Huw Spanner
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Tough Talking

I interviewed John Humphrys, the hard man of Radio 4's Today programme, for Third Way on the 6th May 1998, just after 9am. Between mouthfuls of toast, he was as contrary as I was afraid he might be.

Perhaps not surprisingly, everyone insisted on reading the interview as a contest, and some said that I won it and some said he did. A more pertinent question is: Was the argument illuminating? I think it was.


It’s often said that the Today programme sets the agenda for the day. Is that your perception, or does the news agenda more or less set itself?

I’m never quite sure what ‘set the agenda’ means – we report what’s happening. If somebody says something at seven or eight o’clock, that will then be picked up by people throughout the day and possibly the following morning. So, yes, to that extent it does set the agenda. It’s the good fortune of timing.


You say you report what’s happening, and yet there is a torrent of stories coming in from the agencies every day. What are the principles by which you select what you report?

It’s an impossible question to answer. I mean, what is news? God knows. I can’t give you a definition. I don’t know anybody who can.

It’s obviously subjective, to a very large extent, but it’s based on experience. You’ve got 500 stories in front of you from PA or Reuters or whoever, one of them says there’s been a small train-crash in India and nobody was hurt, another tells you the Queen Mother’s been killed by a plane crashing on Buckingham Palace – well, it’s fairly obvious which is the story on that day. It’s not usually that clear-cut, of course, and whether we always get it right I have no idea. Everybody’s idea of news is different.

I edited the Nine o’Clock News briefly – a frightening thing to do, because you never know whether you’ve got it right or not; but it’s always rather encouraging when the morning papers lead on the story that you led on the night before. Of course, it might just mean they are wrong as well. Who knows?


The British media are dominated by London and by the chattering classes that live there —

I dispute that. I don’t know what ‘the chattering classes’ means. Nobody ever admits to being a member themselves. Who are they? They’re people who meet in Hampstead and have dinner – well, I meet people in Hammersmith and have dinner.

Of course, London has a huge influence, but it is the capital – it is one of the most important cities in the world. But we’ve also got a lot of people in Birmingham, in Manchester, in Bristol, in Cardiff, in Scotland and so on. It’s just too easy to say that the media is dominated by London.


What I had in mind was that the culture of this country is not homogenous, and nor are its values…

Of course they’re not. Of course they’re not.


Do the media reflect the values of the whole country, or to what extent do they impose their own?

What do we mean by ‘the media’? I hate the word. ‘The media’ includes at one end of the newspaper spectrum the Sun and at the other end the Financial Times, about as different as it is possible to be. What appears on some late-night BBC2 arts programme is as different as can be from the Channel Four breakfast programme. The values you’ll hear expressed in Songs of Praise may be very different from some outrageous stand-up comic on Channel Four.

It’s just too easy to say ‘the media’s values’. It’s completely meaningless. The scope of media in this country is absolutely vast, and I do genuinely believe that we have better journalism generally in Britain – and better breadth of coverage, certainly – than any other country in the world. And I’ve lived in a lot of them, and reported from most of them.

We all have different interests, and it’s absolutely right that newspapers should reflect those different interests. I mean, there are things the Sun does that I don’t particularly care for. I don’t like the way it behaved over the Mary Bell affair: I don’t like the idea that it chased her down, particularly. I can understand the journalistic impulses that made it do it…


But that’s my point. If you took a poll in the street, you’d find that a substantial number of people would say that Bell should simply be left alone.

You’d also find a substantial number who’d say she should be hanged by her neck until dead.


Sure. But a similar poll in the newsrooms would find very few who thought you should ignore the story.

But the two things are entirely different. If you have been reading the papers recently you’ll know that all the broadsheets, I think without exception, have said precisely that: she should not have been tracked down. But then the tabloids and the broadsheets go about their business in different ways.


It has been suggested recently that the church needs some spin doctors to get its concerns onto the media’s agenda. Do you think —

Well, I have a problem with that. Somebody else has said what a wonderful idea it would be to develop a logo for the church and wouldn’t the cross be rather good, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It seems to me that if the church needs to turn to spin doctors and logos to get its message across, then something is going badly wrong. I mean, I thought that that was what ministers were supposed to do. I must be wrong about that.

