I’m slightly scared about interviewing John Humphrys. The Radio 4 presenter and BBC broadcaster is notorious for his interrogative interview style. Any one who has listened to the Today programme will know that he’s unafraid to interrupt senior Cabinet ministers. If most of you think a tutorial grilling leaves you a quivering wreck, listening to him reduce politicians to stuttering, incomprehensibility is a relief. Under the Labour government, officials complained of the “John Humphrys” problem, referring to his supposedly aggressive technique.
“I don’t decide before, yes, I’m going to beat the crap out of a person.
If I decide that I’m going to be really tough on this guy, and then this guy answers my questions fully and honestly, then what’s to be tough about?
Humphrys was born in 1943 in Cardiff, and worked on various local papers before joining the BBC in 1966. He left school at 15 and recognises that he only got the break he did because of his grammar school education.
“I was one of those – I suppose you’d have to say – ‘lucky ones’, we didn’t have any money when I was a kid, but I went to what was arguably- well – accepted to be the best grammar school in Cardiff. It was elitist and it wanted kids who were brilliant at sport and brilliant at everything and I wasn’t brilliant at anything but I got a place there. So I got a decent education, but I was desperate to leave and so I did. That enabled me to get a job on the local paper and had I not gone to that grammar school I suppose, starting out, I wouldn’t have got that job on that local paper so it did a lot for me in that sense.”
I’ll add that none of this is arrogant in tone. Earlier this autumn, he presented Unequal Opportunities, a TV programme reacting to inequalities in the state school system. He’s defiant in his stance on selectve education: If you fail at the age of 11, you have failed. By and large the other kids in my street ended up doing manual labour jobs and didn’t have the opportunities that I had. The approach of the grammar school system – it worked for me, it bloody well didn’t work for them.”
Humphrys calls the fact that children from deprived backgrounds are half as likely to get five A*-C grades at GCSE as those from middle class backgrounds a “massive indictment of our education system.” He spent months talking to teachers, researchers and pupils and knows where he stands on the issue: “I put it on a very basic level, which is that every single child should have the opportunity – and that’s the important word – that every other child has. We’ve got to spend an enormous amount of money improving our primary schools.”
John seems aware of the sway he holds over public opinion. The Today programme’s listnership stands at over 6 million. MP polls have rated the show “the most influential programme in setting the political agenda.” In other words, what statesmen say to John has the potential to seriously tarnish a reputation: “Particularly with politicians, the audience expects you to be rigourous with them because you’re testing their arguments.”
Has he ever pushed it too far?
“I often have and yes, I’m very well aware of it. I don’t need an editor to tell me that. I know it. I think I pushed it more in the early days. I was maybe just trying to prove myself, when I was the new boy on the programme.” But has an editor ever had to tell him off? In 2005, an incident separate from the Today programme saw Humphrys having to defend the BBC’s political impartiality.
“[The editors and I] have had some conversations of varying degrees over the years – it would be very odd if we hadn’t.”
I take a leaf out of Humphry’s book and push it further. What’s the worst interview he’s ever conducted? Before the words are out of my mouth: “I do have an idea but I’m not giving you that.” Although online commentators have written, “He is just rude and likes the sound of his own voice,” Humphrys is very aware of his faults. Referring to post-broadcast cooling off: “You know how you’ve done. I always get it exactly right about an hour after we’ve come out.” Therein lies both the beauty and the problems of live radio.
Whatever the stance on his supposed aggression or arrogance, one of his appeals is his clarity. Commentators have praised his “avoidance of the endless moronic banter of many interviewers.” He sees his role as “testing” politicians’ messages. Making aurally pleasant radio is a secondary concern: “You can’t get carried away with that and be really gentle with all the politicians. You can’t just sit down and say ‘Is there anything else you’d like to say to everybody?’ Politicians are smart, they come on the programme to say – it’s stating the bleeding obvious – what they want to say.”
It would be wrong to think Humphrys exists solely to petrify politicians. He has campaigned for the use of correct English. “It was some ‘peabrain’ that decided to stop teaching children grammar. We’ve lost sight of what constitutes an effective school education.”
To clear things up, John Humphrys is not “downright rude,” as some have made him out to be. Yes, he’s quick to correct me where assumptions are made. When I suggest that apathy might be the cause of failure in education, he cuts back: “We can’t talk about these things in grand theoretical terms.” But he typifies firm but fair. Whether you warm to his style or not, he makes for engaging, often entertaining radio. He says himself: “Humour is a more effective weapon than aggression, anyway.” That is, of course, until he comes to interview ministers about spending cuts in the education system. His passion for the subject is evident: at that point, the supposed aggression might spring forth.