John Humphrys interrupts me across his kitchen table. The fact that I’m in the middle of asking whether interrupting sometimes disturbs the flow of an interview doesn’t seem to register. Only half my question makes it safely across to his side of the table. “It’s essential sometimes. It’s vital – not just allowable or defensible,” he says defiantly, admitting that his reputation for interrupting was “maybe” once fair but not any more. “Otherwise you get party political broadcasts and people would go off on little journeys you don’t want them to go on.”
Humphrys himself can be difficult to interrupt. He gives long, detailed answers that wind their way to a conclusion. He’s 71 this summer, and there’s no sign of him slowing down. In fact, he runs every day, cycles “pretty much everywhere in London” and is sporting a pair of trainers below his navy jumper and dark blue chinos.
It’s 27 years since he joined Today. Years as a foreign correspondent, first in the US and then South Africa, as well as more than half a decade presenting the BBC’s Nine o’Clock News had come before. But it is as a fearless, sometimes frightening interviewer that he is now best known. He claims to have mellowed “enormously” over the years, but he’s lost none of his ability to eviscerate an interviewee. Just ask his former boss, George Entwistle, who resigned as BBC director-general hours after an appearance on Today, when he fell victim to Humphrys on devastating form.
So, is the rottweiler reputation unfair? “Rottweilers – I’ve never had one and I don’t want one – but I’m told they can be extremely gentle. They’re big, powerful and strong – none of which I am. They just have to be trai…” He stops mid-word. Trained? “Your word not mine in the end! They have to learn and I am a different interviewer now from the one who started on Today. That is a fact.”
He says, though, that he does sometimes want to have an argument on air. Then he checks himself. “You don’t set out to have a row but when the row develops, you don’t necessarily want to recoil from it. It’s sometimes good radio. Sometimes it gets in the way and sometimes it can be illuminating. If the politician gets cross, it tells you something about the politician. So heated exchanges are not always a bad thing. The idea all the public ever wants to hear are reasoned discussions is nonsense.”
What really matters for the BBC, says Humphrys, is that people trust it. Impartiality is key and his natural scepticism is helpful. He admits to having voted for “most political parties” and says what he is “NOT” is an ideologue. He wouldn’t be able to look in the mirror in the morning if he were ever influenced by any views while at the microphone. But this hasn’t, he says, always been the case with the organisation as a whole.
“The BBC has tended over the years to be broadly liberal as opposed to broadly conservative for all sorts of perfectly understandable reasons. The sort of people we’ve recruited – the best and the brightest – tended to come from universities and backgrounds where they’re more likely to hold broadly liberal views than conservative.” On questions of Europe and immigration, the BBC was, he implies, not balanced.
“We weren’t sufficiently sceptical – that’s the most accurate phrase – of the pro-European case. We bought into the European ideal. We weren’t sufficiently sceptical about the pro-immigration argument. We didn’t look at the potential negatives with sufficient rigour.” Quite some admission. But Humphrys says this is no longer the case: “I think we’re out of that now. I think we have changed.”
Today has also changed since he started out. It has, in his view, become sharper and (unlike in the past) concerned with breaking news, as well as more accessible, less forbidding. Still, there are twice as many male presenters as female and Humphrys is a champion of gender equality on air. “It’s terribly simple. Obviously, not all men are the same as all women but they should have equal opportunities and the idea that you say, ‘Well, we’ve now got two [female presenters], that’s enough,’ is daft.”
One of his female colleagues in the Today studio is Mishal Husain. A fuss was made in the press when he suggested last year, while hosting Celebrity Mastermind, that she was only in her news job because of her good looks. He says the comment was taken out of context – though he’s quick not to blame the producers. “I was making the point that it helps in the newsreading business – and this isn’t controversial, you only have to switch on the telly – to be young and beautiful AND,” he adds, “highly trained. She’s a proper journalist.” They get on, he concludes, very well. “Of course we do.” His guess is that the next vacancy at Today will be filled by a woman.
Humphrys once stood in for David Dimbleby as the chair of BBC1’s Question Time and is the only presenter ever to have done so. But he did it, he thinks, very badly. He wouldn’t trade his Today job for anything but he’d like to do it again. Just not, as last time, on the same day as the Today programme. “I’d like to do Question Time when I’ve had some sleep.”
Unsurprisingly, he’s an articulate advocate for Today. He believes it’s short-changed, given the role it plays. He’s quick to mention its seven million weekly listeners and says, without qualification, that it’s the “most important BBC programme. More resources should be devoted to Today… we’re as pared down as it’s possible to get.”
The BBC is, he thinks, sympathetic to this. “But the problem was that when the previous regime was faced with having to cut its budget under huge pressure, and reasonably so because of the way we saw money was being chucked around – in some cases irresponsibly, big pay-offs to people who shouldn’t have had them – you look at your own programme and you think, ‘Bloody hell, we could have done with that.’”
What, I wonder, does Humphrys think of BBC management? “There are too many of them. I think they think that. I think Tony Hall thinks that – I don’t know, I haven’t asked him, but I think he thinks that. Over the years we’ve been grotesquely over-managed, there’s no question. They’re now getting a grip on it. A lot have gone. I think more need to go.”
Humphrys, though, has no intention of going himself. I point out that he’s just given up his freelance status to become staff again at the age of 70 and he roars with laughter at the irony. “A former director-general, I think his name was [Mark] Thompson, said to me, ‘Just remember how long Alistair Cooke went on.’ I think it was 92.”
For the moment he wakes up in the morning thinking, “Bloody hell, it’s cold and miserable and I’d rather stay in bed,” before a second thought kicks in “very very quickly. ‘I’m looking forward to this.’ The minute I’m in the car, in the office, I am consumed with curiosity as to what we’re going to be doing because you don’t know… I love doing the programme. How could you not? My curiosity has not dimmed at all. If anything it’s increased.”
And he still does his homework. “You’ve got to know what’s going on all the time and I mean all the time.” He reads “pretty much” all the papers every day and there’s no switching off, even when he’s on holiday in Greece where’s he’s built a second home. He reads the papers online but, while some colleagues have Twitter up and running live on air, he’s not a convert. He wants his news to be mediated. “I don’t trust it as a delivery mechanism for news. The idea that you need Twitter to keep up to date is rubbish.”
So who, then, is John Humphrys really? “I’m a different person when I’m reading a story to my youngest child [son Owen, 13; he also has two grown-up children] or to my grandchildren in bed at night than I am when I’m sitting in front of the Prime Minister at ten past eight in the morning. Of course.” He says his proudest achievement is setting up a children’s charity in Africa.
“I suppose when you do what I do you’re remembered for the destructive rather than constructive things. Had George Entwistle survived that encounter and was still director-general today, it would have disappeared. It’s an important job, of course it is. Holding to account people in positions of power – that’s absolutely essential. But it’s nice to be doing something that is not in any sense negative, is entirely positive and seeing the best in people. So there is another side to my life.”
Today is on Monday – Friday at 6am and Saturday at 7 am on BBC Radio 4.