The church, particularly the established church, already has a pretty powerful platform. Certainly, there is no shortage of coverage of church matters. The problem is, it seems to me, that the Church of England doesn’t seem quite to know any longer what it’s meant to be all about. I mean, I assume that most of its ministers still believe in God and Jesus and all of that, and are prepared to accept that most of the New Testament is true; but you’d be hard pushed to believe that, the way some of them talk.


But people say, ‘Why don’t the bishops give a lead? Why don’t they (for example) denounce adultery?’ Yet when a bishop does it’s not reported, because it’s not ‘news’. When a bishop says, ‘Adultery might be OK in some circumstances,’ it is news and so —

But that’s obvious, that’s bound to be the case. ‘Man bites dog’ is news. But the church should be strong enough to overcome that.


But how? In a culture dominated by the media —

The media doesn’t dominate the culture, it reflects it. Let’s be clear about this: you can’t blame everything on the media. We’re a looking glass, a mirror.

I remember doing an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury [, Robert Runcie,] about adultery, sort of. It had to do with the Prince and Princess of Wales and all of that… And he very pointedly refused to comment. Now, I didn’t make him say anything. I myself didn’t draw any conclusions – it’s left up to people to draw what conclusions they wish.

But the church has to know what it stands for. If it is saying that it needs a spin doctor to reconcile the different views within the church and try to con us – because, let’s not pretend, what spin doctors do (by and large) is kid us into believing that something is true that actually isn’t. Otherwise, why would we need them? Fairly straightforward, it seems to me.

If you have a clear message, you keep repeating it and everybody understands. If, as is manifestly the case in the Church of England – and I have no problem with this at all, because belief is an intensely difficult subject, and doctrine is more complicated than I can get my head around, for sure. I’m not an expert on theology, God knows – if there are many different views within the church, let it be known!

Religion is not politics, nor is it about selling packets of cornflakes. It is about saying to people, ‘This is what we believe. Come and join us, because if you do your life will be more full and you will reap your reward in heaven’ – or whatever it happens to be. That’s what the church should be about, so say it! Say it! All the rest of it is froth and bubble.

And if a bishop says, ‘Actually, I don’t believe in God,’ well fine, invite him to resign. Don’t bring in a spin doctor to try to paper over all the cracks!


But when an occasional bishop appears to be saying something unorthodox – such as David Jenkins – you report it endlessly.

Of course. I interviewed him myself at great length and found what he said fascinating and important.


He’s not always very good at expressing himself…

I wish I was as bad at expressing myself as he. Come on! He knew very well when he talked of ‘a conjuring trick with bones’ the response there would be.


My point is that, whether or not what he meant was unorthodox, he was leapt on by the media because they thought, ‘Here’s some fun.’ And then what you tend to do is to wheel out someone like [the evangelical hardliner] Tony Higton.

Is there a law against that?


No, but the reason you like him is that he’s extreme.

I can assure you that if the Archbishop of Canterbury lets it be known that he wants to be interviewed on an important matter, we will find space for him, and have done on more occasions than I can tell.

Anyway, in whose eyes is Higton extreme?


Perhaps I should say he’s on one wing of the church.

So, should we only interview people who are typical? And whose definition of ‘typical’ do we accept?


OK, but one value that seems to be common to the media – if I can generalise – is that they like polarisation and sensation, they like a good ding dong —

Yes, of course we do. That’s – oh fine, all right —


And so you are slewing the way things are reported.

Fine, so in future we’ll do what you seem to be advocating and if some loony vicar says, for instance, that shoplifters shouldn’t be prosecuted because they are carrying out the teachings of Jesus, we ignore it entirely. We do not report it. Yes?

By your line of argument, of course, because aeroplanes crash very rarely, British Airways could say, ‘Look, you exaggerate things. Look at all the planes that didn’t crash! Why didn’t you report that?’


That’s a good example. Because plane crashes are so rare, they’re always reported; because car crashes are so common, they rarely are. So, the public thinks that travel by air is less safe than going by road.

They don’t think anything of the sort. Do you believe that yourself?


No, but —

You’re smarter than the public, then?


I’m smarter than some and less smart than others.

Come on! I know what you’re saying. I know, and you know, that flying is a very safe form of transport; but what you’re telling me is that ‘the public’ – whoever they may be – don’t, because of the way we report plane crashes. Now, if I may say so, that is patronising to a degree. That is actually offensive, because of course people understand that.


