He is part of the broadcasting aristocracy. But John Humphrys has a charitable eye on the poor. Ahead of a talk in Epsom this month, Emily Horton hears his thoughts on Today and hopes for tomorrow
Rolf Marriott BBC
John Humphrys: brilliant journalist, national treasure or the Rottweiler of Radio 4. Take your pick. He is, in any case, the man of the morning; the herald of the dawn; the voice that launched a thousand shifts at workplaces up and down the land as anchor of the flagship news and current affairs programme, Today.
As its longest-serving presenter, Humphrys has become the grandmaster of the political interview, jolting the nation out of early morning ignorance and apathy on all the issues of the day. Cutting a swathe of reason through the grandiose, implausible and downright specious claims of his heavyweight interviewees, he is synonymous with all that is precious about the BBC as an impartial guardian of truth.
Yet when it comes to talking about himself, this pillar of Broadcasting House is rather more reticent. Self-deprecation is much in evidence as I congratulate him on his recent 30-year anniversary at Today.
“It’s more luck than judgement, I can assure you,” he replies, speaking from his West London home ahead of a talk at Epsom Playhouse this month. “I am a journalist who has been fortunate enough to have had a jolly nice and interesting career – and that really is about it.”
"I’ve had a huge number of lucky breaks in my career. Becoming a BBC foreign correspondent was beyond my wildest imaginings"
Or perhaps not. As his seven million listeners will testify, such a light overview does scant justice to a man who has climbed every rung of the ladder, starting out as a cub reporter on the local newspaper in his native South Wales because his family could no longer afford to keep him at school.
“Getting a job at the local paper was pretty much the height of my ambition,” he admits.
Expectation, however, soon soared. After a spell on the Western Mail, he moved into television with TWW in Cardiff and was the first reporter on the scene of the Aberfan disaster in 1966, when 116 children were killed by a collapsing colliery spoil tip.
Not surprisingly, he quickly came to the attention of the BBC.
“I’ve had a huge number of lucky breaks in my career. Becoming a BBC foreign correspondent was beyond my wildest imaginings, to say nothing of the Today programme, Mastermind or reading the Nine O’Clock News.
“I quite literally couldn’t have imagined doing it – television didn’t exist in its present form when I was a kid. There was one channel and that was on for about three hours a day.”
As he begins to open up, I find the 73-year-old to be a man of many moods. He can be brisk, no-nonsense and serious – a faithful reflection of his on-air persona. But there is also a touching humility, mingled with flashes of sincerity and warmth.
“You could argue that my opinion is worth no more than anyone else’s,” he begins again. “The only difference is that people like me, in the words of the old cliché, have had a ringside seat on history. Thanks to that, people do become quite interested in hearing about my job, as most of them don’t get to do it. Ultimately though, I’m a hack. I am not a George Clooney.”
Even so, his inquisitor’s role is of pivotal importance in the task of holding power to account.
“If I do my job properly, I ask the questions that people want answered. Of course, I have political views of my own, but I don’t express them. I am quite rightly required by the BBC – and indeed by myself – to be entirely impartial.”
So he won’t share his views on the controversial politics of the President on the far side of the Pond?
"I once had an impromptu call from Margaret Thatcher from the kitchen at Number Ten, and there was only about 30 seconds’ notice before we were due on air."
“Absolutely not. I don’t comment on living politicians or people of whom I have to ask questions on the Today programme. Once they retire, or they’ve gone to the grave, one can have a bit of fun...”
Exactly the kind of integrity that keeps Today as popular as ever with the listeners.
“Our audience figure now is some three million larger than when I joined the programme 30 years ago. That tells you all that you need to know,” says John emphatically.
“On a personal level, my job is enormously rewarding. I was bored rigid reading the news, but the Today programme is probably the best job in journalism. For one thing, you get so much access to such a broad spectrum of people, such as my speaking yesterday to [veteran Hollywood actor] Dick Van Dyke.
“I don’t particularly like getting up in the middle of the night, but I never feel: ‘Oh god, I’ve got to go and do the Today programme.’ I enjoy it as much now as when I first began.
“More so, in fact,” he corrects himself. “I was scared stiff when I started, but I have managed to get over that somewhat. Live radio is the most exciting, stimulating and enjoyable of media, but it can be moderately scary if something for which you are not properly prepared suddenly drops into your lap. That happens all the time, but you just have to wing it.
“I once had an impromptu call from Margaret Thatcher from the kitchen at Number Ten, and there was only about 30 seconds’ notice before we were due on air. If you’re not reasonably prepared for that sort of thing, you can make an awful fool of yourself.”
Rolf Marriott BBC
There is nothing foolish, however, about the Kitchen Table Charities Trust which John created 12 years ago to raise money for small charities, working mostly overseas, that lack the profile and the finance to launch fundraising operations for themselves. Orphans, widows and victims of polio and cancer are among those to benefit from the scheme.
“Setting up the Trust, with the £1,000 legacy my father left me, is the most important thing I have ever done. Initially I was going to use the money to found a school or two in sub-Saharan Africa. However, I soon realised that it was a stupid idea because I knew nothing about building schools, or about the bureaucracy of it all. Instead, I decided to set up a website to draw attention to these one- or two-man band charities that are run from the kitchen table. So far it has generated about £3.5m.
“These small, yet very deserving operations are often brilliant at what they do, but they struggle to raise the necessary funds. I am in the fortunate position of being able to generate money for them by doing events like this forthcoming Epsom talk.
"I will go when they want me to go or when I’ve had enough, but at the moment neither of those is the case"
“We have two basic criteria. The first is that we help only those people at the very bottom of the heap, such as very poor and often orphaned children that need money to go to school. The second is that any charity we assist must spend no money in this country on administration or salaries.
“One of the biggest things that we do is to provide decent lavatories, especially for girls and disabled children. Many girls won’t go to school after a certain age if there are no adequate toilets.
“Another charity, in Malawi, makes wheelchairs. There are a lot of very poor children with club feet or other deformities that are unable to walk and therefore don’t go to school. If you can give them a wheelchair that they can’t buy for themselves, it changes their lives.
“I believe that education is what matters in the long run and that even the poorest should be able, in years to come, to feed themselves and escape the poverty trap.”
As for John, he shows no signs of slowing down. Retirement from Today is not yet on the cards.
“I will go when they want me to go or when I’ve had enough, but at the moment neither of those is the case. It would be wrong still to be there in another 30 years, but for now I’m hugely enjoying it. I have no plans to throw in the towel...”
- An Evening with John Humphrys, April 5 at Epsom Playhouse; tickets £10. To donate directly to John’s charity visit: kitchentablecharities.org
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