John Humphrys reveals how he once cut off a senior politician on live radio – because she was drunk
- John Humphrys presented the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme from 1987 to 2019
- He tells how no matter who is in charge he does not like being told what to do
- Humphrys ended an interview early when he could hear a politician slurring
- He describes radio newsroom on first arrival as a ‘Hollywood apocalypse movie’
No matter who’s in charge, I don’t like being defined or told what to do. I even have a thing about wearing identity tags at work.
In my early days at Today I was rushing to the studio with a few minutes to spare and a man in a peaked cap stopped me at the door.
‘You can’t go in there,’ he told me sternly.
‘Because you’re not wearing your ID.’
‘But you know who I am and I’m on air in two minutes.’
‘Sorry. No ID, no admission.’
‘OK,’ I said, ‘you do the bloody programme.’
King of the airwaves: John Humphrys jumped at the chance to join the Today team in the Eighties
Happily, he gave in. Yes, I know I was being petulant and he was just doing his job but I thought at the time I was striking a small blow for freedom. Today, I suspect I was just being difficult because I don’t like authority.
I instinctively rebel against rigid routines —however sensible they may be. For instance, if I had any sense, I’d start writing down the questions I’d be asking my interviewees as soon as I got into the Today office.
In my dreams.
Look, I KNOW it made sense to do just that. I KNOW I should have done what most of my colleagues did, which was read the briefs prepared the day before and plan the structure of the most important interviews. It makes sense.
I had just one interview with the star of the Leave camp: Boris Johnson
During the whole Brexit campaign, I had just one interview with the star of the Leave camp: Boris Johnson.
It took place on the morning when the nation was getting very exercised about the claim writ large on the side of their campaign bus — that if we left the EU, we’d have £350 million more to spend on the NHS every week.
This was nonsense, and Mr Johnson knew it was nonsense.
But he was on a dodgy line from the West Country — and every time I tried pressing him, he would affect not to be able to hear me. So the interview got nowhere.
Strange how often politicians suffer from temporary hearing loss or unexplained technical problems when the going gets really tough.
Just in case the brain goes blank at a crucial moment, you understand. And that, I promise you, happened more often than you may think. So why didn’t I do it?
God knows. I always ended up finding a dozen things to do that seemed infinitely more important at the time but never were.
It meant that at some point, I’d realise that I hadn’t the first idea what important subject I was meant to be addressing with the rather anxious person who’d just been brought into the studio.
I tried to justify my idiotic behaviour by telling myself that we want our audience to feel they’re listening to a spontaneous conversation, rather than to some automaton reading prepared questions. But there’s a balance to be struck.
Still, at least I grew used to coping with the unexpected.
There was one torrid morning when everything that could go wrong did go wrong. At approximately 14 minutes to nine, we had no one left to interview.
And then, my producer shrieked into my headphones: ‘We’ve got the leader of the Indian opposition on the line and . . .’
That was all he had time to say because by then my microphone was live and I was broadcasting to the nation. I hadn’t the faintest idea who the Indian opposition leader was, nor why I was interviewing him. With milliseconds to come up with something, I tried this: ‘Many thanks for joining us — it seems the government is facing a pretty serious crisis, eh?’
And then I prayed. If there was no crisis, I was toast. It was a 50-50 gamble and luck was with me. ‘Yes, indeed,’ he began. And he was away. The opposition politician who ducks the chance of taking a swipe at his government has yet to be born.
This sort of thing happens all the time on Today. Scarcely a day goes by without a presenter having to go off-piste.
Another small test came on a morning when I was scheduled to interview a senior political figure about the Iraq war. She was in our radio car, so I’d had no chance of a quick chat beforehand.
Within roughly 30 seconds of going live, I realised she was drunk. It was 7.20am. The listeners may have thought she sounded a bit slurred but would probably have assumed she’d just got out of bed or was maybe a bit hungover.
I knew her well enough, however, to realise she was capable of saying anything. So I pretended there was a problem with the radio-car connection and ended the interview very quickly. Was that the right thing to do?
As a journalist, I should probably have exposed her frailty and allowed the audience — and her political masters — to reach their own judgement. It would have almost certainly finished her career. But I liked her and respected her, both as a politician and as a human being.
The fact is, I acted on instinct, and I agonise about it still — as I do about a similar interview for slightly different reasons. This one — with a prominent Northern Ireland minister — was pre-recorded one evening at a party conference in the late 1980s. The minister had also drunk too much. Far too much. What he said was pretty incendiary and would almost certainly have had a seriously damaging effect on the peace process, which was going through a tricky time.
