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Gone Today but here on Sunday: Ed Stourton interviewed

03 March 2023

Edward Stourton reflects on his long broadcasting career and his own mortality in a new memoir. Interview by Sarah Meyrick


IT’S almost impossible to read a memoir by a well-known BBC radio presenter without hearing the story read aloud in his familiar voice. This is certainly the case with Confessions: Life re-examined, by Edward Stourton. It’s all very Radio 4: intelligent and thoughtful, cultured and courteous, and yet dogged in its pursuit of truth.

It’s the author’s first venture into memoir (if you overlook his Diary of a Dog-walker: Time spent following a lead, a collection of his Telegraph columns).

He undertook the project as “a kind of journalistic challenge”, he says. “I bumped into a friend at a mutual friend’s book launch, and he said he’d been asked to write our host’s obituary. And then he said, ‘I offered to write yours, but they said you’d already been done.’ Which gives rise to all sorts of questions, doesn’t it? Do they think I’m about to die? How exciting that they think I’m worth writing an obituary about. And do I mind what it says?”

And then there’s “the wretched cancer”: in his case, prostate. The disease is being held at bay for now by a range of treatments, but these are all time-limited. “It seems likely that [the oncologist] will be able to stretch my years to the biblical ‘three score and ten’ but I shall probably not celebrate my eightieth birthday,” he writes in the introduction.

Hence, “a tug to reflect on the past, to look for some sort of sense and order in a helter-skelter life”.

That life began in 1957. His parents met in colonial Nigeria; the young Edward followed his father’s footsteps to Roman Catholic boarding schools in England. He went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read English, where his contemporaries included the future journalists Charles Moore, Dominic Lawson, and Alastair Campbell, and the future politicians Oliver Letwin and Andrew Mitchell. (One Justin Welby was in the year above at Trinity, but not one of his friends remembers him, something that he ascribes to the future Archbishop’s membership of the God Squad.)

From Cambridge, Mr Stourton joined ITN as a graduate trainee. He was a founder member of Channel 4 News, becoming the network’s Washington correspondent in 1986. In 1988, he moved to the BBC as Paris correspondent. Two years later, it was back to ITN as diplomatic editor, reporting from Baghdad during the Gulf War, and from Bosnia during the siege of Sarajevo, and from Moscow in the final days of the Soviet Union.

In 1993, he began presenting The One O’Clock News on the BBC. He presented Absolute Truth, a four-part series for BBC2 on the modern RC Church in 1997. In 1999, he moved to Radio 4’s Today programme, which he presented for a decade. Since then, he has presented The World at One, The World This Weekend, and the Sunday programme.

That’s the overview — although, naturally, the journey was nothing like as linear as the bald facts suggest. There are screw-ups and lucky breaks aplenty along the way, recounted in a warm and self-deprecating style. He is uncomfortably aware of his privilege, and unflinching in the critique of his own behaviour. “If you go in for this kind of archaeological digging in your past, you are bound to turn up some nasty finds that would have better been left to rot,” he writes.

What does he mean? “When you read a diary, back when you were a teenager or in your early twenties, it is quite a shock, because it was a very different world. And we did absorb all sorts of attitudes, that now would be shocking, and which I certainly wouldn’t agree with,” he explains. “[Looking back] was interesting. It helped me appreciate the degree of social change that there’s been during my life, which is also part of the point of the work. But it was quite painful . . . the snobbery and that wonderful certainty you have when you’re young that you know all the answers.”

So, what has he learned? A change in attitudes to sexuality, he says at once. In the Catholicism of his upbringing, there was no suggestion that homosexuality was of equal value to heterosexuality. Similarly on divorce; as he writes in the book, his younger self took a very hard line on the sanctity of marriage, only to find himself divorced and remarried some years later.

“But the great privilege of being a journalist is you are always learning, especially one who travels a lot, because you constantly meet people who challenge your world-view, and you are constantly forced to re-evaluate things. Pope Francis has that rather nice phrase about the ‘culture of encounter’ — pompous, in a way, but that’s what journalism is really about.”

