waterlilies, the silhouette of Ely Cathedral.

I’d love to spend time with my little grandson, and ride a horse across Holkham beach.

I try not to be angry.

The sound of the tawny owl is one I love.

So much gives me hope for the future: human resilience; the good humour of my adult children during Covid, despite the wreckage of their professional plans; and the return of choral singing.

I pray the Lord’s Prayer most often. I pray for mercy.

I think I’d like to be locked in a church with Solomon. The Temple seems to exist in so many ways. Or Bede, to explain it all to me.


Sarah Sands was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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