JOHN HUMPHRYS Presenter, `Today', Radio 4
Click to follow
The Independent Online
For as long as I've been able to think, I've never wanted to do anything else but be a reporter. I went through school with that intention, and it was my ambition - not that I ever thought I'd do it - to be a foreign correspondent for the BBC, and in Washington, ideally.

I left school in the late Fifties, when I was 15, immediately after O- levels. I joined a local weekly newspaper, called the Penarth Times, and the news editor there taught me a lot, accuracy in particular. The thing about working on a small weekly newspaper - this had a circulation of about 3,000 - is that the people who read it are the people who appear in it, so if you made a mistake when you were taking the names of mourners at funerals, or of wedding guests outside receptions, you were in trouble.

At 17, I moved to the Merthyr Express, a bigger newspaper in the Valleys, and after a couple of years there I moved down to Cardiff to the Western Mail. Then, in 1964, I had a choice: I was invited by The Sunday Times to join their brand new Insight section, and at the same time I had an offer from TWW - HTV, as it now is - in Cardiff. I accepted both jobs, but backed out of the Sunday Times one at the last minute.

I worked as a scriptwriter, reporter and presenter-type figure at TWW, and after a couple of years applied to the BBC to be their Liverpool correspondent. Later, I was the northern industrial correspondent in Manchester, before coming down to London to be a general reporter.

In most jobs, if you work hard and are reasonably competent you'll get on well, but it doesn't follow in journalism, as you have to have luck if you're to get on at all. I've had a lot of it: in 1971 I was sent to East Pakistan to report on some troubles, and I'd been there for just 24 hours when the Indians started bombing Dhaka airport and the Indo-Pakistani war began. If you're there, in situ, you have got to be a real mug not to be able to make something of it, so that got me noticed.

Then the BBC opened a television bureau in New York, and I was offered a job there. When I got that, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I'd never been to the States before in my life, and again, about 24 hours after I landed, the first of the Watergate break-ins happened. That became a mega-story, of course, and I was moved to Washington a few months afterwards.

I was supposed to be there for two years, but in the end I was there for six. When I came back to London, South Africa said we could have a television bureau there, so I spent two years in Johannesburg. There, too, I had a big story: a financial scandal soon developed and the president had to resign.

I came back to London in 1980 as a diplomatic correspondent, travelling around with the Foreign Secretary mostly, and then started presenting The Nine O'Clock News, which I did for about six years until terminal boredom set in. Ten years ago they offered me a job on Today, and for the last four years I've also been doing On The Record on BBC1.

When I came to Today, I met Brian Redhead, who I think is the person who's had the greatest influence on me as a broadcaster. At the time he was at his peak, and one of the messages I took from him was that you've got to avoid pomposity. He used to talk on the programme of "dropping a word in the nation's ear", and that's the way he presented.

The highs in this business are the big stories, but there are lows every day in broadcasting in the sense you keep doing things you feel you could have done better. You might think written journalism is easier, because you have chance to refine it and time to think, but on the other hand you get away with a huge amount as a live interviewer. The interviewee is aware that it's live, and there can be no rowing back once they've said something - or they can try, but the audience spots it.

As long as you can cope with the pressure of being on the air live, in some ways it's the easiest of the trades. I like the adrenalin, and the idea that what you're doing now is what's being broadcast. There's no one else to blame, either: on a newspaper you can blame a sub-editor for screwing it up, but when you're doing something live it's down to you. But, if you get the luck and it goes your way, it's not a bad way to earn a livingn

Interview by Scott Hughes