The job is “endlessly exciting”, he says. “When you get [to an assignment], it’s immediately different, more exciting, and more enriching.”

Unusually, Mr Stourton has travelled in reverse: from TV to radio to writing books. Why so?

“Mostly, it’s been pure happenstance,” he says. But TV is, he thinks, a young man’s game. “It can have a huge impact, but it’s also quite limited in what you can do, because it’s a very linear medium.” Radio, by contrast, is “incredibly intimate”. It’s easier to be more thoughtful. “The pictures are still there, but you have to paint them.” Radio has suited him in maturity, he thinks; and writing goes one stage further in allowing him to explore ideas in still greater depth.

Radio 4 is a particularly British institution, and, as he writes in the book, most members of the Radio 4 family of listeners believe that the network belongs to them. He first realised this when covering for Jonathan Dimbleby. “Almost everyone I met over a glass of Any Questions wine was completely uninhibited with their views on programmes and individual broadcasters — and they were often very trenchant. And if they wanted to critique — or praise — one of my own performances, they picked up on what I had said on air as if we were simply continuing a conversation.”

AlamyJohn Humphrys in the Today studio, date unknown, but between 1987 and 2002

This was one reason why there was such an outcry in 2009 when Mr Stourton was dropped from the flagship Today programme after ten years, allegedly for being “too posh”. He describes the incident in the book; it was clearly appallingly handled. And he admits that it was bruising, as was the realisation that “you’re never going to have a job quite like that again.”

Being fired from Today gave him a higher profile than any other event of his career, he writes. Loyal listeners wrote letters of protest; his children set up a Facebook campaign demanding his reinstatement. “But there is life after Today,” he says now, and repeats a quotation attributed to St Augustine which he uses in the book: “Feeling resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die.”

His research for the book turned up an intriguing insight. “One of the ideas kicked around behind the scenes was to make me the BBC’s religion editor by way of compensation for losing the Today berth,” he writes. “The job did not exist then, and the first person to hold it was Martin Bashir, the Panorama reporter who later resigned under a mighty cloud over that Diana interview. What a lot of trouble the BBC could have saved themselves!”

One of the jobs that he moved on to was presenting the Sunday programme, which has a “very, very healthy audience” despite its early hour. “The nicest comments you get about it are from people who are not religious, but say ‘I really enjoy the programme because it tells me things that I didn’t know,’” he says. “I think it’s important, because it does recognise what a power religion is, in all sorts of ways. It’s not just about the Churches, or about Islam or Buddhism: it’s about the interaction between religion and the world.”

He refers to a recent episode that examined the violence in Jerusalem. “There’s a strong religious component, and we tried to draw that idea out, and make a bit more sense of the dreadful events there.”

If you started with a blank sheet of paper, you might not come up with Sunday, he admits. “You’d never think, ‘Let’s give — for 52 weeks a year — a good chunk of primetime Sunday morning to this.’ But, actually, it proves itself by the affection of the listeners and by the numbers.”

The strength of the programme lies in its ability to adapt, he says; when it was created in 1970, the BBC’s religious department was entirely staffed by clergy of the Church of England, and the idea that religion should be treated as a subject like any other was anathema. All that has changed.

What about the constant rows that the programme has to cover? Running “one awful Catholic abuse story after another” in the past decade was disheartening, he says. And he had to face up to the IICSA findings about sexual abuse at Ampleforth, his Alma Mater.

He writes about meeting two old schoolfriends soon after the revelations. Each expressed shock: they had had no idea that the abuse was taking plac — until one of them mentioned the occasion “when Father X tried to snog me”.

The fact that this was a very close friend speaking shook Mr Stourton. He went back to his diaries. “I came away with rather an uneasy feeling that all of us had probably suppressed quite a lot. It’s not that we knew this was happening, but that we perhaps bought into a rather unhealthy culture.” It was “disorientating”, to say the least, to find that a period of his life that had been very happy was “shot through with less healthy elements”.

