Do you wake up every morning to the harrumphing outrage of John Humphrys? Do you wince as he goes in as hard on, say, a tiddlywinks world champion as the Prime Minister? Do you wonder why he’s always given subjects that clearly disgruntle him, like emojis, videogames or fashion? Do you scream at the radio whenever he has to steer a debate on sexism or race?
Or are you one of the 800,000 listeners lost by Radio 4’s Today programme last year, blissfully drifting into the classical music station Radio 3’s widening pool of breakfast-time listeners?
The Today programme has been through a transformation. Long-time presenter Jim Naughtie left the show at the end of 2015 after 21 years. The former Evening Standard editor Sarah Sands took over as editor in early summer 2017. Another veteran Sarah Montague switched to the World at One last year, after 18 years. Since 2013, BBC broadcasting royalty Mishal Husain, Martha Kearney and Nick Robinson have joined the fold.
In that time, BBC figures have noted a change in the tone of the programme – as is natural with a new editor and team.
“It would be hard to say that Today has excelled of late on what should be its core curriculum,” wrote former head of TV news and director of sport at the BBC Roger Mosey in this magazine, criticising its excessive coverage of London Fashion Week and Silicon Valley. “The question is whether a flagship like Today is the best place to experiment with magazine items, and particularly whether it’s right for these times.” The new daily “Puzzle for Today” feature concerned Mosey, along with what he called “new obsessions around the arts [and] country life”.
While there are many reasons for its drop in listeners last year – including the high watermark blockbuster news year of 2017, and the challenges of covering Brexit – Today does seem to be having a bit of an identity crisis.And some, particularly younger, listeners feel John Humphrys is a part of that.
After 32 years on the programme, his reputation as a mischievous, straight-talking interrogator speaking truth to power endures at the BBC. “Aggressive at times, contrary quite often, he is fuelled by the adrenaline of news and genuine interest,” writes Libby Purves, who presents Radio 4’s Midweek and presented the Today programme in 1976-1981. “Inside him vibrates the inquisitive, argumentative, determined cub reporter he was, loving intellectual friction.” No doubt the majority of listeners know him as a combative stalwart too.
But it’s been a while now since his often overwrought questioning style has landed a proper blow – and his gaffes are becoming increasingly tiresome.
How about the time he grilled tennis player Johanna Konta about her nationality, asking “What are you?”, ahead of the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2017?
Or in the same year when he “mansplained” fashion to former editor of British Vogue Alexandra Shulman, who later accused him of “hectoring me on the business I had worked in for a quarter of a century and which he neither knew, nor cared, much about”? (Upon hearing Shulman’s description of him as “a grey-haired guy in chinos”, Humphrys resorted to crying reverse-sexism: “If I’d accused her of being, say, a grey-haired woman who wore whatever, that would have been sexist.”)
Or when he told shadow home secretary Diane Abbott – who’s suffered more abuse than any other MP – “you’d survive” if he was racist or sexist towards her, as opposed to if he “punched you in the nose”, when she was discussing hate crime last year?
Or when he suggested a Nigerian film maker should “go back” to Nigeria, when she actually lived there?
This isn’t new. In the 1980s, he propositioned the newsreader Moira Stuart after being on air – “you’re the most sensationally sexy lady I know. The best thing we can do is to make mad passionate love in the basement” – and in 2009 introduced his future co-presenter Mishal Husain on Celebrity Mastermind as “newsreader and a very good-looking woman”, asking: “Are you doing your job only because you are good-looking?”
But it’s only in the past few years that this attitude has evidently jarred with audiences. Not because we’re all snowflakes these days, but because we’ve seen the cold hard numbers of sexism at the BBC.
Though Humphrys gave up half his salary, putting him on between £250,000 and £300,000, he was best-known for mocking the equal pay row when off-air. After the BBC’s former China editor Carrie Gracie had resigned over pay, a recording was leaked of Humphrys snarking about the subject during a chat with North America editor Jon Sopel.
“The first question will be how much of your salary you are prepared to hand over to Carrie Gracie to keep her and then a few comments about your other colleagues, like our Middle East Editor and the other men who are earning too much,” he said.
“And I could save you the trouble as I could volunteer I’ve handed over already more than you fucking earn but I’m still left with more than anybody else and that seems to me to be entirely just – something like that would do it?”
After Sopel replied “Don’t…”, Humphrys ploughed on: “Oh dear God. She’s actually suggested that you should lose money; you know that don’t you? You’ve read the thing properly have you?”
This doesn’t diminish Humphrys’ hard-hitting coverage and iconic interviews of the past three decades. But it does betray an attitude that is out-of-step with the audiences Today needs to stay relevant – and reverse the exodus of listeners.
And Humphrys’ insistence in the studio of dominating both the rota and the big 8.10 interviews doesn’t help. Though I’ve asked the BBC if he is actually on more often and haven’t yet had an answer, it sounds like he’s on all the time – and for fans of the other presenters, this is a problem.
It says great things about Humphrys’ career that he now defines the Today programme – but having him define the programme is not what it needs. As he said himself, “Obviously I should have gone years ago”.