If you are fascinated by the doings of media folk, you will probably have been recently reading about the retirement of the Today programme’s resident silverback, John Humphrys. After 33 years in the job (a record) the 76-year-old has decided it’s time to hang up his microphone and get a good night’s sleep for a change.
But he didn’t go quietly. The very day after his leaving party — held in the oak-panelled gloom of the old governor’s boardroom in the original part of Broadcasting House — the Daily Mail‘s front-page headline trumpeted: “BBC Icon savages bias … at the Beeb” and devoted many of the inside pages to extracts from his autobiography A Day Like Today. And I must admit, as someone who has spent many years trying to explain why bias at the BBC is so insidious and so important, my spirits rose; at last, I thought, a powerful endorsement from an unexpected source.
I enjoyed that small but gratifying spasm of affirmation particularly as Mr Humphrys was good enough to name check me and my work in the Mail extracts. But it turns out the paper’s take was somewhat misleading; a close reading of the book shows that yes, Humphrys does have his criticisms, but they are quite limited in scope. What actually emerges is just how much of a BBC man he is, whether he recognises it or not. Which might come as some consolation to the BBC’s director-general, Lord Hall, who, over the bad wine and foul canapes, had heaped praise on his star presenter only to wake the following morning to find that Humphrys had written disobliging things about the Corporation in the paper that is a sworn enemy.
The criticisms of the BBC that Humphrys makes in the book, to my mind come nowhere near the heart of the matter; they stem, rather from his own life story and prejudices. And Humphrys’ life has certainly been a fascinating one. As often is the case it is the early years which come across most vividly and in his case it is the stark poverty of his family background that grips the reader.
Who will miss John Humphrys?
One of five children — one of whom died tragically young — Humphrys was born in Cardiff during the war to a father who scraped a meagre living as a freelance french-polisher. His memories of those years underline the distance we have travelled as a nation during his lifetime; we have become immeasurably richer and it is impossible to imagine any family today enduring the privations his did. But Humphrys enjoyed one inestimable blessing: he was raised in a loving and stable family that cherished its children and put the greatest store on education. Working-class families today enjoy a standard of living undreamt of by his parents; but for so many children, of all classes, what is missing today is that emotional security he enjoyed.
There is one anecdote that struck me forcibly; the young John had to go to hospital for treatment on a cyst at the base of his spine. As he was lying, face down and butt naked, the consultant arrived with his ‘firm’ of juniors. The great man eyed the patient and declaimed: “the trouble with this boy is that he doesn’t bathe regularly” leaving the boy in question “cringing with shame and embarrassment”. The crass lack of empathy is breath-taking; did that man not understand that there was no proper bathroom in the Humphrys’ home? That ‘regular bathing’ was a luxury denied to many poor folk?
Understandably, slights like this left the young Humphrys with a substantial chip on his shoulder — an inbuilt resentment of the arrogance and entitlement of those who took the good things in life for granted. But that very sense of unfairness was also the spur which gave Humphrys his cutting edge and turned him into the formidable interrogator of the rich and powerful.
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Humphrys’ journalistic career is one which many another hack would envy; as a reporter he had stand-out talent; after working on local papers in south Wales The Sunday Times tried to recruit him. Unfortunately for them a job offer with TWW — the local commercial TV franchise — came along at the same moment and the glamour of TV seduced him. After that he had a stellar ascent; the BBC took him on and, still in his twenties, he was given the plum posting as BBC TV’s first Washington correspondent. Such things do not happen by accident; the BBC knew a ‘good operator’ when they saw one. Successful reporters have to have a range of skills — mental acuity, intellectual curiosity, verbal dexterity — they also need a measure of good luck. And, as he admits, he had more than his fair share arriving in his new job just as the Watergate scandal began to unfold culminating in the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
After that came South Africa, then a roving brief, then a stint as a newsreader on the Nine O’Clock News (the first journalist, as opposed to presenter, to do so) and then his true destiny when the offer of presenting Today came along. He admits he had reservations about the job; he’d never done radio, had always worked from scripts and wasn’t sure he had the personality to carry it off. At first he wasn’t a great success: I remember a cricket-loving BBC radio editor who likened him to a “medium-paced stock bowler, no variation in his game”. A bit unfair, perhaps, but in the early 1990s he didn’t seem like a natural. But he grew into the role and eventually established himself as the dominant personality on the BBC’s most important news and current affairs programme, a favourite with listeners and probably the most feared interviewer in the land.
