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Angela Tilby: Humphrys, the valiant terrier

27 September 2019


John Humphrys outside the BBC

John Humphrys outside the BBC

JOHN HUMPHRYS presented Radio 4’s Today for the final time last week, just as the Daily Mail began to serialise his memoirs, A Day Like Today (William Collins). In the first extract, he accused his former BBC bosses of “institutional liberal bias” and of being out of touch with their audiences. At the weekend, Rod Liddle, his former colleague and friend on Today, praised him for his on-air ferocity and dismissal of the BBC’s “lazy gentility”.

Few would deny that Mr Humphrys, at his best, brought a forensic intelligence and dogged persistence to the big political interview. He was also a genuinely kind man, capable of real empathy, even on air. When I met him in the context of Thought for the Day, he was unfailingly friendly and courteous.

But his success as a political interviewer depended, in part, on cultivating the persona that he was the listeners’ advocate, an unprivileged everyman, whose appointed job was to unmask the pretensions of the great and the good. There was something mythical about this persona, which is, perhaps, why so many believed in it. In fact, Mr Humphrys seems to have believed in it himself. He was the valiant “terrier” who would not let go once he had got his teeth into a villain; an honest broker between the mendacious political classes (who were secretly in cahoots with the effete and privileged BBC bosses) and a vulnerable public.

As it happens, this myth has served us well for more than 30 years. We have benefited from the lack of deference in journalism. Most politicians realise that they need to be held to account, and accept this with reasonable grace, as the tributes on Humphrys’s last Today bore witness. But the myth of the honest broker has its limits. Our lack of trust in politicians has been matched more recently by a lack of trust in broadcasters.

Today does not have the status that it once had. Anecdotally, I have come across friends who have switched to Radios 2, 3 and 5 Live, finding the ritualised aggression of Today simply too abrasive. It is not only audiences that have defected: politicians are beginning to boycott the programme, and, if they continue to do so, it is sunk.

That would be a tremendous loss. Without Humphrys, the Today team has a chance to re-address its relationship with its audience, and to consider whether the mission to question should be rebalanced by more emphasis on the mission to explain, which was once also part of the BBC’s journalistic brief. Today interviewers should not be deferential, but neither should they over-indulge the fantasy that all politicians are, as Claud Cockburn put it, “lying bastards”. There are some important questions that cannot be answered within ten seconds by a simple “Yes” or “No”.

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