The reports colour people’s thinking. They certainly colour mine.

What I’m saying is that the news agenda is not, as you say, simply holding up a mirror to real life. It is selecting certain things, and in that sense —

Well, I never suggested for a second it wasn’t —


It’s a distorting lens: it exaggerates some things and minimises other things.

Oh right, well OK, so we start our news bulletins every day by saying something like, ‘One hundred and seventy-three planes took off for New York last night and they all landed safely. Oh, except one.’


I’m only asking you to acknowledge that there is a problem built into the very idea of news.

Well, I’m afraid I don’t acknowledge it. I think it’s a puerile argument. I mean, of course news is about reporting the unusual. Everybody knows that. To proclaim that as though it’s some great truth —


Do you think everyone knows that? What about —

Here we go again, patronising the mass of people. Of course they understand.


Look at the great disjunction between most people’s fear of crime and the actual statistics. That is largely because of the way things are reported.

Well yes, but that’s a different argument. Yes, there is a disproportionate fear of crime, and yes (and this does worry me, I freely admit) children aren’t allowed to walk to school any longer, by and large, because their mums think they’re all going to be raped and murdered, and of course they are in no more danger —


Paedophilia is a good example.

It’s a very good example. There aren’t many paedophiles around – at least, not violent ones…

But that isn’t the same as this blanket condemnation that our reporting is essentially distorted. What happens across the board in journalism – and it always has and always will – is that there are fashions for stories. At the moment, paedophilia is a fashionable story, for the very good reason (it seems to me) that a man has just been released from jail whom the police believe is going to commit some of these disgusting crimes again and he shouldn’t be allowed out. Of course he should not be.

Now, a huge fuss has been made about that – as far as I’m concerned, quite right, too. That’s called campaigning journalism.

But there’s an old saw about what is news – I think it was Lord Rothermere who coined it: ‘News is that which somebody, somewhere, does not want to be published. Everything else is public relations.’ In some ways, that’s not a bad definition.


It’s similar to the line John Pilger quotes: Don’t believe anything unless it’s been officially denied.

Well, yeah, there’s something in that, too. We must always be sceptical. But to suggest that in some way or other we should avoid reporting that which is at the extremes – there you enter the realms of news management, apart from anything else.


But all the news is managed.

Well, yes.


For example, I guess that the war in Bosnia would figure much larger in most people’s minds, including mine, than the wars in Mozambique or Angola.

Oh well, you’re on another area now.


Surely, it’s a kind of news management to say that you will prefer this war to that war because —

All right, all right. If your neighbour’s child dies of some unpleasant disease, it will be a big and important ‘story’ in your street. You wouldn’t expect it to be reported on the Nine o’Clock News. If a dozen people are killed in a train crash in India, you’d be surprised if that got a huge amount of coverage; but if they are killed on a train that runs along your back garden, it will lead the news that night.

An awful lot of people used to go to Yugoslavia on holiday. I don’t know anybody who’s gone to Angola recently for their holidays. And of course they’re going to be more interested in that which they can identify with. That is a fact of human nature. Now, does that surprise you? On the great human scale of things, that might be regrettable – it is regrettable. It’s not defensible in any moral sense. But we’ve not all of us got to be moral arbiters for the nation, have we?

I mean, at the risk of sounding a bit cynical, we have actually at some stage to give people something of what they want, for the very simple reason that if we don’t, they won’t listen to us, or buy our newspapers, and the whole thing will be self-defeating. I am afraid you have to deal with the world as it is, rather than as you would like it to be.


And you are confident that most people are aware that what they are being given follows that agenda: that it’s what they want to hear rather than a realistic panorama of what is actually going on?

Well, it is a realistic panorama. And this isn’t ‘the people’, this is me, too. I am most interested of all in stories that affect my own family, just as you are. Next step up from my family is my neighbourhood, then my country, then maybe Europe, and so on.

Frankly, if a man had walked into a school in a Chinese village and shot dead 14 children, it would have been news, of course, but do you really believe we should have given it the same coverage we gave to Dunblane? Of course not. We saw those children and we all thought, ‘They could have been our children.’ And to suggest that news should respond in any other way is naive.


