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  • Writer's pictureJonny Ainslie

John Humphrys - We are all performing

I talk to John Humphrys, journalist and presenter of 'Today', about the BBC, funding, and asking questions that need to be answered.

When you were hired on the 9 o’clock news I understand that newsreaders began to take much more of a hand in preparing their briefs, rather than simply reading out a script.

The newsreaders had been sort of showbiz types, that’s a bit unkind, but announcers, and distinguished gentlemen or women. And because ITN had been doing it for several years it was decided that we should have journalists presenting the news – and I was the first to do it. I’d had enough of being a foreign correspondent, so they said “d’you want to be a newsreader?”, and I said: “No, it’s a boring job.” “Well what if you’re doing it yourself, writing it, playing a part in editing it?” So I did edit it for a while, which I hated, and read the news for six years.

How much of your vision still goes into preparing –

Oh it’s not vision. That’s overstating it, my vision didn’t go into it at all. We tend not to have visions in broadcasting, it’s a very grand word that I’ve never quite understood.

How much of your input?

Oh, a lot. I worked with whoever the editor of the day was and I would write the headlines for instance. And I would go in fairly early in the morning, as in 10 o’clock, and we’d work together, the editor and I, through the day deciding what was going to make the program: what story should lead, and all the rest of it. It was a shared responsibility, the editor’s decision was final of course, but yeah – we shared.

How much of your input is involved in shaping The Today Programme?

Well, the strict answer to that is none. I do what I’ve done this morning, I come in at 4am. I complain, inevitably we all do, about the running order. Sometimes if we make enough fuss the running order will be changed because we say “that’s a load of rubbish” or “that should be in, that shouldn’t”. And I suppose typically we the presenters have some influence over what’s eventually broadcast. But it’s three hours of live broadcasting, six days a week, and there’s a team of highly competent producers. You could not have presenters who are terribly involved in actually producing the program. If you get up at half-past-three in the morning and you’re fairly flat out until whatever time it is, you’re not going to hang around for the rest of the day saying I think we should do this or that.

Obviously where your influence comes, if influence is the right word, is doing live interviews because you decide what questions are going to be asked. You will have a briefing with a few notes from producers, sometimes they’re useful, sometimes they’re less useful; but in the end, you’re on your own. The questions you ask on live radio, or live telly for that matter, have to be your questions.

How do your questions differ between radio and television?

Not at all. It depends on the programme; there’s no difference between the mediums. I did a television programme called On The Record and that was an hour long, and sometimes you’d have just one interviewee: Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, Robin Cook or whoever it happened to be. So clearly you brought a completely different approach to that from the six-minute interview on The Today Programme because you’re chasing your tail. That’s the big limiting factor, it’s time. Sometimes you think this interview is interminable, I shall end it now because it’s deeply boring, but mostly you’re chasing the clock.

When politicians come on to deliver a message or for their own ends –

They always come on to deliver a message, or otherwise they wouldn’t do it, they always come on for their own ends. They’re not going to say, “look, we’ve done some research and we’ve concluded that my department is a load of rubbish and I’m pathetic, and I’m going to resign.” You’ve got to be realistic about this.

Well being realistic about it, the interviewer should be there to inform the public and get these people to be honest -

Oh no, no, no – it’s not our job to get people to be honest. One rather hopes that they are honest, one’s not going to be able to perform some Damascene conversion on somebody who is inherently a crook – and I don’t think many of them are. But our job is, to the best of our ability, to hold them to account. And if they are coming on to deliver a message, which is perfectly proper I don’t have a problem with that at all, our job is to test that message. And to ask of the politician the questions that ordinary people who don’t have the opportunity would ask if they could – and then, if they don’t answer the question, to persist.

So to be sceptical, how do you actually act in your own benefit when on air, instead of solely pursuing that noble end?

Well I’m not suggesting for one second that I’m noble, I’m doing a job like a carpenter does a job, like a doctor or teacher does a job. And my job is to ask well-informed, reasonable, penetrating, illuminating, sometimes challenging, very occasionally aggressive, questions of the people I interview. And the purpose of that is to better inform the public of what’s going on, and sometimes to expose any weaknesses in their argument, and occasionally to expose any wrongdoing or lies they may have told. I don’t know what that makes you, does it make you some sort of prima donna?

No, that’s not what I meant to suggest. But those are often repeated aims, Paxman said the same things –

Paxman’s slightly different to me, he used to say, quoting someone else, that the job of people like us when we talk to a politician should always be saying to ourselves “why is this lying bastard lying to me?” And I think that’s rubbish. I don’t think they are lying bastards, some of them are of course – just as you’d find in any population, but you’d also find many more who are just doing their damndest to do a very difficult job. Paxman never seemed to acknowledge that.

So, it was actually on Desert Island Discs that you used the words politicians will “be there for their own benefit”. I was just wondering what your own benefit is?

Well it’s a job, a job I love doing. I hugely enjoy it, I get enormous satisfaction from it. I also think it’s an important job.

