LIBBY PURVES: Why only slippery politicians will be celebrating when radio’s rottweiler John Humphrys hangs up his headphones
When John Humphrys, with a 76th birthday this year, actually leaves Radio 4’s Today, listeners will be blinking in disbelief, sighing with relief or wailing in grief — depending on their temperament.
But however they react, it will seem inconceivable that he’s no longer there, weaving a thread of vigorous argument through our troubled mornings, putting the tang into an indigestible news universe like the streaks in a lump of blue cheese.
Politicians will mop their brows on the day of his departure, knowing that the worst they face is a chin-stroking Nick Robinson or (more dangerously) a civil but firm inquiry from Mishal Husain or Martha Kearney.
The terrifying Humph presence — glasses on nose, hands spread wide in gesture across a pitiless table in the studio — will no more be part of a dawn ordeal which made Labour’s Robin Cook once say he could not sleep beforehand.
On Radio 4 there will always be rigour, good questions — and embarrassing moments for the less than wholly competent interviewee.
In recent years I had to visit the Today studio for the live trail of Midweek, and it was always bouncier when John was on
But Humphrys has been a legend of the Today programme for more than 30 years, the longest ever, and nearly twice as long as Brian Redhead before him. He has inspired and infuriated generations of listeners and we’ll miss him. He represents something increasingly rare.
People who don’t listen much to the programme sometimes read stories about complaints over his interviewing style, and assume this is some musty old gammon, an upmarket patriarch. Not so: the essence of John Humphrys is a bounding, hybrid vigour.
If the BBC was a dog show, its public-school Dimblebys, Vines and Edward Stourtons would be high-bred, languid Great Danes or well-trained gundogs (and Paxo a pedigree Alsatian of elegant appearance but uncertain temperament).
Humphrys would be a scrappy, scruffy mongrel terrier. Off he’d go, chasing every rabbit, catching every ball, leaping on the grandest sofa with mud on his paws and a bark of amused defiance.
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It is quite wrong to identify him with what the BBC calls ‘a babble of poshness’ in its absurd new recruitment ad to attract journalists from diverse backgrounds.
He was born in Cardiff to a family that knew hunger; one great-grandmother, he discovered, was in the workhouse. He left school at 15 despite a grammar-school scholarship and did paper rounds (his first pay packet in the Fifties was £1.17s.6d on the Penarth Times, less than he got from the paper round so he kept that going, too).
John was the first reporter at the Aberfan disaster when 116 children and 28 adults died as a junior school was engulfed by a coal tip.
The trouble with such ‘great moments’ in journalism, he reflected, is that they are also great tragedies: for all his toughness, there is deep and honest sentiment in him. He worked as a foreign correspondent, set up the BBC New York bureau — a boozy, raucous time by all accounts.
On the road, he reported on everything from Britain’s dock strikes in the Seventies to Nixon’s resignation and the moment when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.
On the road, he reported on everything from Britain’s dock strikes in the Seventies to Nixon’s resignation and the moment when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe
He was diplomatic correspondent, then for a few years anchored the Nine O’Clock News at the point when newsreaders, for the first time on the BBC, doubled as writer-editors (in the cut-glass days of Angela Rippon, they didn’t).
But his arrival on Today to join Brian Redhead sparked a love affair with the job: he revels in the sheer fun of being first up in the morning with a story to tell.
He reads the papers with fierce attention and swallows complex briefs fast.
Aggressive at times, contrary quite often, he is fuelled by the adrenaline of news and genuine interest. Inside him vibrates the inquisitive, argumentative, determined cub reporter he was, loving intellectual friction. There is nothing smug or entitled; he does not trade in long, self-important complicated questions but often in alarmingly brusque simple ones.
His stamina is amazing: I presented Today four days a week for three-and-a-half years up to 1981, and remember the 3.30am alarm clocks, the briefings read with bleary eyes, the empty stomach assaulted by too much coffee.
But he thrives: in recent years I had to visit the Today studio for the live trail of Midweek, and it was always bouncier when John was on. He would take his eyes off the ubiquitous prompt-and-briefing screens to crack some joke during a tape, or shove me a flippant note during the sports news.