He was a great admirer of Cardinal Basil Hume, Abbot of Ampleforth when Mr Stourton was a pupil, and someone whom he describes as an inspiration. “Because I was covering religion, I went on encountering him all his life. I did what I think was the last interview he gave before he died of cancer, and he came out very forcefully to condemn an attack on a gay pub in London, which was quite a brave thing to do.

“In those days, not all Catholics would have admired him for that. So I remained a huge fan of many of the things he did; but the fact is, he did allow a priest, who later went to jail for abuse, to be moved from one parish to another without anybody really knowing what was going on. I can’t believe it abrogates all the good that he did, but it does raise an awkward question in your mind.”

Towards the end of the book, Mr Stourton reflects that having an incurable cancer should make him consider the comforts of his faith. “It has not done that at all,” he writes. “I find I think no more about such things than I did when I was healthy, and I have never been much given to agonised contemplation of eternity.

“My attachment to Catholicism owes much more to a sense that it is a good guide to this life than to any conviction that it is a passport to the next.”

He says: “It just makes sense of the way I experience the world. And that’s enough for me, really, without worrying too much about what comes next.”

Towards the end of the book, he mentions bumping into a Catholic acquaintance in Battersea Park “one luminous autumn day”, who remarked that it was “a Manley Hopkins morning”. He immediately understood the reference to the poem “The Windhover”.

He writes: “As another Manley Hopkins poem puts it, ‘The World is charged with the grandeur of God.’ And at moments like this it is simply easier to acquiesce.”


‘And what’s it like in the south of the country?’

TODAY is a surprisingly easy programme to present competently. All the “programme furniture” it has inherited may be daunting at first, but I quickly realised it provided useful props to hang on to. As long as you get your time checks right and remember when to introduce sport and Thought for the Day you can sound perfectly plausible. But it is a very difficult programme to present well: you need the confidence to take risks. And a solid relationship with your fellow presenters is key to that confidence.

John Humphrys, belying his fearsome reputation, welcomed me to the team with a piece of advice told as a joke. On a bad morning, when lines were going down and minds were constantly changing, the gallery could descend into chaos. “Just occasionally,” John warned me, “they’ll fling you an interview at the last minute without telling you what it’s about or who you’re talking to. They’ll just shout something like ‘Millbank — now’ at you, and all you can really say by way of introduction is ‘We go live to our Westminster studio.’ My technique for dealing with this is to put on my gravest voice and say, ‘Minister, this sounds serious’ — with a bit of luck he or she will tell you what the story is in the first answer.”

There was another version of this for dealing with complex foreign stories: if you felt you were getting out of your depth, you could resort to “And tell me, what’s the position now in the south of the country?” It never quite happened like this, but it sometimes came close.

I became — and I hope remain — friends with all my fellow presenters, but relations between us were not made any easier by the steady stream of newspaper commentary on our relative status and performances, plus advice on which of us should be sacked and which promoted. Leafing idly through the gossip columns before going on air, one was likely to chance upon charming little nuggets like this, from the Ephraim Hardcastle column in the Mail: “As the published historian of Radio 4’s Today programme, its former editor Tim Luckhurst writes about its decline. He says Sarah Montague is ‘struggling to cope’, and regards Ed ‘Posh’ Stourton as second banana to Humphrys, whom he sees as the only class act. Mr Luckhurst fails to mention presenter James Naughtie at all. ‘Mr Naughtie reeks of the politically correct bias that so damages the Today programme’s reputation,’ he says.”

And when Mark Damazer, my friend from ITN days, took over as the controller of Radio 4, a former BBC editor offered him this in a long piece in the Independent: “My advice: bolster James Naughtie and Ed Stourton, replace Sarah Montague with Carolyn Quinn, and sideline Humphrys. If he flounces out in a huff, so much the better.”

Reflect that when you read this kind of thing, a colleague who had received one of the more disobliging notices was likely to be sitting in the chair next to you. We would both pretend we had not read it, while both knowing perfectly well that we both had, and it rather took the shine off the studio atmosphere during that day’s programme.

Confessions: Life re-examined by Edward Stourton is published by Doubleday at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18); 978-0-857-52833-9.

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