Jim Naughtie on leaving the Today programme: “I’ll probably cry”

The presenter on the Jeremy Hunt gaff, John Humphrys and why he's leaving the staple of British radio after 21 years

Ostensibly we’re meeting because veteran Today presenter and Radio 4 stalwart Jim Naughtie – “the best voice to wake up to”, according to one writer – is part of BBC television’s commentary team for Saturday’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of VJ Day.

He also has a new job as a special correspondent for Radio 4 and is BBC News’s first ever books editor. And, with a short diversion for some class-A gossip about now disgraced Lord Sewel – whom Naughtie knew as leader of Aberdeen District Council way back when – this is what we start talking about.

Is the VJ Day commentary part of his new job? “No, no, no. Absolute coincidence…” And after a typically self-deprecating crack at his own expense about it being August and Dimbleby being on holiday, Naughtie is keen to tell me how delighted he is to have been asked to do it. He points out that he’s done lots of TV and radio commentaries over the years. He then does something that, if you’ve listened to him on Today, he does peerlessly well.

He creates a Naughtie “theory of everything”, to the effect that “describing an occasion, trying to catch a moment in words, whether to TV pictures or on radio… is very close to what I do today. It’s not unlike the whole business of what radio is, which is trying to take you there.”

And so there you have it, within minutes of starting our chat we’re on to what we will spend most of the next hour discussing – how he feels about vacating, after 21 years, one of the most prized possessions in the whole of journalistic broadcasting, a Today presenter’s chair. No longer “writing the front page of a newspaper – every day” or “dropping a word in the nation’s ear”.

He describes it as the perfect departure, moving from “dream job to dream job” and credits the BBC with managing a more than satisfactory process and outcome. It is, he says, “my ‘change of life’ stage”.

The conversation about the change may have started many months ago with Naughtie, but many years before that among the BBC hierarchy. Finding the right combination of presenters for the BBC’s most important daily news programme is like playing three-dimensional chess. Naughtie and his even longer-serving presenting partner John Humphrys have been at the heart of the line-up for more than two decades.

But both are ageing – Naughtie is on the cusp of 64; Humphrys almost 72 – and the BBC has had to start thinking about the next generation. For all his acknowledged brilliance, it is Naughtie, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of politics, who is probably easier to replace than Humphrys, who has an utterly unique interviewing style. Step forward outgoing BBC political editor Nick Robinson, who will slip into Naughtie’s Today seat in the autumn.

Nevertheless, Naughtie’s departure will be a big moment for him, for Today and for the listeners, whom he credits with harbouring a tangible sense of ownership of the programme. We will all miss his penchant for the never ending question – one to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice clocked up 183 words, and a more recent example to Danny Alexander during the last election lasted fully 55 seconds – substantially longer than the answer! Of which Naughtie says, “I’m the first person to admit it, I err on the side of verbosity.” He also says, and every radio presenter knows this to be true, that “every interview is a kind of chemical reaction… and you never really know until afterwards whether you did it right”.

Of his long-term on-air partner Humphrys, Naughtie says, “We’ve never had a cross word… we’re like Yin and Yang.” More like Statler and Waldorf, the two old curmudgeons from The Muppet Show, I suggest?

It’s far from the first time the comparison’s been made, and Naughtie says, with a distinct  twinkle in his eye, “I think I appreciate it more than John, because I’m the younger of the two.” Ouch!

I point out that Humphrys has previously complimented Naughtie’s notoriously chaotic style – he frequently loses the weather and cannot tell listeners the correct time in spite of having regular and digital clocks and even the time written out in words on a screen – as “in inverse proportion to his skill as an interviewer”. Of which Naughtie says, almost proudly, “It’s a very nice compliment. I am a bit messy.” 

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