Interview: Evan Davis, journalist

Presenter, BBC Radio 4 Today and The Bottom Line. BBC 2 Dragons’ Den.

“By studying economics and understanding economics more I had an outlook on the world that was, you can call it narrow, you can call it overly mechanistic, but it was an outlook on the world, we want our journalists to have an outlook on the the world”.

Evan Davis has taken an unconventional path into journalism, becoming an established economist before joining the BBC as a correspondent in the 1990s. Like many of the country’s prominent figures from politics and journalism, he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, gaining a First, and later undertook postgraduate studies at Harvard.

Following a period as an economics correspondent for BBC News and economics editor of Newsnight, he became the BBC’s Economics Editor in 2001, making him the most senior economics reporter in the corporation. Today he is best known for presenting the BBC’s reality business show, Dragons’ Den and hosting the Today programme on Radio 4, alongside veteran broadcaster John Humphrys. Broadcasting since 1957, the Today programme attracts seven million listeners during its 06.00 to 09.00 weekday slot.

Evan has a knack for breaking down and explaining complex issues in business and economics in a way that can be easily understood by the average viewer, perhaps best demonstrated in his broadcasts for BBC News as well as the Evanomics blog series. He describes his work life today as being a “portfolio career”, working on ad-hoc projects such as books, documentaries and live events alongside his radio and television commitments.

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This is an abridged version of a series of 30 interviews made for a book.
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The Prince’s Trust helps the UK’s most disadvantaged young people change their lives by getting them back into education, training or employment. All net proceeds from this book will be donated to The Prince’s Trust. The total donation is estimated to be £5,000.

The Prince’s Trust is a charity registered in England & Wales (1079675) and Scotland (SC041198).

It’s interesting that you started in economics, rather than journalism per se, what was the route you took to get where you are now, very broadly?

I think I had a better route into journalism than a lot of other people follow, in that there were two phases. Phase one was doing something non-journalistic, in my case, economics, working in the nether regions of academia really at the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the London Business School in fairly junior roles and immersing myself in it for quite a long time. I was studying economics beyond undergraduate level till I was aged 30 then I switched over and went into journalism, which was at the BBC. I think the best thing to say about it is that by spending those first ten years in phase one, I was in a much stronger position in phase two, I think I had a little expertise of my own.

You were able to differentiate yourself…

It was like a little rock on which I could stand in the messy world of journalism and people trying to establish themselves and it just gave me a base from which to pursue that career so I think it was a really good way of doing it which is why I always say to people who ask how they get a job I say, do something else first, get interested in something substantive, it just helps a lot. I should say also that the big thing is that by studying economics and understanding economics more I had an outlook on the world that was, you can call it narrow, you can call it overly mechanistic, but it was an outlook on the world.

We want our journalists to have an outlook on the the world, I’d like some religious people in journalism, I’d like some biologists and scientists in journalism, I’d like some economists, historians, some very poetic people, there are lots of outlooks on the world you can have but it would be very nice to think that they have one. It’s good if they can come with something, that they bring something to the party, rather than, they’ve left college studying, let’s say English, gone on to study at journalism college and then gone straight to journalism where they haven’t really had time to find their passion.

I guess it’s kind of like the argument for people not having political careers, you do something else first.

It is a similar argument, that it makes you a better politician if you’ve gone out a bit and I think there is something in that, but I’m arguing really both that you are a better journalist for it and it’s also a helpful way to get on if you come at it with something.

How much have you been able to indulge your really quite academic understanding of economics within a career in broadcasting?

My view is I think my academic understanding of economics has not been used on a daily basis, obviously, with what we put out on radio and TV, but I do think that what goes out is very well informed by it. It is very helpful if you want to simplify things and explain, it is very helpful to have an understanding beyond that which you need to get across. I basically see myself as a simplifier, as someone who boils things down and I try to do that quite intelligently, keeping the essence of things, while nevertheless making it very simple and I think it is very helpful that I know more about the subject than would be apparent in what I say. I think you have to be reasonably advanced to do a good simplification job, basically.

Your work day is extremely unusual compared to most peoples as I believe you have to get up at 3.15 in the morning, and the Today Show finishes at 9.00, how do you organise your work life?

My work life is very organised and very controlled because the one thing professionals tend to have is lives where there are very few boundaries between work and home life and work hours can spread and there is no kind of formality or rota, clocking on or clocking off. What’s great about the Today programme is it really is very regimented, I’ve got all my work days timetabled and I know exactly which days I’m doing, which makes it a lot easier to control my life around that than if I was in some other role. Even when I was Economics Editor, it was quite a pain because I didn’t know which night of the week I would be working, I didn’t know when I would be on the 10 o’clock news, which just made life difficult to manage.

The Today programme has a few formal hours, you’ve got two or three days of that, getting in at 3.45-4.00, leaving at 9.30-10.00 and then I’ve got a few days a year on Dragons’ Den, quite a few days a year at The Bottom Line and around that I just do projects and other things. I do some public speaking, hosting of events, quite a lot of chairing, I’m writing a book at the moment so that is something I have to fit in within the other hours so basically life becomes a lot more project orientated, rather than work-day orientated and the regiment of the Today programme makes that possible. It’s like a sort-of portfolio career, that you are able to do a little bit of this and a little bit of that and fit it around your main job.

So is it difficult to discipline something that could potentially be quite all-over-the-place?