After one particularly gruelling live political interview, the note told me how he was feeling: ‘Always terrified after all these years.’
That is the essence of Humphrys: taking nothing for granted, including his own abilities.
As for the money, he was much maligned during the row about the gender pay gap at the Beeb. Executives will confirm that he never asked for the absurd sums which the BBC at one point paid him — reportedly £600,000 a year.
He spends millions on his Kitchen Table Charities Trust, supporting small causes including sanitation and dignity projects for teenage girls in sub-Saharan Africa.
He willingly halved his salary when the BBC anxiety about pay began. But after former China editor Carrie Gracie returned to the BBC newsroom and justifiably complained about insulting inequalities in pay, some mean spirit leaked a tape of John teasing North America editor Jon Sopel.
‘How much of your salary are you prepared to hand over to Carrie . . .’ he was recorded saying. ‘I’ve handed over more than you f***ing earn but I’m still left with more than anybody else . . .’
There was confected outrage against him — the then Loneliness Minister, the ridiculous Tracey Crouch even refused to be interviewed by him about anything.
But if you actually listen, it is clear that Humphrys is sending up and winding up his soberer colleague, pretending he would ask him about it on air while Sopel was reporting on Trump. It’s quite funny: newsroom banter. Women do that, too, you know.
But in any case, money is not what drives Humphrys: the fun of the job does. He won’t much like it when he does retire.
Curiosity, enjoyment and a bit of nerviness give him his edge. Live radio is both fun and alarming if you lack a carapace of smug over-confidence.
If he has seemed belligerent at times, deploying his full armoury on too small a target, as a listener I generally put it down to a sort of overspill of frustration with the absurdity of the whole world: ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be!’
As for his mild — and I suspect deliberately clowning — bafflement of popular culture, either you laugh with him and mutter, ‘Keep up, grandpa!’ or be po-facedly offended.
I, too, have shouted at him for interrupting someone really harmless, and as Today’s editor, Sarah Sands, weakly murmured after one entertaining car-crash moment with former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman: ‘Fashion isn’t John’s area of expertise.’
He had teased Shulman about unhealthy body shapes and uncomfortable shoes, and she lamented: ‘I was confronted by a grey-haired guy in chinos hectoring me on the business I had worked in for a quarter of a century and which he neither knew, nor cared, much about.’
That is the essence of Humphrys: taking nothing for granted, including his own abilities
But who could resist his blokey challenge to absurd fashion columns about the French tuck (leaving half your shirt hanging out like Meghan Markle). When men do it, they’re slobs, he said, but with women it’s fashion, adding: ‘As for ripped jeans. I rest my case.’
Another pointless row came after he asked actor Rupert Everett whether he regretted, for career reasons, having come out as gay.
There was prim fury all over Twitter, but Everett had talked about this before, and made it clear that, yes, it had damaged him. And he was on Today to discuss his film about Oscar Wilde’s disgrace.
Would you prefer a veneer of pretend respect for everything, or a bit of grit? Is it not worth it for moments like Humphrys’ ferocious demolition over Jimmy Savile of BBC Director-General George Entwistle — Humphrys’ ultimate boss at the time?
Or DUP politician Nelson McCausland’s comment that his was ‘a compassionate party’, only to have Humphrys respond: ‘Compassionate? I think if you were a gay person or a woman wanting an abortion . . .’
Maybe our appreciation will grow with memory, and many of the charges against him weaken on examination: Former Home Office minister Hazel Blears was indeed interrupted several times in an interview about police intelligence failures, but reading the transcript you notice she simply isn’t answering a straight question.
And misogynism? Nothing could be further from the truth. He cheered me on during my BBC years to the end, and long maintained that Today needs a woman editor.
As for his most furious detractor, Tory minister Jonathan Aitken did accuse him of ‘poisoning the well of democratic debate’. But four years later was himself jailed for perverting the course of justice.
No, on balance John Humphrys has been, for more than 30 years, a tonic — like a cold, clean, bracing morning dip. And we’re all the better for that.
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