I interviewed John Humphrys, the hard man of Radio
4s 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
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.
Its 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
Im never quite sure what set the agenda
means we report whats happening. If somebody
says something at seven or eight oclock, 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. Its the good fortune of timing.
You say you report whats 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
Its an impossible question to answer. I mean, what
is news? God knows. I cant give you a definition. I
dont know anybody who can.
Its obviously subjective, to a very large extent, but
its based on experience. Youve got 500 stories
in front of you from PA or Reuters or whoever, one of them
says theres been a small train-crash in India and nobody
was hurt, another tells you the Queen Mothers been killed
by a plane crashing on Buckingham Palace well, its
fairly obvious which is the story on that day. Its not
usually that clear-cut, of course, and whether we always get
it right I have no idea. Everybodys idea of news is
I edited the Nine oClock News briefly
a frightening thing to do, because you never know whether
youve got it right or not; but its 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 dont know what the chattering
classes means. Nobody ever admits to being a member
themselves. Who are they? Theyre 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 weve also got a lot of people in Birmingham, in
Manchester, in Bristol, in Cardiff, in Scotland and so on.
Its just too easy to say that the media is dominated
What I had in mind was that the culture of this country
is not homogenous, and nor are its values
Of course theyre not. Of course theyre 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
youll hear expressed in Songs of Praise may be
very different from some outrageous stand-up comic on Channel
Its just too easy to say the medias values.
Its 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 Ive lived in a lot of them,
and reported from most of them.
We all have different interests, and its absolutely
right that newspapers should reflect those different interests.
I mean, there are things the Sun does that I dont
particularly care for. I dont like the way it behaved
over the Mary Bell affair: I dont like the idea that
it chased her down, particularly. I can understand the journalistic
impulses that made it do it
But thats my point. If you took a poll in the street,
youd find that a substantial number of people would
say that Bell should simply be left alone.
Youd also find a substantial number whod 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 youll 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
It has been suggested recently that the church needs some
spin doctors to get its concerns onto the medias 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 wouldnt the cross be rather good, and I didnt
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 doesnt seem quite to
know any longer what its 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 youd be hard pushed
to believe that, the way some of them talk.
But people say, Why dont the bishops give a
lead? Why dont they (for example) denounce adultery?
Yet when a bishop does its not reported, because its
not news. When a bishop says, Adultery might
be OK in some circumstances, it is news and so
But thats obvious, thats 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 doesnt dominate the culture, it reflects
it. Lets be clear about this: you cant blame everything
on the media. Were 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
he very pointedly refused to comment. Now, I didnt make
him say anything. I myself didnt draw any conclusions
its left up to people to draw what conclusions
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, lets
not pretend, what spin doctors do (by and large) is kid us
into believing that something is true that actually isnt.
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.
Im 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. Thats 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 dont believe
in God, well fine, invite him to resign. Dont
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
Of course. I interviewed him myself at great length and found
what he said fascinating and important.
Hes 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, Heres
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 hes 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 hes 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. Thats oh fine, all right
And so you are slewing the way things are reported.
Fine, so in future well do what you seem to be advocating
and if some loony vicar says, for instance, that shoplifters
shouldnt be prosecuted because they are carrying out
the teachings of Jesus, we ignore it entirely. We do not report
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 didnt crash! Why
didnt you report that?
Thats a good example. Because plane crashes are so
rare, theyre 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 dont think anything of the sort. Do you believe
Youre smarter than the public, then?
Im smarter than some and less smart than others.
Come on! I know what youre saying. I know, and you
know, that flying is a very safe form of transport; but what
youre telling me is that the public
whoever they may be dont, 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 peoples thinking. They certainly
What Im 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 wasnt
Its 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.
Im only asking you to acknowledge that there is a
problem built into the very idea of news.
Well, Im afraid I dont acknowledge it. I think
its a puerile argument. I mean, of course news is about
reporting the unusual. Everybody knows that. To proclaim that
as though its some great truth
Do you think everyone knows that? What about
Here we go again, patronising the mass of people. Of course
Look at the great disjunction between most peoples fear
of crime and the actual statistics. That is largely because
of the way things are reported.
Well yes, but thats a different argument. Yes, there
is a disproportionate fear of crime, and yes (and this does
worry me, I freely admit) children arent allowed to
walk to school any longer, by and large, because their mums
think theyre all going to be raped and murdered, and
of course they are in no more danger
Paedophilia is a good example.
Its a very good example. There arent many paedophiles
around at least, not violent ones
But that isnt 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 shouldnt
be allowed out. Of course he should not be.
Now, a huge fuss has been made about that as far as
Im concerned, quite right, too. Thats called campaigning
But theres 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, thats
not a bad definition.
Its similar to the line John Pilger quotes: Dont
believe anything unless its been officially denied.
Well, yeah, theres 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
But all the news is managed.
For example, I guess that the war in Bosnia would figure
much larger in most peoples minds, including mine, than
the wars in Mozambique or Angola.
Oh well, youre on another area now.
Surely, its a kind of news management to say that
you will prefer this war to that war because
All right, all right. If your neighbours child dies
of some unpleasant disease, it will be a big and important
story in your street. You wouldnt expect
it to be reported on the Nine oClock News. If
a dozen people are killed in a train crash in India, youd
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 dont know anybody whos gone to Angola recently
for their holidays. And of course theyre 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. Its not defensible in any
moral sense. But weve 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 dont, they wont
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 its what
they want to hear rather than a realistic panorama of what
is actually going on?
Well, it is a realistic panorama. And this isnt
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. Im 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 peoples circles
of interest it was not an obvious story
Oh now, I didnt 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?
Thats how you began the interview and I told you, I
cant 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 cant do it every day wouldnt
want to, for the very obvious reason that people will get
bored with it and resist it. So, the coverage is going to
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.
Im perfectly happy to be manipulated by many people
for many reasons.
Isnt that what spin-doctoring is, of which you were
so dismissive earlier?
No, no, no. Whats happening here is that a group of
people want to draw our attention to one of the great scandals
afflicting the world today. That isnt spin-doctoring.
Its manipulating the news agenda.
Well, its influencing it, certainly. Quite right, too.
And Im 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. Im not going to go into all that
Lets 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 thats 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 thats entirely healthy in a democracy. If
the German people had been a bit more sceptical in the 1930s,
perhaps we wouldnt 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, its
leapt upon as a gaffe.
I think the idea that were 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
thats what you believe
I dont 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, its easy to make
a politician look devious simply by asking them for a yes-or-no
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
dont? I wonder. Perhaps it is because some are
devious and some arent.
Opinion polls find that the public has a very dim view
of politicians in general. Do you think that is fair?
It doesnt bother me unduly. Its got an even dimmer
view of journalists. I think its perfectly healthy.
Do you think its 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 dont think that matters
very much, because if you then ask people whether they have
any respect for any politicians, they will say yes and theyll
tell you who they are.
But people have always said that you cant trust politicians
ever since time began, I suspect.
Your style of interviewing might give some people the impression
that youre judgemental. Is that
I would reject that entirely.
Im persistent; some people think Im too aggressive.
I cant help my personality. When Im 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, Dont let the bastards
grind you down!
Theyre on my side not mine, the side of the
BBC. They recognise that were just trying to do a job,
and if politicians dont like it, that doesnt bother
them too much. In fact, they rather think politicians shouldnt
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. Thats 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 Ive
not done badly. I dont often do it, but its a
© Third Way 1998
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