Should we run the interview? In the end, we decided not to. Again, it wasn’t an easy call.
It might well have made headlines the next day but what’s a headline in the context of a vicious conflict that killed and injured thousands of people?
Sensible people take their time when they’re faced with making a decision that will change their lives. I took roughly ten seconds.
It was close to midnight in 1986, and I’d just returned home from presenting both the Nine O’Clock News on BBC1 and the late bulletin. The call was from the deputy editor of the Today programme, who wanted to know if I’d be interested in taking over from John Timpson when he retired at the end of the year. I said yes. I asked no questions. Not how much money I’d be paid. Nor how many days a week I’d have to work. Nor even what time I’d have to pitch up. Now that really was very stupid.
I might, just possibly, have had second thoughts if I’d known that the answer would be something along these lines: ‘You arrive at 4am, when most people are either snuggling deeper into the duvet for another three or four hours’ sleep or preparing to die.’
On my first day as a presenter, I’d set the alarm for 3am — earlier than strictly necessary because I was scared stiff. My god, it was cold at that hour of the morning in January.
My body was pleading for a cup of tea. But I couldn’t use the kitchen because I’d rented part of the house to lodgers and didn’t want to risk waking them up.
I’d divorced a year before and our house in Henley-on-Thames had gone to my wife. It had taken us roughly an hour to agree on a divorce settlement. A neighbour, who happened to be a lawyer, did a quick draft of the agreement in our kitchen and that was that. God knows, she’d earned it over the years she’d been married to me.
So there I was — sitting on the floor of the bedroom, wrapped in an eiderdown against the bitter cold, eating cold porridge.
It would never be quite that bad again. Within weeks, I’d established a routine that meant I could be out of bed, dressed, teeth brushed and into the waiting car in ten minutes flat.
It meant showering and shaving the night before to get that precious extra ten minutes in bed, finding a supplier of blackout curtains and having three alarm clocks, always at least one of them a clockwork job in case the batteries on the others ran out.
One slightly trickier problem was that my terrace house had thin walls and my neighbour went to bed at about midnight. That wouldn’t have mattered had he stayed single — but he did not.
It was a passionate relationship and it regularly reached its climax after I’d been asleep for three hours. End of sleep. What to do?
After enduring a particularly torrid session, I ambushed my neighbour one morning. When he asked how I was, I said: ‘Feeling a bit tired, to be honest. I keep being woken by a curious wailing sound at pretty much the same time every night. God knows what it is. Maybe one of those urban foxes?’ He looked embarrassed. Not a very subtle tactic, I grant you, but it did the trick.
The subject of sleep is never far from a Today presenter’s thoughts. The great Sue MacGregor simply refused to acknowledge it was a problem and was always first to arrive, perfectly made-up, looking as though she’d just left her favourite beauty salon. I made a tentative comment about it once. She gave me one of those looks. ‘Wouldn’t dream of coming in without my face on!’ she snapped.
As for Jim Naughtie, he regarded an invitation to an evening political reception as a royal command. It meant he was always on top of the latest political gossip but sometimes needed to catch up on sleep during the weather forecast or a particularly boring interview. But Jim was a class act.
My ridiculous sleep regime affected my choice of house. At the great age of 57, I realised I’d have to move when I discovered that I was going to become a father again, and my partner ruled that a baby needed a garden.
But the baby’s father had needs, too: the main one being not to be woken up by a bawling infant.
So when we found a house that looked vaguely right, my partner would go into a bedroom and I’d go into the room that was furthest away. We’d close the doors and she’d scream. If I could hear the scream, we’d cross the house off our list and try the next one.
Lord knows what the owners and estate agents made of the screaming but eventually we found a house that met our needs. In fact, the whole bizarre exercise turned out to have been unnecessary because the baby slept 12 hours a night. Getting up so very early does take its toll — an obvious thing to say but it really struck home only recently — when I looked at Sarah Montague.
Sarah joined the programme in 2002 and we’ve been good friends ever since — though it may not have seemed that way to onlookers. She was always giving me a hard time — turning the studio heating up when I turned it down, berating me for reading the Daily Mail, calling me old-fashioned because I refused to have anything to do with social media.
But I like and admire her enormously. She wasn’t just brilliant at presenting Today, she also managed to have three daughters while holding down her job. Now that’s a real achievement.
