With a croaky voice and a little filler, Emma Barnett handled her Today debut like a seasoned pro

Today presenter Emma Barnett
Today presenter Emma Barnett

The Today programme presenter is a curious beast. They must be newsreader, weather presenter, politician-griller, smooth-voiced DJ and light entertainment reporter. They must be hard-hitting, soft-touched and able to josh about the 3:10 at Kempton with Rob Bonnet. They must be a bit Radio 2, a little Radio 3, a fair helping of 5Live, a smattering of World Service, but mostly, and always, thoroughly Radio 4. No one’s CV quite stacks up, then, like Emma Barnett’s does. Her debut today, coming in to replace the departing Martha Kearney, was as assured as she’d have hoped.

Paired with Amol Rajan for her first morning shift, she handled the peaks and troughs of the three-hour stint well, even if it did take an hour or so for that 3am-start croak to leave her voice (can a voice sound bleary-eyed?). Her tone is reassuring, yet vaguely patrician; a little schoolma’am-ish perhaps, but that can only be reassuring to the traditional Radio 4 listener who have found Rajan’s glottal stops tricky to get used to.

Barnett’s rise has always been a little unnerving and a lot impressive – the former Telegraph staffer is still not 40 – so there was something comforting about hearing her, for once, a little nervous. She mentioned that it was her first show on several occasions, and referred to Today as “this esteemed programme”, showing perhaps that, for the first time, she considers the show she is presenting to be bigger than her. It is no slight to say that her work at 5Live and on Woman’s Hour felt like stepping stones to somewhere else.

She eased herself in, pacing herself carefully through the newspaper headlines, where Rajan cantered freely, a man totally at ease with his Today armchair. She chuckled with her co-host about his pronunciation of semaglutide, attempted to engage reporter Henry Zeffman with some condoms-on-bananas banter in a segment on sex education, and thoroughly enjoyed herself interviewing the bewildered Ukrainian guitarist who’d last night rocked out onstage in Kiev with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Meat and drink, to Barnett. Her two key moments came when interviewing James Coates, the son of Nottingham knife-attack victim Ian Coates, and then the Minister for Policing, Chris Philp. And we had Barnett’s silk and steel in abundance, even if neither were deployed as subtly as she is able to. An understandably emotional James Coates was treated to a form of radical empathy, with the suspicion being that Barnett was gently coaxing him into an ever stronger response to the news that her father’s killer’s “unduly lenient” sentence would not be strengthened. Suspicion was confirmed during the plum 8.10am political interview, when she walloped Philp around the head with Coates’s testimony.

Philp got walloped a fair few times – over knife crime, borders, faith in police, his much-mocked Rwanda/Congo gaffe on Question Time – with Barnett eager and able to curtail any ministerial waffle. When a promising boxer turns pro, their first fight is often an easy one. You got that sense here. Barnett’s future tussles with bigger beasts than Philp will be intriguing.

There were quibbles. Inviting listener responses to the proposed plan to ban sex education for under-nines was far too 5Live. And the excruciating – surely emergency filler – final segment on music playlists, with Edith Bowman and Jeffrey Boakye, was a stain on an otherwise solid debut. “What does music mean to you?” she asked Bowman, mystifyingly. Barnett is better than that sort of guff – something she had proved over the past three hours.