What’s Woman’s Hour without Dame Jenni Murray? Of course, the programme existed before she did, beginning its broadcast in 1946, four years before she was born. But Dame Jenni has presented it masterfully since 1987, and over the last 33 years she has made it her queendom.
She has shared the presenting schedule with Jane Garvey since 2007, but as a listener it’s hard to contemplate tuning in regularly with no hope of hearing Dame Jenni’s rich and chocolatey voice, etched with brisk intellectual impatience. A voice that has interviewed Margaret Thatcher, Gloria Steinem and assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya certainly isn't going to let you off lightly, pal.
A long time ago I was an intern on Woman’s Hour. I saw Dame Jenni's absolute focus during live interviews, and the confidence with which she brushed off colleagues’ suggestions for lines to take if they weren’t strong enough. She had absolutely no time for fools. I was terrified of her.
Her reputation as a brilliant interviewer is one of the reasons the programme is so well-respected and attracts such interesting guests. In my intern days, the chef Nigel Slater was a contributor on the programme. As I shyly directed him into the lift of Broadcasting House, he told me he was a bit nervous about cooking a recipe live on air. “But of course,” he said, “I’d do anything for Jenni.”
It’s easy to see why. Her broadcasting style blends tigerish journalistic instincts with warmth and friendliness. She’s the kind of person you’d always, always want fighting on your side. And she has fought to protect Woman's Hour's reputation as a programme of renown.
This has proved increasingly difficult, as the feminist movement has morphed to include stances on no-platforming, inclusivity and self-defined gender identity that are anathema to many old-school feminists like Dame Jenni. Woman's Hour hasn't yet succumbed entirely to all of that, and has managed to maintain a sense of level-headed dignity and perspective.
Since Jonathan Dimbleby and John Humphrys each resigned their posts last year, it feels almost as if Dame Jenni was the last of Radio 4's serious old guard.
The reasons for her departure aren’t entirely clear, beyond the fact that anyone’s entitled to a change of scene at the age of 70 after doing a job for 33 years. Working for the BBC comes with an expectation of impartiality, which, for someone with such strong opinions, must be tricky. A freer future to speak her mind sounds tempting, and whatever she has to say next will be well worth hearing.
But what about the programme she’s leaving behind?
A new presenter will be announced soon, to continue sharing the schedule with Jane Garvey. Garvey herself is sharp, unflappable, and a political force to be reckoned with, having spearheaded the equal pay movement within the BBC against her own bosses. She can keep the programme firmly on its feminist course, but she deserves a co-presenter with at least as much nerve. The decision taken by the BBC will be extremely revealing about how they see the programme's purpose.
This week, BBC Radio committed £12m over the next three years for “diverse and inclusive content”. An increasingly diversity-focused BBC must surely be considering Naga Munchetty or Mishal Husain, or the younger radio guard of Clara Amfo or Gemma Cairney. Other names in the running are likely to include Emma Barnett, Sarah Montague or Victoria Derbyshire.
The BBC is forever obsessed with attracting more young listeners, but it would be a disaster to replace Dame Jenni with someone hired purely on the basis of youth and cool, when Woman's Hour is at its best when it's doing old-fashioned, fearless journalism. Whoever replaces Dame Jenni can't just follow in her footsteps, but must protect her legacy.