Don’t blame Today for the world’s ills | Letters

Sarah Sands, editor of Today, defends the flagship Radio 4 news programme against accusations that it is losing its way

Miranda Sawyer’s article was a good example of the news challenge of our times (“Is the Today programme losing its grip”, New Review). How do you break out of the echo chamber? Miranda is not a fan of the current Today programme, which is fair enough.

She goes on Facebook to see what her friends think, and she speaks to her colleagues. Amazingly, they agree with her. Armed with this scientific data, she constructs a piece that alleges: “Its critics grow more vociferous and its audience is dwindling.” I guess “vociferous” conveys the noise in some corners of social media, but does “dwindling” properly describe an audience of more than seven million?

There follows a self-evidently untrue claim that we are no longer doing news on the programme. The Today programme is strongly news driven, with a little variety to alter the pace over three hours. By throwing the kitchen sink at us – interviews too aggressive, too fawning, politicians come on/don’t come on etc – you sound as if you are out of sorts because the world is not as you would wish it, and the Today programme must be blamed for reflecting that. Being cross gives you no excuse to impose your prejudices on others.

Unnamed critics attribute private views to John Humphrys and accuse him of being anti-gay and anti-women. He is nothing of the sort. Perhaps your sums on his salary – miscalculated by a huge margin – explain why you dislike our maths puzzle. In a polarised and volatile world, intolerance of other people’s views is increasing. Many of us have spent two years discussing what happens when politicians and media lose touch. President Trump is in power in the US, the UK is divided over Brexit. All views need to be represented, I am afraid. We shall go on doing that.
Sarah Sands, editor
Today programme, BBC Radio 4

It is misleading to say the audience of Today is “dwindling”. Audience figures have shown an upward trend since 2014, with significant rises over the last two years, culminating in a record audience of 7.8m in the months around the Brexit referendum and the beginning of the Trump presidency. The “drop of 300,000” Sawyer claims is more accurately explained as figures returning to a more “normal” level – of well over seven million – after two exceptionally busy news years.
Gavin Allen, controller
Daily News Programmes, BBC

Faith school failings

Well said, Catherine Bennett, in “Faith school zealots are abusing girls’ rights. Ofsted is correct to censure”, Comment. How can it be acceptable for any school to abuse girls’ rights, censor history and deny the existence of homosexuality? Ofsted’s criticisms are appropriate and I wonder at the school being able to continue to enjoy state funding, particularly when it does not accept the need to change. Girls denied information and equal rights are being discriminated against.

It is dangerous to let any faith take full charge of education. Parents have the right to bring their children up in any religion they choose, but children have rights too. They should be entitled to an education that enables them to get information, help and advice when they need it, and to make their own decisions. If any faith has to suppress information, including sources of advice, then it needs to ask itself what it is hiding and why it cannot be open and honest.
Linda Maughan
Hartlepool, County Durham

The trauma of torture

You are right to argue that the need for a judicial inquiry into Britain’s complicity in torture is pressing (“Britain’s role in torture must be revealed in full”, Editorial, last week). There must be accountability for actions detailed in the recently published Intelligence and Security Committee report.

Torture inflicts unspeakable pain, not just in the moment but also creates trauma for years to come, as Freedom from Torture’s work with survivors shows us daily.

Like Peter Beaumont (“I tried to expose torture truth – but was lied to again and again”, Focus) I and other human rights advocates were berated by ministers in the years after 9/11 for pointing to evidence that Britain was complicit in torture. The “how-dare-you?” barrage, combined with parliamentary assurances, led to my suggesting at the international human rights organisation where I then worked that we should take the denials seriously. What minister, after all, would lie to parliament? In reality, the title of a report that I wrote in 2006, “Dangerous Ambivalence”, – tentative, because of the provable evidence – dramatically understated the extent of British complicity, as became clear.

This week, Donald Trump, who claims that torture “absolutely works”, arrives in London as Theresa May’s guest. Trump, who has appointed as head of the CIA a woman who was closely involved in the Bush-era torture programme, must be confronted. May must not just condemn Trump’s support for torture. She must urgently institute the judge-led inquiry into British government complicity which everyone from torture survivors to the former justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, is calling for. She owes that to survivors of torture worldwide.
Steve Crawshaw
Freedom from Torture
London N7

What would Katharine want?

Thank you, Bernard Lyall, for your moving and thoughtful piece about your mother, Katharine Whitehorn, and her life with dementia (“My mother favours assisted dying. Now she has dementia I’m not sure I agree”, Comment).

I watched my lovely, kind and funny dad die by degrees, eventually a near skeleton who couldn’t eat and had lost all vestige of what he would have recognised as a dignified life. Back in the day, he would watch TV programmes about dementia and say that if it ever came his way he would want the proverbial blue pill.

Lyall describes his uncertainty about what his mother wants now, but I was struck by his observation that her intellectual and public side had been the one that mattered, “the real her”. I hope that his sense of “the real her” might help if and when hard decisions have to be made. What would the real Katharine want?
Karen McLaughlin

Schools: winners and losers

Your report and editorial on the effects that education “reforms” have had on England’s schools since 2010 (“Tory education revolution ‘has fuelled inequality in our schools’ ”, News) was right to highlight the negative impact on disadvantaged children. It should have pointed out that the increase in unethical admissions practice has affected special educational needs and disabled (SEND) pupils. This was highlighted in a 2014 report by the then children’s commissioner of England, Dr Maggie Atkinson, titled “It Might Be Best If You Looked Elsewhere”, based on research by the National Foundation for Educational Research. This presented compelling evidence that, to manipulate their cohort and avoid potentially resource-hungry pupils, some schools were pointing parents of SEND children to nearby schools. This is well known within education and government and yet no action appears to be taken when reported.

As a parent and school governor during this period, I suggest that this practice is regarded as collateral damage, which the majority quietly accept in the hope that their children will be among the “winners”, instead of insisting on a fair system for all. If you accept the spurious “parental choice” agenda, it is not difficult to see how the current government thinks it can advance greater selection via extended grammars.

Until schools are made jointly responsible for the educational outcomes of their community rather than their own selected or manipulated cohort, I fear that this situation will persist.
Stephen Mayo
Brentwood, Essex

The lie of the land

Christopher Jackson (“Town mouse, country mice”, Letters) accuses country dwellers of allowing landowners, estate managers and agribusiness of “blitzing the land with pesticides and chemical fertiliser”. He appears to think we country dwellers can stop them. Perhaps he would like to tell us how.
Pamela Guyatt
Lamerton, Devon

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