She loved Today but she loved her children more, so she left in April 2018 to present the World at One. When I saw her a few weeks later, she’d been transformed. It was as though she’d had an injection of whatever serum is needed to knock 15 years off your biological age.
The reason was simple. She no longer had to get up in the middle of the night.
The radio newsroom is a strange sight when you arrive. It’s how the director of a Hollywood apocalypse movie might imagine the headquarters of a mighty international news operation — minutes after the warning had been given to head for the bunkers.
Interviewing Tony Blair
Tony Blair was sitting on a sofa and I sat on a chair facing him. His spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, was at the other end of the sofa, a fat pile of newspapers between him and his boss.
It was a live 8.10 interview with the PM. The moment I started, Campbell picked up one of the newspapers, flipping the pages noisily. When he’d finished, he dropped the paper to the floor and picked up another. And then another.
At the end of the interview, Blair turned to Campbell: ‘What the hell were you doing with the papers?’
Campbell: ‘Trying to put that bugger off.’
Blair: ‘Well you weren’t — you were putting me off!’ As the years passed, Campbell’s relationship with the BBC grew steadily worse.
The brilliant writer Armando Iannucci set out to create a clone of him in his BBC political satire The Thick of It. He succeeded magnificently.
His loud-mouthed spin doctor, Malcolm Tucker, was a dead ringer for Campbell: ‘Stats, percentages, international comparison, information! Email them f*****g WADS of information! And tell them they’d better get their heads around it before they put pen to paper, or I’ll be up their a***s like a f*****g Biafran ferret, right? COME ON, UNLEASH HELL!’
There are just two tiny huddles of dead-eyed people in a vast space of empty desks and blank computer screens. One is the Today team, the other the World Service people who are broadcasting to different time zones.
Did I say the Today team? I exaggerate a little. I should say the Today couple. There are only two producers, who have spent a long and lonely night worrying about how they will fill three hours of airtime. There is, more often than not, a touch of desperation about some of the offerings.
Do we really want yet another interview with that former Cabinet minister who says exactly the same thing every time, which mostly comes down to a veiled attack on the Prime Minister for being foolish enough to have sacked him all those years ago?
Do we really care about the latest survey telling us we could all live to be 100 if only we ate a diet consisting entirely of mung beans and quinoa — especially when it has been funded by a company that flogs them?
And do we really need yet another interview that might produce a little more detail about the immense complications of the Brexit process but add not a jot to anyone’s understanding of it?
Is there anything, in fact, that will be relevant to the listeners’ daily lives, rather than just reflect the obsessions of the big BBC bosses — who are far more interested in impressing their political masters? It’s a very tall order. I’d love to report that when we presenters arrive, we examine the running order, offering a word of praise here and there, always brimful with helpful suggestions.
The brutal truth is that each presenter wants to play the starring role. We each want to do the big political interview, chair the most interesting discussion and chat with the most famous, amusing guest.
So what we’re actually doing when we peruse the running order is looking for our own names to make sure we haven’t been short-changed.
What every presenter wants is the 8.10 slot. And there is only one 8.10 slot.
Perhaps all Today presenters should be forced to spend some time editing overnight. Then, perhaps — just possibly — we’d be a bit less concerned with our own self-importance.
Scour Twitter? I know what I’d like to do with Twitter
When I read an email circulated to Today staff, I recoiled. It said that the first thing the producer should do was scour Twitter, then brief the presenters accordingly.
Scour Twitter? I know what I’d like to do with Twitter, and it doesn’t include bowing reverently before it and treating its tweets as though they represent the views of the nation. They do not.
Some are measured and thought-provoking. Many more are banal rants. And many of them are grossly offensive.
One simple question: is the world a better/safer place because Donald Trump is able to churn out his childish and often asinine views to his adoring followers whenever it occurs to him? I rest my case.
The phone call I got at home on the evening of March 24, 1995, was about as bad as it gets.
On the line was the head of radio news programmes. He’d been given advance notice of a speech being made that evening by a Conservative Cabinet minister, Jonathan Aitken.
In Aitken’s eyes, I’d committed two great offences. The first was to chair a meeting in Westminster of teachers opposed to the Conservative Government’s pay policies.
I’d ‘embraced open partisanship’, he thundered.
It wasn’t true. I’d been assured that both sides of the argument would be represented on the platform but they weren’t: just Labour and the Liberal Democrats and no Conservatives. Although I was completely impartial in my questioning, my very presence gave Aitken the ammunition he needed.
