The voting has only just begun, but already many feel the writing is on the wall. Whatever doubts the wider world may have about Jeremy Corbyn, in the little village called Labour it seems inconceivable that his serried ranks of fervent followers will once more not fail to sweep him to a resounding victory in the party’s now annual leadership election.
Yet despite the air of inevitability that has surrounded the whole process, watching the performance of the challenger has been for me – almost certainly more than most – a fascinating spectacle. That’s because I worked with Owen Smith for a period of a couple of years around the turn of the century, when I was assistant editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, and he was a young and upcoming duty editor on attachment from BBC Wales. I may even have played a part in recruiting young Owen to the Today ranks, although I can’t be absolutely sure of that.
What I clearly remember is that I worked closely with him over a period of many months. More often than not he would be one of my production team; sometimes he would be doing the editing himself, and I would be his ‘overseer’. So at first hand I learned a good deal about his skill as a journalist, his ability to manage and direct teams of producers and reporters, and his temperament in coping with the pressures of being a key member of Britain’s leading broadcast news programme.
Various journalists, aware of my brief historical connection with Owen, have rung me up in recent weeks to ask what I made of him. But you won’t have seen any quotes from me in national newspapers. I wouldn’t say they were ‘digging for dirt’, but I quickly sensed they were seeking something a bit more than I was prepared to give them – something more fruity, critical, controversial. Possibly I just didn’t have one good anecdote at my fingertips. But essentially it was what I did have to tell them that sent them away disappointed, probably because it failed to confirm the image already being peddled in many quarters of this ‘slick, smarmy PR man’ (such a lazy phrase).
What I told those producers and political reporters was this: Owen Smith was an extremely bright bloke, an excellent journalist, a skilful programme-maker, and a good team leader. We got on well and he was fun to work with, and I have nothing but positive memories of him. For me, as a senior figure on the programme, he was always one producer/editor I could rely upon to turn out a good programme, meaning a lively mix of current politics (I have a vague memory of his Labour affiliations at that time, but he never displayed them prominently) and other subjects cultural and sporting (I recall his passion for rugby union, and the friendly banter we had about the merits of the England and Wales sides).
On the other side of the balance sheet, I know that one of my senior colleagues at the time felt Owen was somewhat reluctant to step forward when other members of the team were absent and gaps in the programme rota had to be filled. From memory, Owen did not mix much with other staff outside work – but as I recall he was married with a young family on the way. I myself wasn’t especially clubbable, and the long hours on Today meant that often all you wanted to do was to get home and rest.
If he had a fault, it was over-confidence and over-ambition. In his energetic pursuit of stories and items he favoured, he could sometimes be blind to wider issues they threw up, taking undue risks. But I recall these as minor quibbles with a still young journalist; as I say, on the whole he was an excellent programme-maker.
I lost track of Owen during his public relations years, but wasn’t particularly surprised to learn he had become an MP. He only really re-emerged on my radar when, as shadow work and pensions secretary, he proved a feisty interviewee on his old show. Then, in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, I and several of my former Today colleagues were greatly tickled when for one heady moment it appeared that two alumni of our programme might be fighting it out for the keys to Number 10: Michael Gove (Today reporter circa 1996) versus Owen Smith (Today producer 2000).
Owen’s meteoric rise to the top of Labour politics owes much to that ability, self-confidence and articulacy that I observed when he was on Today, as much as to the vacuum in talent at the top of the Labour Party – or at least that talent prepared to combat Corbyn and his supporters. Some of his proposed policies have the whiff of the 1970s about them, but his confident performances on the campaign stump have belied the ‘smarmy PR type’ label bestowed upon him. One way or another, Owen Smith, formerly of Today, is here to stay.
Roger Hermiston is the author of the acclaimed All Behind You, Winston: Churchill’s Great Coalition 1940-45 (Aurum Press, 2016). Before turning to writing history full-time, Roger was a print and broadcast journalist. He was a reporter and feature writer on the Yorkshire Post, and later joined the BBC in the early 1990s. The bulk of his career at the corporation was devoted to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, where he was assistant editor from 1999-2010.