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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.

• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Britain 
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  1. dearieme says:

    It wasn’t a slag heap, doc. Slag is a by-product of iron-making (and some other metallurgical processes).

    It was, as you say, a spoil tip.

    • Replies: @James Thompson
    , @Cortes
  2. anonymous[546] • Disclaimer says:

    Yes, truth matters.

    Thanks for this post.

    Dearieme – you might wanna get some counseling for your growing autism. You are a smart middle-aged man or a smart elderly man and you will make your pals happy by being a little less dense and a little less impolite. Everyone loves brilliant people who are not impolite, but as for brilliant people who are impolite – they are not always loved and appreciated. Sad !

    Trust me – I used to write entries for high-prestige dictionaries for a living, so maybe you can trust me.
    And yes we all know that “slag” is a technical term but it is also a non-technical term. Trust me on that.

  3. @dearieme

    Correct. I wrote it from memory, and then partially changed it after reading a historical record “The Aberfan disaster was the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip “.
    Thanks. Keep noticing things.

  4. Cortes says:

    Also known as a “bing” – like the famous Five Sisters in West Lothian, relics (along with a few now quaint-sounding street names like Paraffin Lane) of the shale oil industry there:

  5. anonymous[620] • Disclaimer says:

    James Thompson – in America “slag heap” is slang for industrial waste piled in a hill formation.

    Thus the word slag covers what you described perfectly well. “Back-formation” is the word the linguists at Cambridge use, not that it matters. Dearieme certainly will not be impressed that I, who used to write dictionary entries for a living, know what a “back-formation” is in the context of nouns and adjectives.

    Dearieme was wrong and I was right. Don’t tell him to keep noticing things when he is rude about his noticing of the limited amount of things he notices. That is unkind: isn’t it? Of course it is.

    Just saying, not that I care, I find the crabby old man to be amusing, and I guess it is nice when we encourage him to be a curmudgeon, albeit a philosophically sterile curmudgeon. But it is not nice when we treat him as a tenant of a menagerie and we laugh at his frequent attempts to claim a phony knowledge of what this world is, at its most accurate. He thinks he knows so much, and he just knows a few tens of thousands of accurate lists.

    I understand that “colliery” is the “most” correct word and it would be nice if correct words remained correct words forever, because that would be an ideal state of an ideal language spoken by people who always knew what words mean, but there is a technical language for phony science dudes and then there is the language real people speak — for example the correct word for “California Champagne” is “California Champagne”, not the word that ALL PEOPLE WHO SPEAK ENGLISH WELL CALL IT – champagne.

    Don’t encourage Dearieme in his Aspergerian rudeness, he does not need that kind of praise, he needs to be told that his autistic proclivities (and his second-rate knowledge of the English language) are not doing him any good. He would be so much more interesting if he just tried to be a little more intelligent on the verbal scale that we all want those among us we want to be amusing so often excel on.

    • Replies: @dearieme
  6. dearieme says:

    The bloody spoil tip was not in America. Lay off your pathetic linguistic imperialism.

  7. anonymous[546] • Disclaimer says:

    Dearieme, I am a scholar and a genteman – not that you would know what either or those things is – who is just trying to help a man who is not as eloquent as he thinks he is. As you get older, you will appreciate such help more and more.

    If it makes you feel better, you arrogant old fool, think of me as Shakespeare to your Milton, or whatever makes you understand what is going on here better, and

    Don’t ever mock me again , you arrogant fool, because you think that you are better because your cowardly ancestors ganged up on the people who left, so that they had to leave to protect their families..
    It is not my fault that your cowardly ancestors had descendants who lived on in their land and my ancestors were chased off by cowards.

    And I know a lot more about the English language than you. It is not your fault that you are not as eloquent and learned as you pretend to be. I am just trying to help you recalibrate your pride into something more realistic. you should be grateful , not surly.

    And no I do not care where you think the heaps were. Grow up.

    • LOL: Cortes
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