His second charge? I was ‘poisoning the well of democratic debate’ with what he called my ‘ego-trip interviewing’. He cited an interview I’d done with Ken Clarke, accusing me of having interrupted him 32 times.
He may have been right but it rather depends on what you mean by ‘interrupt’. There’s a real difference between interrupting for the sake of it and interjecting to try to keep the interviewee to the point.
But Aitken was doing more than attacking me for interrupting. He said: ‘Mr Humphrys was conducting the interview not as an objective journalist seeking information but as a partisan pugilist trying to strike blows.’
Now these were potentially lethal accusations because BBC journalists are required to be impartial. Had Aitken been able to prove I was in league with the Labour party, I’d have been forced to resign.
In fact, the bar for him to clear was set even lower. All he had to do was convince his ministerial colleagues that his attack was warranted.
So the weekend of that phone call was probably the scariest of my career. I feared the worst. All it would take was a couple of respected colleagues to side with Aitken and refuse to be interviewed by me.
I spent much of that Sunday discussing with my family how our lives would change if the BBC chose to bid me farewell. My youngest child volunteered that if we found ourselves on the streets, having to beg for scraps, she’d leave school and take a job freelancing on a film set. Selfless to a fault.
Late on Sunday, the Today overnight editor had a call from Douglas Hurd. Then Foreign Secretary, he’d been booked to appear on the programme before the Aitken storm broke. He’d called, he said, to confirm that he’d indeed be turning up. Oh, and by the way, he added, ‘If Mr Humphrys is on duty, naturally I’d be happy to have him interviewing me.’
For me, the storm clouds had at least parted. Twelve hours later, they vanished.
Ken Clarke was on the World At One, doing an interview about some economic matter, when he was asked about Aitken’s comments. A lot of nonsense, he said. And that was all it took.
A few days later, Ken came in to be interviewed by me on Today. I met him in the green room beforehand and handed him a calculator.
‘What the hell is this for?’ he asked.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I thought it would help you keep track of the number of times I interrupt you, and if I exceed 32 you can shout “bingo!” or something.’
Ken looked at the calculator. ‘D’you know something? I’ve never really figured out how to make one of these things work!’
He was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time. I think he was joking. As for me, I lived to fight another day.
I’m still grumpy Harry used the programme as a PR exercise
My father could never see the point of the monarchy. He was the only person in our street who didn’t go to see the Queen when she visited Cardiff soon after her Coronation, even though her motorcade passed down a road only a few minutes’ walk from our house.
Prince Harry in the studio for the Radio 4 Today programme which he has guest edited in 2017
‘Why should I?’ he said. ‘She’s just another human being — she’s no better than me.’
He was thrown out of his club because of her. It was a busy Friday night and the only spare seat was beneath a portrait of the Queen.
‘B******d if I’m sitting there!’ he announced. And that was the end of his club membership.
So maybe I have my father to blame for my reaction to Today’s triumphal announcement that Prince Harry, no less, was to be one of our guest editors in 2017.
That’s fine, I said grumpily to my boss, just so long as we get to ask him some proper questions and don’t allow him to use the programme as a PR exercise for himself and his family.
Nobody took a blind bit of notice of me: Prince Harry did exactly that, of course, and the programme was a great success. By which I mean that the audience loved it.
So I was wrong — and I remain grumpy about it to this day.
Let’s state the obvious. The Queen herself does a good job, and has done for a very long time. But the BBC should not treat the whole Royal Family apparatus as though it is beyond criticism. We should treat them with respect — but only if they earn it. Just like we treat everyone else, come to think of it.
Cherie Blair poses with Humphrey, Downing Street’s former resident cat and Chief Mouser
Cherie’s furry slippers looked just like Humphrey
I interviewed Tony Blair at Chequers for On The Record at the height of the crisis over Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation to the Labour Party.
Perhaps the most illuminating thing to come out of that morning was a chat with Cherie after the interview.
Humphrey, the Downing Street cat, was big news at the time.
He’d disappeared some days before and the word was that Cherie, allegedly not a cat person, might have had something to do with it.
So I put it to her straight: was she behind Humphrey’s disappearance?
She said nothing, just pointed down at her feet and a sly little smile crossed her face. She was wearing slippers. Very furry slippers. I’ll never be able to prove anything, but let’s just say that the fur bore a definite resemblance to that of the late Humphrey.
How I knew the ‘sexed up’ Iraq dossier story was true
The graveyard slot on Today is at about 6.10am. It’s for stories considered just about worthy of squeezing in when the audience is at its smallest.
