James Naughtie: The art of being nicely incisive

James Naughtie is the less confrontational half of radio news's great double act, but interviewees find he is no soft touch. He talks to Ian Burrell about life on 'Today'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

ames Naughtie sits beside plates of cold, discarded toast on the sofa in the Today programme Green Room, the spot where his guests are left to prepare themselves before facing his interrogation. Though it has been said that Naughtie is a gentle interviewer, certainly in comparison with his more confrontational co-presenter, John Humphrys, it is likely that his interviewees feel no little trepidation about speaking live on a radio programme that commands an audience of more than six million, six days a week.

Naughtie displays no such discomfort, rattling on enthusiastically about the invigorating recent changes in the British political spectrum, until the conversation turns to the threat that impending budgetary cuts pose to his programme's ability to cover such stories. Today is set to lose three of its frontline journalists - 25 per cent of its reporting staff - as part of the wider programme of BBC cost-cutting.

"The truth is that in our neck of the woods in radio news there are going to be budgetary difficulties. A number of jobs will go and there will be pretty anxious arguments internally about that," says Naughtie. "I hope ways will be found to make sure that the essence of this programme and what it does isn't compromised. It's obviously a worrying time but I don't sense it is a crisis time."

Just as it reports the news, so Today often makes the headlines and its presenting team occasionally forms part of the story. Naughtie has previously enraged Neil Kinnock (who accused the broadcaster of trying to "bloody kebab me") and William Hague, whom he interrupted 27 times in a single interview. More recently he has incurred criticism for perceived lack of censure in his questioning of a teacher who had been allowed to return to the classroom in spite of a previous sexual relationship with a pupil.

But an even bigger kerfuffle has been created of late by an issue over which the Today presenting team has no control, namely the axing of the medley of popular British music that traditionally opens Radio 4's daily output at 5.30am.

"Everyone is very excited about the tune," drily comments Naughtie, who is something of an authority on opera and classical music. He and the Today presenters (who don't come on air until 6am) have received large amounts of correspondence on the matter. "Half of them were saying: 'It's dreadful, it's political correctness gone mad', which is complete potty nonsense, of course, and the other half were saying: 'Get rid of that dreadful tune, I'm delighted'," he says.

"You have to remember that people have a tremendously possessive view of Radio 4 and of the Today programme. What I feel in the row about the tune is that I hope that all the people who are getting hot under the collar one way or another would be willing to get as hot under the collar in defending the licence fee and defending investment and quality in radio.

"In the end, that is much more important than whether we play 'What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?' at 25 to six."

Naughtie, 54, joined Today 12 years ago this month, replacing the great Brian Redhead. Before he took up his post, he started tongues wagging by announcing that there would be "no lead presenter" on the flagship news programme. This surprised those who viewed Humphrys as Redhead's heir. "I hardly know Jim," Humphrys was quoted as saying of his new colleague. "I know John well," was Naughtie's reported comment on their relationship.

"Only time will tell how the terrier Humphrys and the newshound Naughtie get on with each other," speculated a commentator in The Observer in 1994.

The notion that the two are intense rivals has never gone away. After all, these are two heavyweight journalists who are at least as influential players in the "game" of British politics as most of the elected representatives. Both have retained their hunger and drive.

But there is no evidence of any bitterness in the relationship, in which the respective talents of the two presenters often complement one another. When they are sat together in the Today news room, doing their research a couple of desk spaces apart, they appear more like an old married couple than the preening, prima donna presenters who inhabit some American television news networks. Humph-rys was away last week

but Naughtie was generous in his praise of his long-standing cohort. "It's a terribly calm atmosphere actually. We all just get on with it and have a laugh together. John and I have worked together for 12 years and when you work with people at 4am... I think we know each other's foibles extremely well," he says. "The thing with John is that he is so quick and so acute that your mind never wanders when you are on a programme with him."

