I have only been involved in two assassination attempts while working at the Today Programme and only one was my idea. My role in the second, more successful of the two hits, lies somewhere between accomplice and bystander and while I don’t want to exaggerate my part, I think the tale should be told. But if you’ll allow, I will work my way up to that story with a thumbnail sketch of my own, sordid, solo effort.
My potential victim was a Today Programme presenter and looking back on the plot I can see that it failed partly for want of proper planning and partly because the person involved hadn’t done anything remotely wrong and I had simply lost my mind.
It happened back in the very early days of the new century when I was first given responsibility for editing the Today Programme overnight. It was hard…the hardest work I’d ever done, fourteen hour night shifts during which you had to try and get your head around twenty six different stories including six bulletins and five major lead slots which were meant to make news, not simply report it.
Every shift, just when you were at your most exhausted, at around 3.40 in the morning, two of the most respected and rigorous journalists in the world would arrive in the office, the sour smell of interrupted sleep upon them and start asking the editor (me) awkward questions. Sometimes you had the answers, sometimes you didn’t and if you didn’t and you also couldn’t muster the energy to bluff, bullshit or charm your way out of a corner…things could get tense. That particular morning the tension boiled over into a shouting match, followed by an hour-long angry silence. After this hour, to their credit, the presenter in question stood up, stretched and offered an apology.
“I’m sorry Peter. I lost my temper, I think it has something to do with the time of night. A doctor friend told me that between 3.30 and 4 in the morning is when most people die.” I nodded.
“I wish you’d die.’
“I said would you like a tea?”
“Er. Yes, thanks.” So I headed in the direction of the canteen but a combination of sleep deprivation and residual fury meant my head was full of other thoughts. Things like: where would you buy arsenic in Shepherds Bush at this time of day? Or: I wonder if there’s any hemlock growing in the Blue Peter garden? In the end I contented myself with putting artificial sweeteners in the tea instead of real sugar (hardly Harold Shipman) and delivering the cuppa with a graceless shrug.
Several years had to pass before I received a master class in how it should be done, delivered by a real pro.
P.D. James agreed to guest edit the Today Programme on the condition that she could cross examine one of the big bosses about why the BBC needed so many managers and how come they needed to be paid quite so much public money.
To his credit, the Director General agreed to do the interview himself, if he had his time again he probably would’ve made a different call. He arrived in the Today Programme office with a slick suited PR man in tow only a few minutes before we were due to due the interview. P.D. James by contrast had been in for several hours, climbing out of her fur coat before asking for a quiet space where she could do her homework, reading BBC and Parliamentary reports as well as recent news clippings. When he arrived, Mark Thompson greeted her with a friendly Phyllis, an invitation to informality which she pointedly refused to reciprocate, referring to him throughout as Director General. Maybe he knew he was in trouble right then, or perhaps he didn’t realise it until the red light went on and she read into her first question:
I think (the BBC) has changed and to me sometimes it seems like a very large and unwieldy ship that’s been floating there since 1920, taking on more and more and more cargo, building more decks to accommodate it, recruiting more officers, all very comfortably cabined, usually at salaries far greater than their predecessors enjoyed and with a crew somewhat discontented and some a little mutinous
Mark Thompson’s attempted defence was a mumbling, bumbling mess. Every time he tried to work his way off the ropes, P.D. James hit him with another carefully constructed question, another fact or figure that illustrated her point. It wasn’t a particularly long interview, no more than ten or fifteen minutes I would guess but to Mark Thompson it must have felt like days. Afterwards, as the Director General stumbled from the studio, P.D. James looked up from her notes, the handle of the silver stiletto which she had planted between her victim’s shoulder blades glinted in the low winter sun.
“Well,” she said “that was fun.”
A Dying Breed by Peter Hanington is published by Two Roads