You’ve also talked about there being a competitive edge –

Massively so.

- do you ever perform as a presenter –

I’m always performing.

- in order to show yourself in a favourable light?

If I may say so that is a very naïve question, because of course I do. It is a performance. When I go home and I talk to my partner, my kids, somebody I meet in the shops, go to the market for a pound of spuds or something, I’ll chat to them. I won’t be talking to them in the same way as if I were interviewing them on the programme, if they were the secretary of state or whatever. Of course. I’m performing! We are all performing! You’re performing now in a sense.

How is a viewer to separate performance –

You mean listener, in the case of this program.

Listener, yes. How is a listener to divide media performance from the most useful parts of their question?

And why is the performing part not useful? What is the alternative? When I say performance, if you go and see a GP and ask for help with your medicine – the GP will deliver a performance as someone who has to impress you and be credible and trustworthy – that is part of what that GP does. We all do that, there’s no difference. You seem to be suggesting that we can separate the performance aspect of a job, or the satisfaction you get from a job. I get enormous satisfaction sometimes; sometimes I get so angry with myself I want to jump off the nearest bridge, but you can’t separate those things. I think.

Ok. One of your most famous interviews with George Entwistle saw you cross-examining him, your boss, the director general of the BBC only hours before his resignation, and it’s possible that your interview might have contributed to his decision to go. Reading your account of that interview afterwards, you were perhaps skewering him on the spot for no other reason than these were questions that needed to be answered.

Purely for that reason. No other reason. I liked George. I respected him.

Thinking of examples like the Dianne Abbot fiascos recently, I was wondering if interviewers ever work to catch people out for their own ends?

If they’re arseholes they might; but I don’t, of course I don’t. I am uneasy about too much of the ‘gotcha’ aspect of interviewing. Sometimes there’s a reason for doing it, and sometimes it works. Dianne Abbot made a fool of herself when she got her figures all round her neck, and that was illuminating. She said afterwards that it was because she was on medication, well fine, maybe that was the case. But it was worth doing because it showed that she wasn’t on top of her brief. Now, we are entitled to believe that politicians who present themselves to us, as being capable in her case of running the Home Office, or becoming Prime Minister, should be on top of their brief. They should know what they’re talking about, and it’s our job in part to test them. Sometimes the question “do you happen to know how many Xs there are in whatever it happens to be” is useful if it demonstrates that they are not competent, and that’s a useful message to deliver to the audience.

Mostly I’m fairly uneasy with it. I don’t know if I were to be asked about every single detail of what I do, I’d stumble over bits and pieces. I think one has to accept that even the most competent politician is occasionally capable of being embarrassed live on air. Sometimes it’s worth chasing them, sometimes it’s not. It depends on how important it is, how relevant it is. If you set out with the sole intention of trying to make a fool out of a politician, I’m a little uneasy with that. If the politician succeeds in making a fool of himself or herself – fine, by all means allow them to do so. Mostly I want to have a civilised (conversation), some people might say you’re too aggressive – I don’t think I am, perhaps I used to be but I’ve mellowed over the years, and I find humour a more useful tool now than the bludgeon.

To go back to your interview with George, it was proof of an organisation robust enough to self-reflect. Being able to interview your boss. In your opinion, what are the BBC’s most serious failings?

The biggest failings of any big organisation. For my money it is over-managed as an institution, we worry too much about what people will think of us, we are too easily influenced sometimes by pressure groups. I don’t mean the general public, I mean actual pressure groups for this or that, which leads sometimes to a degree of timidity.

But by and large, I don’t have a lot of problems. I’m extremely proud to work for the BBC, one of the most vital cultural institutions in Britain, certainly one of the most important news organisations in the world, and by and large it does its job bloody well.

Recently the people accusing the BBC of bias haven’t been in the traditional left/right camps. It’s been a question of populism, elitism, the BBC above the masses – do you feel you’re out of touch?

Well I’m not out of touch.

Do you feel the BBC’s out of touch?

Well I’ve already told you that in some respects it listens too intently to certain pressure groups, and when a particular idea takes hold the BBC is a little too ready to fail to challenge it, perhaps. At the moment I’m mildly concerned about the extent that we are indulging in public grief, for whatever reason. The BBC almost dare not say otherwise or we become callous and indifferent to suffering. But yeah, I suppose some people are out of touch. I dare say my own personal credentials are probably more in touch with… well I don’t know – did you go to university?

I did, I know you did not.

I didn’t. And I think anybody who went to university is going to have a slightly different life experience from those who didn’t.

You’ve mentioned that you left school at fifteen to join the Penarth Times because you saw journalists as synonymous with Superman –

It’s true! I know it’s embarrassing, but true.

Well I was wondering: just as Clark Kent was a cover story for Superman, was journalism a cover or a way out for you - tired of school, tired of the people?