Asked if the show feels different when he is working with co-presenter Edward Stourton (as he was that morning), he stops to think. "Obviously John jumps around more. That's just a basic fact. I suppose we have an, er, - what's the word? - it has a slightly more hectic feel. But we all get on extremely well," he says. "We've all got our own style and to some degree you are born with it. The funny thing about radio is that although people can't see it, it is extraordinarily intimate. The one thing you can't have is monochrome presentation."

He presents Radio 4's Book Club once a month. "I find it a really invigorating side to my life, logging into a fantastic, subversive network of writing groups around the country. I find my sanity is preserved by doing this on the side," he says.

James Naughtie grew up with teacher parents in a village outside Inverness and, after university, made his start in journalism at the Press & Journal in Aberdeen. His talent was quickly recognised and he worked in the lobby for The Scotsman and then The Guardian, honing an understanding of and love for the machinations of Westminster that has stood him in good stead ever since. He joined Today after a six-year stint as a presenter on The World At One.

Radio 4 audiences might rebel against proposed alterations to their listening pleasures but Naughtie says that the network's flagship news programme has always evolved to reflect changes in British society. "You get people all the time saying: 'I've listened to the Today programme since Jack de Manio [presenter 1958-71] and the great thing is it hasn't changed'," he says. "Frankly, if you played a Today programme from 1977 it sounds like it comes from the Ark. It would be [roving reporter] Monty Modlin at Billingsgate fish market and a guy coming on talking about the price of cabbage at Covent Garden. This programme has changed all the time," he says.

He thinks the current debate on the need for changes to the Radio 4 schedule is healthy, rather than being an indication that the network has lost direction. "There is a debate and so there should be, but that notion that [Radio 4 controller] Mark Damazer is going to come in like some mad axeman is completely wide of the mark. He is completely absorbed in what we do in news, drama, comedy. Damazer is a complete child of Radio 4."

Naughtie himself came under fire last month when Daily Mail polemicist Richard Littlejohn parodied the Today presenter's interview with the Bournemouth teacher at the centre of a sex-offending scandal.

Littlejohn suggested that, had he been around in Victorian times, Naughtie would have, in a woolly and politically correct kind of way, given Jack The Ripper a very easy ride. "I will be hanging that in the loo," laughs Naughtie of the Mail article. "I would be slightly distressed if Richard Littlejohn thought that I was marvellous."

He says he approached the teacher story with the intention of allowing the man to speak so that the interview could "breathe" and listeners could form their own views.

This morning Naughtie has interviewed the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and the Home Office minister Paul Goggins, whom he roughed up somewhat over the Government's handling of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill ("Aren't you embarrassed?", "Can you imagine what's going on in the whip's office this morning?")

He thinks a lot about his interviewing style and will vary his tactics according to the interviewee. Some politicians enjoy the "fast bowling" of a combative interview while others (notably David Blunkett and Charles Clarke) are better suited to a slower-paced delivery, which often induces "some quite intriguing little insights".

It is crucially important, he points out, not to not obsess so with the "symphonic arch" of the pre-planned interview structure that the response to the previous question goes unnoticed. "John's ability has been not to miss a single nuance in an answer," observes Naughtie.

He compares the presenting rota to changing partners for games of doubles down at the tennis courts. There are no unseemly squabbles on who gets the centre court billing of the 8.10am interview. Sometimes it simply falls to editor Kevin Marsh, who must balance the egos of his team of presenters, to make the call.

"I'm sure there's a little bit of horses for courses," says Naughtie. "But the truth on this programme, and this is a really important point, is that there's so much to go round."

Tony Blair has given four interviews to Today in the past six months. Naughtie has done two, Humphrys and Stourton one apiece. Stourton specialises in the Middle East and Naughtie has an expertise in US politics. "The supermarket shelves are stuffed with goods and we all get a chance to shop around," he says.

This sense of optimism applies most acutely to his assessment of the emerging battleground at Westminster, a political scene that is as exciting as at any time during his years at Today.

"It freshens us up, you feel as though you are not just going round the same old track," he says. "If the level of political debate is raised, it's good news for broadcasters."