It cannot have been easy to be the first reporter on the tragic scene at Aberfan. A vast slagheap of colliery spoil above a small Welsh mining village gave way in 1966, roaring down the valley and flattening the school and killing 116 children, and also destroying houses, killing 28 adults in all. When John Humphrys arrived the miners, having heard the dreadful news, had come up from the pits to dig frantically in the ruins, in search of their children. The slagheap was a known danger which had been left unresolved, and it was natural that for ever afterwards John had no time for evasive, self-excusing authority figures. Far from being disordered, he became a post-traumatic interrogator, clearly standing up for those whose fears and pleas had been ignored.
This morning he finished his 32 years as the chief interviewer in a morning radio program. Just think of that: the best show in town is on “steam radio”. What was the attraction? In British life, important people watch TV sparingly, and not at all in the mornings. Radio is the acceptable morning companion for them, because they can have breakfast, read the papers and even be driven into work while the program is on. The Today program is compulsory listening and a treasured mouthpiece for the movers and shakers: Prime Ministers, Government Ministers, Members of Parliament, Archbishops, Rabbis, Government Chief scientists, Nobel Laureates, novelists, playwrights, and assorted talkative worthies. They even, on occasion, invited in the odd psychologist.
Why talk about the program to a world-wide audience many of whom know nothing about him? Because truth matters. Many journalists have neither the energy nor the talent to hunt for the story behind the official story. Others claim to have that very thing, but don’t have enough evidence to back it up. What Today achieved was a forensic examination of the high and mighty, who were often revealed as low and crafty, their smarm disarmed, their schemes exposed. If there was blood on the floor, it was in a good cause. The best interviews kept people in their kitchens, the morning commute postponed, or stuck in their cars outside the office, waiting for the final explosion as a great edifice of conceit toppled.
John developed a reputation as a fearsome, adversarial and relentless questioner, quick to pounce on chinks in the well-practiced political operator’s armour so as to land the killer question which impaled them forever: unable to respond truthfully to a fundamental enquiry. Politicians wanted to avoid him, and at the same time wanted most of all to get the better of him, which they rarely did.
His trick was basically simple: with the help of the all night Today team he came in at 4 am to read all the day’s newspapers, many of the relevant government papers and statements, and to collect the clippings of the previous promises, clarifications, evasions and protestations uttered by the great and good so as to be able to skewer any of them who tried to re-write the past.
Sometimes he overdid it, and became an interrupter rather than a questioner, but that was mostly excusable because he had heard the evasive excuses thousands of times before. The Today program became his platform for investigative journalism, and he moulded it to his character. It became his program. He was as big as it. It became the premier program in Britain, and could pull in the top leaders and thinkers from all over the world. To be invited was mostly a blessing. To be evaluated beforehand was sometimes more demanding than the interview itself. The researcher, inevitably a woman, would begin her telephone call in a warm and mildly seductive manner, making you feel important and worth listening to. Then, under the guise of getting a few notes for John, she would then switch in to a “are you worth speaking to” interview. The cull was brutal: you had to be quick on your feet, able to speak more than coherently, and had to expose your preferred positions, your quips, quotes and treasured answers in the hope of getting on the short list. Sometimes they would come back with a gentle excuse: the story had moved on. In disappointment one might find the next morning that the story had indeed moved on, but to another interviewee.
Waiting in the green room was almost as much fun as being interviewed. I began conversations with notable figures I would otherwise never have had access to, and continued the conversations after we had each been grilled. Fun to find that an ex-Chancellor had the same opinions on quantitative easing, or that a scientist was able to quickly settle a number of issues first hand.
I considered John Humphrys to be a mate of mine, on the very slender basis that on my something like 12-18 Today program interviews he was often the interviewer, and since my appearances were usually after 8.30 am I would stay on to talk with him. We had both lost a big chunk of our pensions when the Equitable Life Assurance Society (the oldest in the world) went bust, so we discussed the various bits of advice we had received as to whether we should cash in the slender remains or hand over what was left to some other company. At other times I would jokingly brief him on what the PR agents of famous actors had advised them to say, as they waited in the green room before seeing him. He hated PR agents above all else. I met actors and actresses, ex Chancellors of the Exchequer and the more oratorical Members of Parliament, such as Tony Benn.
The program showed the power of the spoken word, with the advantage of being able to focus on the content and tone of what was being said, without the distractions of the speaker’s appearance or facial expression. It required concentration, but repaid attention.
Of course, the BBC has a house style, and some preferences. Try as it might to be fair, that is always in question. The Today program is the ultimate meeting place of the chattering classes, and sometimes no more than studiously correct with the whispering classes, who are prone to lamentable populism and blunt opinions. There are rules about these things.
I was almost always called in on non-political stories, often associated with trauma and its treatment, and plays and books on those themes, and occasionally on broader issues. Little controversy there. Nonetheless, I did get interviewed on the Rotherham grooming gangs a few years ago. That side of life, in which those without a voice were cruelly mistreated, was one which John investigated with compassion. He was able to get the painful testimony of people who did not have PR agents, and little facility with public speaking. He managed to help them speak their private thoughts.
In my view was wary and critical of the Movers and Shakers, and more on the side of the moved and shaken.