His role as Today’s anchor man put him at the centre of some of the most significant political episodes of the past three decades. The chapter in the book devoted to the Iraq war makes for fascinating reading; that was perhaps Humphrys’ finest hour when he put Tony Blair’s government on the rack. Blair’s reputation never recovered from that dishonest war, and Humphrys’ forensic interviews played a large part in his fall from grace. He was a central figure too in the downfall of George Entwistle, the short-lived BBC director-general. In what Humphrys called “a catastrophically shoddy piece of reporting” Newsnight had wrongly named Lord McAlpine, a former Tory Party treasurer, as a paedophile rapist. Entwistle surprisingly offered himself up for interview on Today where, with steely precision, Humphrys laid bare his ineptitude; he resigned a few hours later.
Why should the BBC censor the public?
But what of those ‘savage’ criticisms of the BBC? They fall into three main categories: he views the corporation’s boss class with great suspicion; he thinks the BBC has become too middle-class and therefore unable to understand what motivates that section of the population which isn’t; and he thinks the BBC is too driven by political correctness. There is force in all these but they are stock complaints; so standard in fact that the BBC has seen fit to mock itself in these terms in the brilliantly satirical W1A series. The Daily Mail chose to highlight Humphrys’ remarks about how the BBC greeted the Leave vote in the referendum: there was anger and bafflement, he says, because BBC people just could not understand how anyone, let alone a majority of the populace, could possibly vote to leave an organisation so obviously wonderful.
But in the course of the book Humphrys reveals himself to be, among other things, an atheist, a republican who would like to see the end of the monarchy, and a Remain voter. He is, I suspect, a thoroughgoing social liberal, arguing strongly, for instance, for euthanasia for those suffering from terminal diseases. Whereas for me and those who think like me, the exclusion of socially conservative voices and the denigration of the values of social conservatism by the BBC make a mockery of its proclaimed impartiality, these things do not seem to trouble Mr Humphrys much.
Although he remarks on the BBC’s default liberal-left reflexes there is no follow-through on the shocking lack of internal political diversity; the BBC has become a political monoculture. The corporation might now be trying hard to employ the ‘correct’ percentages of black, brown and white people reflecting the population at large but there is no corresponding political diversity; if there were, conservative opinions would be better represented in the output. To social conservatives, and there are millions of us, issues such as multiculturalism, feminism, divorce, abortion and euthanasia are still controversial but our voices go unheard because we are unrepresented within the BBC itself.
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When I was a reporter on Today and the gossip turned to the character of our lead presenter, as inevitably it sometimes did, it used often to be said that the one thing about John was that you couldn’t tell what his politics were. And he says in the book that at one time or another he has voted for all the mainstream parties. Having read his book though, a much clearer picture of the man emerges; sure he has his gripes about the BBC often expressed with an appealing vinegary sharpness: but actually, deep-down, he’s one of Auntie’s men even while he finds her sometimes maddening.
And this should come as no real surprise; the BBC only tolerates dissent if it is kept within certain bounds. John Humphrys’ criticisms — that the BBC is left-liberal by instinct — are very similar to those made by Jeremy Paxman but the fact remains that, despite their eminence, neither man was able to do much to affect Auntie’s core prejudices. Because this isn’t a something that individual BBC journalists, however famous, can do much to change. It is the deep-rooted political culture of the BBC, formed over many decades, which is the problem and it can only be addressed by systematic reform.
The BBC constantly frets about whether numerically it properly reflects the skin colour and sexual orientation of the nation; it’s time it woke up to the fact that a much greater problem is that it needs to redress the colossal political imbalance within its own ranks.