Humphrys goes to war

Today's lead interrogator will fly to Iraq next month for a live edition of the programme from Baghdad. After 20 years in the safety of a studio, why is he returning to battle?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

At 10 past eight on Friday morning, interviewing the Muslim protester Abu Izzadeen about his heckling of John Reid, the Home Secretary, Today presenter John Humphrys showed his emollient side. If the idea was to give Izzadeen enough rope to hang himself, it worked. Izzadeen condemned British soldiers in Iraq as "crusader forces" and declared that "there can be no debate and no discussion" between the government and British Muslims while occupying armies remain on Iraqi soil. Describing Tony Blair as "the real terrorist", he refused Humphrys' repeated invitations to say whether he supported terrorism and told the presenter: "You have misunderstood the reality."

Ludicrous as that sounded, the accusation may have struck a chord in the veteran interrogator's conscience. It has been a very long time since he witnessed conflict at first hand. But next month, twenty-five years after his experiences as a foreign correspondent persuaded him that "I prefer the risks of a live interview with an angry politician in a cosy studio to those of a live round from an assault rifle in a foreign war", Humphrys will see Iraq for himself. After decades away from conflict zones he will present Today live from Baghdad.

The idea came from programme editor Ceri Thomas, who recently visited Iraq. Humphrys was initially reluctant - he has resisted previous invitations to put himself in harm's way. But Iraq is different. "There has not been a modern foreign story in which Britain had such a big, direct part ... Its importance is geopolitical and the questions are huge and profoundly important. It is having, has had and is going to continue to have a huge impact on British politics."

Humphrys has reason to understand that impact. He was the presenter who, on the morning of 29 May, 2003, conducted the interview with Andrew Gilligan that resulted in the Hutton Inquiry. Government supporters have accused him of displaying anti-war sympathies on air.

Next month - provided security does not deteriorate alarmingly - he will fly to Iraq with the RAF and spend time in both Baghdad and Basra. "There would be no point in going if all we did was sit in British Army barracks or sit in the Green Zone. We are going to get out and about. There is a big difference between talking to a commanding officer down the line from London and talking to squaddies on the ground."

He does not conceal his fear, but says the danger is all the more reason to go. "It is quite difficult to sit there morning after morning interviewing people who are taking big chances and then, when you are put under a bit of pressure yourself, to say, 'No, I don't want to take the chance'. You can't do that. You're sitting there in your nice studio, quite safe ... and you can't say, 'I'm not going to go because I'm scared'."

But when seasoned Middle East correspondents regard Iraq as too dangerous for proper reporting, and most coverage is compiled behind elaborate security barriers, what good can one visit by a high-profile interviewer make?

"The argument that I have always put up against going is that you can't actually see Iraq and talk to Iraqis in the way that you would almost anywhere else in the world. But that is not a terribly good reason because you have got to make an attempt. If when you get there you can't do things that you would do anywhere else, that becomes part of the story.

"I talk regularly to people who paint their particular pictures of what Iraq is like, people such as the Prime Minister's human rights envoy Anne Clwyd, but I have no way of knowing which picture is accurate. At least one gets a slightly better crack at understanding that if one goes oneself ... When you are talking to someone in Baghdad and they tell you, 'Actually it's terribly safe here and we go for picnics on Sunday afternoon and it's lovely', you can't challenge that because you are not there."

Humphrys has relaxed his normal resistance to BBC bureaucracy and undergone the corporation's mandatory Hostile Environments course for journalists assigned to conflict zones. "It would be a huge conceit to say that I'm going off there and reporting in the way that someone like John Simpson does. I am presenting the programme - not rushing around doing what correspondents have to do."

In his foreign correspondent days, John Humphrys covered fighting in Namibia, Mozambique, Rhodesia and Chile. "The nastiest things almost always happen in places where you are not expecting it ... In Belfast my cameraman was badly injured while we were trying to escape from a mob ... A brick came through the window, hit my cameraman in the face and nearly took his eye out."

Iraq will be different. "When you go into something that is a war zone you prepare for that. You take precautions. I suspect we will be mostly with the army - and if you are with an experienced bunch of soldiers and you get attacked, you do what they tell you."

He is aware that he may be used as a conduit for propaganda. "That is the first worry you have apart from personal safety. But I would like to think I have not completely lost whatever reporting savvy I had."

At 63 he dismisses suggestions that he is too old for the trip, but hints that the decision has not been welcomed by his partner, Valerie Sanderson. Asked for her reaction he replies: "I won't go there. I will leave that question hanging in the air."

The presence of Today's lead presenter in Iraq will certainly advertise the programme's commitment to foreign coverage. But Humphrys' willingness to go is primarily a reflection of the significance he attaches to British involvement in Iraq. "I have been declining invitations to do something like this for a very long time, but this is the biggest foreign story for this country of the last several decades. I want to go and have a look at what is going on."