The problem with John

John Humphrys talks to Julian Marshall

When the current editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Sarah Sands, was interviewed for the job, she and her fellow applicants were all asked the same pressing question: ‘What would you do about John?’

John had become a problem for the BBC’s senior management because he asked direct questions of politicians and held their toes to the fire until they answered. And they didn’t like it. Boris Johnson hasn’t appeared on the programme since he stood for leadership of the Conservative party and none of the current ministers have been on it either, forcing Today to change its decades long habit of grilling the relevant minister of the day in the 08.10 slot and talk to ‘real people’ instead.

“That can’t be all my fault” he chortles. “I haven’t been there since September”.

John Humphrys retired as Today programme presenter after more than 30 years in the job and after 53 years working for the BBC. He has, he says, always had a problem with authority and though he loves the BBC he makes no bones about describing the decision-making powers of its senior management as pathetic. “The BBC has been mismanaged for a very long time”. John talked to fellow BBC broadcaster Julian Marshall on Thursday 27 February 2020, at St Michael & All Angels Church, at an evening to raise money for the Upper Room charity and for his own charity The Kitchen Table Charities Trust.

Problem with authority

He told the audience that his problem with authority probably came from his father. John grew up working class – “an outside lav and all that” in South Wales. His father went blind when he was 13. He’d contracted measles, and in those days looking into bright light when you had the disease was dangerous. His mother had told him not to go outside, but to stay in his room while she went out shopping. He did go out into the bright sunlight and within 24 hours went blind. “It made him angry” said John. “He had no education but he knew he was as good as anyone else and he was resentful of any form of authority and of money”.

Had John inherited those traits? Was he ‘chippy’? ‘Argumentative’? Yes he admitted to both of those. “Does it ever obscure your judgement?” asked Julian Marshall. “Yes” said John, but “it’s better to believe the worst of a politician than to believe the best; then they have the chance to prove themselves”. He doesn’t subscribe to the view that all politicians are bastards, but he said, they do all want power.

John was once described as ‘the rudest man in Britain’. It was the artist Tracey Emin who called him that when they appeared together on BBC 1’s Have I Got News for You. It was prompted bya dust-up on the Today programme” said John. “She thought she should have won the Turner prize for her Unmade Bed”. He may have said that he could have produced the unmade bed just as easily. “Yes but you didn’t go to art school” she said.

When John Humphrys was young he wanted to make a name for himself, he said, so he accepts now that he was unduly aggressive at times. In particular he regretted being rude to John Hume the Northern Ireland politician who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. “We got letters in sackfuls” he said. “I was lucky not to have been fired”.

He put his aggression down to insecurity. He’d been abroad for many years working as a foreign correspondent and was worried he hadn’t the depth of knowledge of British politics he needed. “I don’t believe I’ve been rude for many years” though, he said. “I stopped being rude but I was persistent”.

Starting out on the Penarth Times

John’s first job was on the Penarth Times. He moved up to a bigger paper in South Wales and then to ‘Telly Welly Wales’ as it was known – TWW. He was working there when the Aberfan disaster happened. He knew the area well, having lived there, and happened to be in the office early when news came in of a tip slide. Just after 9.15 a group of workmen had been sent to inspect the slag heap above the village.

“A deep depression had formed within the tip like the crater of a volcano. As the men watched, the waste rose into the depression, formed itself into a lethal tidal wave of slurry and rolled down the hillside, gathering speed and height until it was thirty feet high and destroying everything in its path”.

John read aloud the account he’d written at the time, from his autobiography A Day Like Today. He recalled watching miners, their faces blackened with coal dust, streaked with sweat and tears as they dug in the rubble of the village school, looking in many cases for their own children. 116 children and 28 adults died in the Aberfan disaster.

“What that foul mixture of black waste did not flatten it filled – classrooms choked with the stuff until the building was covered and the building became a tomb”.

The impact on John was that he lost whatever faith in God he had and it deepened his mistrust “almost hatred” of authority. Those who lived nearby knew the tip was unsafe and had written and told the National Coal Board. ‘We did not know’ is what the NCB told the subsequent inquiry. “They did, because I and other journalists had seen the letters the miners had written to them”.

Watergate

His TV career led him to witness much death and destruction – earthquakes, famines, but probably the biggest story he covered in terms of its lasting significance was Watergate. He had not long arrived in the US to open the BBC’s New York office when the details of how Nixon had spied on his political opponents started coming out. “No United States president had ever had what happened to him happen… toppling the leader of the free world in the most dramatic way possible”.

His success as a foreign correspondent led John to be offered the job as 9 o’clock newsreader; a job which carried immense prestige but which he and others (Michael Buerk) found profoundly tedious. “It was the most boring job I’ve ever done” he told the audience at St Michael’s. “It’s a job that requires no talent. You just need the ability to read, to look into a camera and not fall off your chair”. He stuck it for six years, but didn’t hesitate when the phone rang one evening and he was offered the job as presenter on Today.

Fond memories of Margaret Thatcher

What he didn’t bargain for was the impact on his social life. Brian Redhead, his co-presenter in the early days, used to go to his club, eat lunch and have a nap in the middle of the day. John couldn’t do that, so he had to go to bed early, in order to get up in the middle of the night to start work. He learned the hard way that he couldn’t stay out late.

“I went to a party and got smashed. I was fine right up until 07.30 and then the hangover kicked in. I couldn’t think of another question, and even worse than that I couldn’t even remember who it was I was interviewing”.

In all he has interviewed nine prime ministers. He remembers Margaret Thatcher fondly – “the last prime minister not to have had media training”, though she got the better of him. At 6.40 one morning the producer came on talk-back to tell him the Prime Minister was on the phone. He thought at first they were joking, but seconds later heard those unmistakable tones in his ear. She’d taken exception to something which had been reported and phoned up to put the record straight. He thought he may as well do a proper interview while she was on and proceeded to talk to her for another 15 minutes.

“I asked her about religion. ‘What is the essence of Christianity?’ I asked her, thinking she’d say ‘love’ or ‘charity’. Her answer was meant to prompt a barrage of questions from him about the unemployment rate, homelessness and poverty. She answered with one word, ‘choice'”, which completely stymied him. “I had imagined she’d fall into my trap and she would have to resign and I’d be the hero of a grateful nation”.

“Beethoven can’t answer back”

Since leaving the BBC he’s been presenting on Classic FM. He claims to be be enjoying it. “Beethoven can’t answer back”. When he gives these talks to publicise his book, he’s usually asked if there’s anyone he would like to have interviewed who he hasn’t. His answer is the Queen. He has been invited to a private lunch with her. “I wouldn’t have thought she’d have lunch with someone like me” he said conversationally to the flunky on his way into Buckingham Palace. “No sir, neither would I” was the response.

He did pluck up courage to ask her for an interview and her response was “No”. (Or ‘neeowwww’ as he mimicked her). “What’s more Mr Humphrys, if I were to do any such thing, it would certainly not be with you”.

Copies of A Day Like Today are available online and in all good bookshops. Proceeds to to his charity ‘The Kitchen Table Charities Trust‘ which distributes money to charities in southern Saharan countries.