Well I’m very easily distracted so I am not very good at self-discipline, I am very good at doing things that have to be done, like lots of other people, so the writing side is the slowest because I am very slow at writing. I am very easily distracted so I might be reading something relevant to what I am writing and then I find myself reading something else, it’s all useful, but it is all very ill-disciplined, I’m not a sort-of, “I’m going to do 1800 words today and here they are” kind of person.

You regularly interview important figures from business, politics and the media. When it comes to interview technique, you are known for being more relaxed and less aggressive than some of your colleagues. Do you think your style has an advantage over more heavy-handed interviewers? Can you draw out more from a less aggressive approach?

I think there are merits to there being lots of different approaches so my contention on this is that you don’t just want there to be one kind of style, or default style of interview or discourse. I think occasionally it has been seen at the BBC that there is a style of interview that is convivial and kind of light-weight and that forensic means aggressive. I think that has occasionally been seen to be the case but I don’t see that as the case. We ought to have different types of interview, even within the Today programme there doesn’t have to be one style, we should hold people to account, that is one of our roles but it’s not our only role. There’s this rather pompous journalistic phrase, “speaking the truth to power” and that is one role of journalism. I just think that a lot of different styles is good.

I don’t think I get more out of people, some people say, “oh you get more out of people because you’re friendly and they lower their guard”, I don’t think that’s true, I think they maintain their guard anyway if I’m honest. To be absolutely honest, I don’t think I could be John Humphrys even if I wanted to be John Humphrys so I make no effort whatsoever to be like John Humphrys. If you go on the radio or television you can’t be anything other than who you are and what you have to do is just pray to God that what you are is liked by enough people that you can carry on in employment. If people don’t like who you are they are sure not to like who are when you are trying to be something that you aren’t. It’s an interesting topic though whether the adversarial interview is good or bad and I have come to the conclusion that it’s neither good nor bad. We just don’t want it to be the only show in town.

You draw out different things…

I’ll tell you where I think adversarial interviews are unfair is when politicians have difficult decisions to make. I think sometimes it can sound like you are blaming them for the fact that they have to make a difficult decision. We live in a second-best world and you need to be careful about that.

This book is focused on how individuals have been successful in different areas, you are exposed to some of the top entrepreneurial minds in the country through both Dragons’ Den and the The Bottom Line, what are the most interesting characteristics you have noticed from meeting some of these people?

On the entrepreneurial side, which is different to the business side, remember entrepreneurs are a subset of business people and they are different, for example, from your average chief executive of a large company, so you don’t want to confuse those two. The real difference is that entrepreneurs just go on and get things done rather than talk about doing them, they just get out of bed and instead of thinking about things they actually do them and that is a really important characteristic and a fascinating characteristic really because most of us don’t, most of us, we think about it but then we put it aside, having thought about it so that kind of “make it happen” philosophy is most important. I’m not sure you can force yourself to be like that, you can probably nurture it but I’m not sure if you can create it from nothing.

So that’s number one, going alongside that is a kind of innate optimism, and maybe it’s the optimism that drives them to do stuff, they perhaps think that what they are going to do on a given day is going to have more of an effect than most of us do. On the general business side, there are so many different types of people in business, so many different characteristics, so many strengths, so many weaknesses. All forms of life exist in business and I don’t know what sort of generalisations I would make from senior executives, they are a much less interesting breed than entrepreneurs by and large, they are a much more wary breed than entrepreneurs too. Careers in business have elements of luck about them, the place where you work, right place at the right time, in general in careers there’s no doubt that attitude is the most important thing rather than aptitude.

Dragons’ Den has been praised for raising the profile of entrepreneurialism in the UK, as well as being criticised for presenting quite a distorted view of the work that normally goes into securing a £100,000 investment, what do you hope aspirational people take away from the programme?

I hope people don’t take away that that’s how the venture capital industry really works because it’s an entertainment programme, so it’s not going to be exactly equivalent to the conditions facing small businesses. I’ve learnt a lot from Dragons’ Den, what sorts of questions are the right sorts of questions to ask and why is what you get from that programme. So I think it has had quite a big educational effect, first with the sort of propositions that come into the public mind via that programme and after ten series I am actually quite proud to think that it has helped and people really do think it has had an effect, people tell me it has had an effect in schools and in the mindset of younger people in particular. I think you do observe what makes a successful or an unsuccessful product and what kinds of questions you would ask and it puts the whole idea of an entrepreneurial career on the map.

I remember when I went to school, which was some years ago now, those little entrepreneurial neurones were not firing in most of us, it just wasn’t really something that you thought about, so it’s great that at least that little piece of the brain has been awoken in a lot of people by the programme and I think that is a very positive thing. It’s not that I think everybody should be entrepreneurs, and I have never believed in saying to people “oh just try, try, try again, live your dream and persevere”, most people shouldn’t persevere, they’re not cut out for it, they are never going to make it so we don’t want everyone to be entrepreneurs but it’s nice that that little piece has been awoken for people and have begun to pick up some of the knowledge and the language of the area. For everybody else it is very entertaining and it helps to understand the entrepreneur’s predicament a little better too. So I think it is good for entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs, just to introduce people to a little vocabulary and what discourse might consist of. Of course you can criticise it for not being realistic but I don’t find any of those criticisms get to the point, the point is it’s a television programme with elements of reality about it, major elements of reality about it, and those elements are very interesting and very educational.

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