OK. I’m trying to get clear the difference between the principles behind your agenda and those of others – for example, the aid agencies. You had a story today about sweatshops in the Third World —

To which we gave a great deal of coverage. About 20 minutes, which is rather a lot for a report like that.


But from what you have said about people’s circles of interest it was not an obvious ‘story’…

Oh now, I didn’t say that circles of interest were the only determining factor: I said they were an influence. There are a huge number of stories that transcend our own realm of interest. Of course there are.


So, what other principles do you use to decide?

That’s how you began the interview and I told you, I can’t give you a glib answer.

We all have beliefs and values – we all care about children – and it seems to me that an organisation like the BBC has a responsibility to report a story like that, and periodically we do. We can’t do it every day – wouldn’t want to, for the very obvious reason that people will get bored with it and resist it. So, the coverage is going to be sporadic.

These stories rise to the top for various reasons – in this particular case, because somebody (and I applaud them for doing it) decided to try to manipulate us. We accept that. I’m perfectly happy to be manipulated by many people for many reasons.


Isn’t that what spin-doctoring is, of which you were so dismissive earlier?

No, no, no. What’s happening here is that a group of people want to draw our attention to one of the great scandals afflicting the world today. That isn’t spin-doctoring.


It’s manipulating the news agenda.

Well, it’s influencing it, certainly. Quite right, too. And I’m not suggesting, either, that political parties should not have spin doctors. I happen to think that there is a difference between a political party having them and the Church of England. I’m not going to go into all that again.


Let’s change the subject. Some people say that we live in a culture of contempt, a culture in which nobody really respects anybody else.

Oh, I think that’s rubbish.


Or certainly where nobody respects institutions.

Well, there is less automatic subservience, and a damn good thing, too. We are more sceptical about most institutions, and I think that’s entirely healthy in a democracy. If the German people had been a bit more sceptical in the 1930s, perhaps we wouldn’t have seen the rise of Hitler.


To what extent do you think the media are to blame for the dishonesty in our politics? They say, ‘If only there were more politicians like John Prescott and Clare Short who speak their minds’ and yet whenever they do, it’s leapt upon as a gaffe.

I think the idea that we’re responsible for dishonesty is grotesque; but I would acknowledge that it is very difficult for politicians these days to think aloud in public, because somebody like me will immediately say, ‘Oh, right, so that’s what you believe…’

I don’t quite know what we do about that, but I acknowledge that there is a problem there.


Is it fair to say that in such a culture, which you say is sceptical rather than contemptuous, it’s easy to make a politician look devious simply by asking them for a yes-or-no answer?

No, no, no, no, no! Absolutely not, absolutely not!

If I asked you to name half a dozen devious (in your mind) and half a dozen honest politicians, you would do so. Now, how is it that one lot seem to be devious and the other lot don’t? I wonder. Perhaps it is because some are devious and some aren’t.


Opinion polls find that the public has a very dim view of politicians in general. Do you think that is fair?

It doesn’t bother me unduly. It’s got an even dimmer view of journalists. I think it’s perfectly healthy.


Do you think it’s justified?

I think there are a load of first-rate politicians and a load of second-rate politicians. By and large, maybe they are held in contempt. I frankly don’t think that matters very much, because if you then ask people whether they have any respect for any politicians, they will say yes and they’ll tell you who they are.

But people have always said that you can’t trust politicians – ever since time began, I suspect.


Your style of interviewing might give some people the impression that you’re judgemental. Is that —

I would reject that entirely.

I’m persistent; some people think I’m too aggressive. I can’t help my personality. When I’m attacked by a politician – and every couple of years somebody launches a big attack – you usually get about a thousand letters and 95 per cent of them say, ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down!’

They’re on my side – not mine, the side of the BBC. They recognise that we’re just trying to do a job, and if politicians don’t like it, that doesn’t bother them too much. In fact, they rather think politicians shouldn’t like it. They may be right.


What for you constitutes a successful interview?

If it has answered the questions that I think – I may be wrong, but I think – are in the minds of the listener. That’s the absolutely first requirement.

You can do a lot worse than quote the old Reithian concept: I want to inform, I want to educate and I want to entertain. And if I achieve all of that in an interview, then I’ve not done badly. I don’t often do it, but it’s a noble ambition.

© Third Way 1998


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