So when I talked to reporter Andrew Gilligan early on May 29, 2003, no one expected that what he had to say might create a fuss. We were wrong. Spectacularly wrong.
The subject of our very brief chat was a dossier that the government had published six months before the Iraq war, which claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that could be ready to use in 45 minutes.
BBC TV reporter Andrew Gilligan arrives at the BBC Headquarters at Portland Place in London 2004
Blair had desperately needed a justification to take Britain into the war, which had just ended. This dossier — compiled from intelligence sources — provided it.
Gilligan, however, had just had a secret meeting with one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that dossier. And his source had told him that the government ‘probably knew’ that the 45-minute figure was wrong.
Indeed, Gilligan said, a week before publication, Downing Street had asked for the dossier to be ‘sexed up’. In other words, it had been deliberately altered to make Saddam appear a far greater threat.
That was a sensational allegation. And Downing Street almost immediately claimed it was completely untrue.
Later in the programme, I interviewed Cabinet minister John Reid, who poured scorn on Gilligan’s allegations.
At that point, I could have delivered a killer punch. But I didn’t — and to this day, I wonder whether it was a mistake to hold back.
Some weeks earlier, I’d had a call from a rather posh-sounding man who said he’d like to invite me to lunch with a Very Senior Person.
There was a condition attached. I was not to reveal anything that was said at the lunch, and he wouldn’t reveal the name of the VSP unless I was prepared to agree that the lunch had never happened.
I replied as you would expect: ‘How can I agree to have lunch with someone if I don’t know who he is?’ So he told me.
Iraq war: Allies fire missiles in Kuwait. ‘Blair had desperately needed a justification to take Britain into the war, which had just ended. This dossier — compiled from intelligence sources — provided it’
It was Sir Richard Dearlove, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). The most powerful spy in the land.
My editor came with me to MI6 headquarters. During the ensuing lunch, I asked Dearlove where he’d place Iraq in the list of countries posing a danger to our security. His answer was immensely revealing: ‘I’m not sure we would regard them as being at the top of our list.’
Indeed, he went further and suggested they were very far from the top and certainly below Syria and Iran. But what about those WMDs, I asked. Where were they, and why hadn’t they been found yet?
He didn’t give a direct answer. What if they were never found, I was asked? What if Saddam had ordered, as the allied troops were closing in on Baghdad, that the WMDs should be destroyed?
And how did I think the media would react to such an announcement from the British government?
There was only one answer to that. The first response would be total incredulity and the second would be hilarity.
We would reach the obvious conclusion in about ten seconds. It was this. In spite of everything we’d been told, the fabled WMDs had not been found for the very simple reason that they’d never existed. I think it’s fair to say this was the answer our hosts had been expecting.
Now here I was, several weeks after that lunch, facing a senior Cabinet minister live across the Today microphones.
And I knew that if I told him about that conversation, it would be impossible for him to deny it — because I had witnesses.
It really would have been a killer punch. I knew that Tony Blair had exaggerated the threat from WMDs. And I knew that they had posed no serious threat to our security because the most senior intelligence figure in the land had told me so.
But I also knew that I couldn’t say so — because I’d be betraying a source to whom I’d promised anonymity.
So I did my best to convey the information without breaking that promise.
‘Let me tell you,’ I said to Reid, ‘I myself have spoken to one or two senior people in the intelligence services who said things that suggest the government exaggerated the threat from Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction.’
I wasn’t surprised, when I came off the air, to be told there was a call awaiting me.
Even less surprised that it was from MI6. They’d listened to the interview with some interest, said my caller, and wondered if, when I used the phrase ‘senior people’, it had been a coded reference to my lunch with the chief.
I had visions of my name being entered in whatever little black book the spooks use to list those who’ve incurred their displeasure.
But I protested my innocence, pointing out that Dearlove wasn’t the only senior spook who did a little private briefing.
I could have been referring to almost anyone, couldn’t I?
He seemed happy enough with that, so I tried to get a sense of how MI6 were reacting to the Gilligan disclosures.
Did they think there’d been a certain amount of cherry-picking with the intelligence in the dossier?
His reply? ‘Inevitably.’
Adapted by Corinna Honan from A Day Like Today by John Humphrys, to be published by HarperCollins on October 3 at £20. © John Humphrys 2019. To buy a copy for £16 (20 per cent discount), go to mailbookshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155, p&p is free. Offer valid until 04/10/2019.
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