That might hold, but I literally have never wanted, since I was able to think or express myself at all, since the age of five or six, I’ve never ever wanted to do anything other than be a reporter. I’ve never wanted to be a train driver or an airline pilot or be an astronaut and go to the moon. But no, I didn’t like school. It was a posh school, academically elitist and elitist in other ways. They disapproved hugely because I did a paper round in the morning. I was always regarded as less than they were… no I was not happy at school, I wanted to get out.

The Today Programme has set the news agenda of the day for decades. How has it changed over the years?

Enormously and not at all. I bore people with the story of when I bought a farm, somebody told me about the neighbouring farm where the old guy dug ditches with a long-handled shovel. He’d been doing it for sixty years, he spent his life digging ditches. And somebody said “my God you must have got through a lot of shovels in your life”, and he says “oh no. Same shovel. Occasionally I’ve had to put a new blade on it, or a new handle. But it’s the same shovel.” And it’s a bit like that with the BBC, we change all the time but I think we change incrementally. If you listen to The Today Programme today and the programme I was doing thirty-two years ago, you wouldn’t notice in many respects a massive difference. There’s a difference in tone, it would have been more formal, but every editor brings a different approach.

In the very early days it wasn’t Today as we know it, it was meant to be a chat show with a bit of this and a bit of that, Eileen Fowler doing your morning exercises. That was completely different. And I remember Jack de Manio boasting, or complaining, I don’t know what it was, that he’d had to do three interviews over the course of the last few days. Three, live interviews! My God!

Do you think there’s been a dumbing down of the news?

No, no I don’t with us. I know it’s incredibly fashionable, but I don’t. You’re speaking to somebody who makes almost no use of social media, I do not tweet, so I can’t speak for the stuff that appears up there. And I don’t think that the newspapers have dumbed down, I think in lots of ways the newspapers are more serious and better informed, less ready to buy into the message being delivered by whatever group. But dumbing down? No.

Once on the record you did threaten to quit The Today Programme after the BBC cut a section of your interview with Rowan Williams. The Archbishop objected to being asked about the morality of the Iraq war, and the broadcaster capitulated to his demands. What questions do the BBC not ask?

The BBC has never, ever, told me or suggested to me that I not ask any question at any time. And the moment they do that I will be out the door – and that’s not an idle threat. They know that, and wouldn’t dream of doing it anyway. That was a case when the editor thought, wrongly, that we’d made a firm and solemn undertaking to the Archbishop of Canterbury that I wouldn’t ask whatever it was. We hadn’t, and it was a completely valid question, he answered honestly, thoughtfully, as he would. We didn’t use it – and that was shocking. Stupid, stupid mistake to make.

In an interview with Chris Cook you alluded to broadcaster salaries as a marketplace – their value defined by a going rate. But you then accepted an annual pay cut of (an estimable £300,000) in the recent aftermath of the gender pay debacle; was this then a moral decision?

Three pay cuts. I wouldn’t dream of claiming the moral high ground. But personal? Of course it was. Nobody said to me that I had to take a pay cut, I volunteered it. The BBC is in serious financial trouble, and I was earning, still am earning, a lot of money. I could perfectly well afford to take a pay cut, and I was perfectly happy to do so.

Why do you think the BBC deserves its unique funding privileges?

If we didn’t get money from the licence payer, we wouldn’t exist. That’s it. And if you take the view that Britain is better of with the BBC than without it, and I do take that view very, very, very strongly indeed. Britain would be a much poorer place in a million ways without the BBC. It has to be funded: ipso facto. (Now) you mean sell advertising. Why doesn’t the BBC sell advertising? Because it wouldn’t be the BBC!

So what is unique about it?

What is unique? The institution is unique, you either accept that or you don’t! We manage to do what we’re doing because the licence payer makes it possible. So that gives us a degree of independence that other organisations do not have, we don’t have to satisfy the requirements of the people who would fund us. There’s no pressure on us from subscriptions. We don’t have to go downmarket or upmarket. What we’re able to do is offer something, and it’s crucial we continue to do this, something to everybody who pays the licence fee.

My youngest son now would not dream of switching on the radio or the television to find out what’s going on. And why would he? He’s got a phone. So if this goes the way many of us believe it will go, we may very well face the prospect that we’ve lost the support of a very large section of the population. Young people may decide they don’t want the BBC, and in that case it’s game over. I think it’s a way off, ten, twenty years. I don’t know, social media may do for us in the end. No it will, it almost certainly will if you think about it. We can and should continue to compete on their level, we do a lot of podcasts, we make our material available on all sorts of different platforms, and maybe we will be able to hold them off. But if we get to the point when many more people are watching Netflix than drama series on BBC, then we may have to start thinking…

On the other hand, that’s a pessimistic outlook, and I’m not really that pessimistic because if you look back at the last hundred years the one thing we’ve been capable of doing is adapting. You could argue that it was either survive or die, but we have adapted. (We were) one of the earliest organisations to have developed a solid website, maybe we were too good. But BBC digital has a vast number of supporters and users. So maybe we’ll survive.

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