Who will eat our leaders for breakfast now? He’s the terrier-like inquisitor who’s held the powerful to account for 32 years on Radio 4’s Today show, but now John Humphrys is hanging up his headphones for the last time
His voice has been the soundtrack of our times. When John Humphrys joined the Today programme, Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and the Berlin Wall was still standing.
For 32 years, he has been the man we have listened to first thing in the morning as politicians rise and fall and our world changes around us; and the loyalty of Radio 4’s audience has been striking.
We used to say in the 1980s that we had six million listeners — and now, even with the competition of digital media, the official audience figure has edged up to around the seven million mark.
John Humphrys in the studio during a broadcast of the flagship BBC Radio 4 Today Programme
It’s John and the rest of the team who guarantee a welcoming start to the day whatever the chill in the news agenda.
I was a producer on the programme when John started there in 1987.
He sounded as if he’d found his home from day one, and he was a breath of fresh air for us journalists after the duopoly of John Timpson and Brian Redhead — who were brilliant together on air, but tricky to handle behind the scenes.
The Humphrys approach, as a dyed-in-the-wool hack and a former foreign correspondent, was to go terrier-like for the news stories, and he brought a surge of energy to the programme.
This could sometimes make it lively in the production office, where he could get himself into a lather about anything from defective briefing notes for an item to the wrong kind of milk being delivered.
I’m told by insiders that his moods have not mellowed with the years.
But he was also funny, approachable — and, most importantly, someone who could add a spark that turned the potentially-dull items, fixed by the production team when the news agenda was bare, into compelling pieces of radio.
When I was applying to be editor of Radio 4’s Today programme in 1993, my pitch at the job interview included a simple line: ‘John Humphrys should be The Voice of Today.’
This was partly because I wanted him to be the default choice for the big interviews each morning after the 8 o’clock news. The aim was to have consistent fast bowling after the gentle lobs of the old regime.
But what always struck us as producers was how good he was at lighter items, too. This skill was on display last week in his interview with 77-year-old Jeanne Socrates, who had just become the oldest person to sail around the world solo, non-stop and unassisted. Young John (a year her junior) sounded as enthusiastic and engaged as ever by a human story.
When I was running Today, John and I were both close colleagues and friends. I slept more easily when he was on the presenter rota because he was an additional editor: woe betide the producer who’d settled for a quiet night without chasing any breaking stories, only to be greeted by John brandishing the morning papers at 4.30am and demanding that the programme running order be revamped immediately.
John Humphrys reporting from the Aberfan, Wales, mining disaster in 1966. He started his career in journalism aged 15 and started as a reporter for the Penarth Times
I was often invited round to his house in West London for a supper that he would cook himself, delighting in my squeamishness at exotic specimens he’d bought from his local fishmongers complete with eyes and tentacles and unidentifiable chewy bits.
‘Do you like the greens?’ he asked once, before revealing that they were boiled stinging nettles from his garden.
The most recent dinner I went to at his house had a clutch of his former editors there amid epic quantities of alcohol, and Rod Liddle (editor 1998-2002 and now a columnist) on duty as an unexpected sous-chef.
But, being a good journalist, John was also capable of getting us into trouble. He was responsible for the longest lift journey of my life. During the 1987 election campaign we had the idea that we would do gentler and more discursive interviews with the party leaders — to try to find out the more human side of the people seeking to be prime minister. David Steel and David Owen and then Neil Kinnock duly took part in friendly conversations with the other presenters.
Unfortunately, when it came to John’s encounter with Margaret Thatcher, neither he nor she paid any attention to our intended format.
He asked a relatively polite first question, to which she responded with customary vigour — and he then used the word ‘uncaring’ as a criticism of her governing style, which unleashed a classic Thatcher tirade.
From then on, the interview careered out of control like a runaway train in which the passengers were having a fist fight.
When I escorted the Prime Minister out of the studio, she was in full death-ray glare mode — and in the lift she brushed aside a stuttered attempt at an explanation with the simple words: ‘We get what we expect from the BBC. We Get What We Expect.’
The fact is that grilling everyone from world leaders to wayward artists, four mornings a week for three hours at a time — and doing it for more than three decades — is the toughest of assignments.
So the achievement is that usually very few things go wrong, and professionals such as John get through hundreds of interviews a year with the audience better informed as a result.
But the Andrew Gilligan affair in 2003 — when the reporter broke a news story about the alleged sexing up of a Government dossier on Iraq — shows the catastrophe that can occur when broadcasters and Government clash.
The key moment was at 6.07am in a live exchange with John; and the recurring nightmare for the BBC as an organisation is that Today’s profile means there’s always a risk that something tucked away within a long programme can spiral out of control.
John Humphrys pictured with his ex-partner Valerie Sanderson and their son Owen James who was born in 2000
In times of trouble, presenters and junior executives can also never be sure of the support of BBC top management. When John Birt was director-general, he made a speech which criticised ‘overbearing interviewers who sneer at their interviewees’ and what he called ‘the rabbit punch question’, designed to destabilise the guest.It was seen as an attack on his star interrogators John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman — yet all the audience research we had at the time suggested that audiences wanted presenters to be even tougher with politicians.
I doubt that the BBC’s confidential data shows any wish for today’s leaders to be handled with kid gloves given the mess they’ve made of things.
But it is inevitably the case that John is not everyone’s breakfast cup of tea.
In recent years, social media has provided a carping commentary on the performance of Today presenters. They’re accused of being too Left-wing or too Right-wing, too willing to interrupt or guilty of letting politicians get away with murder.
In a recent chat with John, he expressed incomprehension at the sway that Twitter in particular has — claiming never even to have read it, let alone tweeting himself.
That has, at least, spared him from seeing some of the attacks, but it has become an article of faith among some on the liberal Left that John is a rabid Brexiteer. His old critic Alastair Campbell spoke of ‘the never-ending succession of hard Brexit advocates, the Rees-Moggs, Duncan Smiths and David Davises, generally given a chummier ride’.
But, in truth, I have never been able to work out John’s politics in all the time I’ve known him.
If he has burning commitments one way or the other, they have never emerged — even after a second bottle of wine.
On Brexit, he challenges both sides — and the criticism comes from partisans who want him to nail his colours to their mast.
An article in the Guardian earlier this year claimed, ludicrously, that John on Today is ‘increasingly channelling the spirit of a modern Alf Garnett, harrumphing at his neighbours about the ways of the world’.
What these daft criticisms show is that many advocates of diversity actually want to see less diversity in BBC presentation.
Specifically, they hate the idea that a man in his 70s from a working-class background in South Wales might ask a different type of question to a right-on, metropolitan 30-something.
John’s colleague Justin Webb was accurate in his comment that ‘ageism is alive and well and apparently deeply acceptable in the anti-John movement’.
Happily, the critics are in a minority.
For most of us, John has been our advocate: the man who asks the questions we want answered, the broadcaster who guides us calmly through the smoking ruins of modern politics.
The Today programme will continue to thrive after he leaves today, it always does.
But John Humphrys’s last appearance will be a poignant moment not just for him but for the millions of us who have woken up with him for most of our lives.
Roger Mosey is master of Selwyn College Cambridge and a former editor of Today.
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