John Humphrys: On the threat to 'Today'

John Humphrys is furious – that funding is equally cut from his 'Today' programme and BBC's niche output, that older audiences are ignored, and that radio is given second billing to telly. Ian Burrell hears from the man who doesn't own a TV set
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While politicians prevaricate and statesman squirm under inquisition from John Humphrys on Radio 4's Today programme, he can console himself in the knowledge that there are at least some people in this world who are extremely keen to respond to his interrogation.

Because, less than five minutes into this interview in the garden of his London home, comes the jangle of a ringing doorbell. The silver-haired presenter jumps up to find out who it is. Minutes later he returns. "Jehovah's Witnesses!" he exclaims, unusually baffled. "They said 'There are some questions we're sure we can answer for you, do you have a Bible?'"

Humphrys told his uninvited visitors that he possesses a dozen Bibles and that he feels confident in drawing his own conclusions, having just completed a book on the validity of agnosticism, In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist. But as he walks into his kitchen to prepare some coffee, he appears a little flustered by his door-stepping. "They knew my name as soon as I opened the door," he says. "How did they get my address?"

These are uncertain times not just in Humphrys' spiritual life but in his working one too. As he celebrates 20 years of presenting Today, he has no doubts at all about the prestigious role the programme occupies in British society – but he is deeply unsure about its future.

The scarcity of resources that have resulted from the BBC's flawed negotiations with the Government on the licence fee has brought fear and apprehension along with the certainty that the corporation will, once again, have to go under the knife. Alongside that fear is an anger the cuts will be made not with the precision of the surgeon's scalpel but with the chop of the salami slicer.

Humphrys is clearly livid. He gives forewarning that he wishes to speak out on the subject, then holds forth. "You could say, well, everybody's got to cut, why shouldn't the Today programme? I think that is a ludicrous argument, utterly, utterly ludicrous. There's no organisation anywhere in the world that doesn't say, 'There are some things we do that are more important than others, and those things we will not cut.' We should take the view that the Today programme is so important and has already been cut to such an extent that any more cuts will damage it."

The rumour among Today staff is that the programme's already-reduced budget might be slashed by as much as a further 20 per cent. "Five years ago we had 17 reporters. We now have fewer than half that number. We have already cut our budget by about 15 per cent in the last few years and there are rumours – I've no idea if they are true – that we might have to cut as much as another 20 per cent from our budget. We are then left with virtually no reporters."

Instead of across-the-board cuts, the BBC should prioritise its output and sacrifice the most dispensable elements, the veteran broadcaster believes. "Reith [identified priorities] a long time ago: inform, educate and entertain. And it's not just that he got those three responsibilities right, but he got the order of them right as well. Our overarching, overwhelming responsibility, above and beyond anything else, is to inform. If we fail to do that then we don't deserve the licence fee – it's that simple. Everything else, even the education bit, is secondary, because if in a democracy the public is not informed then you cannot make informed decisions by definition."

This means, he says, that Today should be so high on the list of priorities that it is out of reach of the knife. "In terms of its impact and its influence on the national debate, the trust in which it is held by its huge audience, the Today programme is easily the most important programme that the BBC does."

Rather than risk damaging such flagship programmes, the BBC should consider taking the axe to its less popular output, he suggests. "If continuing to fund channels like BBCThree and BBCFour means that the price to pay is that there must be damaging cuts to core programmes, then I don't believe that that is a price worth paying. A very, very strong case has to be made for keeping those channels. The case cannot be made if the price to be paid is the kind of salami slicing that means that the Today programme not just suffers but is seriously damaged."

When Humphrys has spoken out in the past, such as when he criticised the overall quality of TV programmes in a speech at the Edinburgh Festival in 2004, some have sought to dismiss his comments by suggesting that he is out of touch with developments in modern media.

He says that it was to the "credit" of the BBC that it quickly recognised that "we were entering the digital age and things would never be the same again" by pouring resources into online services. But the licence fee shortfall has changed things.

"In the ideal world where you have an unlimited amount of money, you can have as many channels as you need. Let's have 500 niche channels! If you happen to be interested in the wholesale price of bananas in Costa Rica, let's have a channel that keeps a close eye on the price of bananas in Costa Rica. But we don't have the money to do that. We have, it seems, barely enough money to meet our core obligations. That's why many people think that salami slicing is not the way to do it. It simply does not make sense to say to every programme, regardless of merit, regardless of its importance to the future of the BBC, that we must all suffer and make cuts, as though it's a Baptist preacher addressing his sinning congregation. I've never felt more important about anything at any stage of my career at the BBC than this."

BBC executives are in danger of pursuing a policy in which "we sacrifice the present to the future", he says. "It's all very well to say that in five years' time you will regard BBCThree and BBCFour as absolutely vital. All right, at the moment only six men and a dog watch them, but in five years' time, by God they'll be a lot more important. That's fine! But what if in five years' time you've damaged programmes like Today and other core programmes the BBC does? There's a real danger that we will damage those bits of the BBC that are absolutely crucial to its long-term future."

Humphrys, 64, also believes that BBC senior executives have failed to recognise the enduring popularity of radio. Shortly after he joined the corporation 41 years ago, he was asked to report from Liverpool for both radio and television. One of his bosses told him: "You mustn't worry too much about radio: it's on the way out. Television is where it's at."

The BBC's main television bulletin, which Humphrys began presenting in 1981 to an audience of around nine million, now struggles to get half that, whereas Today has put on "a couple of million" since he took the helm two decades ago. "But it's not telly, it's not telly!" he shouts in frustration. He even declares that radio is more adaptable to digital media. "Radio is far more suited to all the new media than television. It may be that we will reach the stage when everybody walks down the street with their handheld gadget watching some 40-second clip from television, but I doubt it."

Humphrys' Edinburgh criticisms were dismissed by many in the industry on the grounds that he does not possess a television set. But let's not forget that this is the youngest-ever foreign correspondent to be appointed by BBC Television News, someone who covered the resignation of Richard Nixon, revolutions in Latin America and the transition of Rhodesia to Zimbabwe.

He is aghast at the theatrical presentation of much of the current output of television news. "When we start instructing television reporters to wave their arms and at precisely what point in their 'piece to camera', then it's pretty much over. It seems to be mostly about artifice now. I'm not interested in that. I find it almost impossible to watch most television news. Reporters are breathtakingly mannered and most of them are clearly acting," he says, pausing to acknowledge the "hugely honourable exceptions like John Simpson and Jeremy Bowen and company".

Tough talker though he is, both on and off air, Humphrys says he feels that he has the support of the BBC's highest echelons. "From the point of view of doing the job, sitting there asking those difficult questions, I think I've always felt that the BBC would support you. The BBC is an extraordinary and wonderful organisation, and in spite of everything I've said it's an absolutely amazing organisation to work for."

This is why he felt so pained by the Hutton inquiry. "That afternoon, when the report was released, I went in to the office. I normally don't spend any time in the office during the day, but I did that afternoon, for solidarity more than anything else. That was hideous. There was the very real possibility that we would see the defenestration of the BBC. A lot of us thought that this could be the end of what we do. It was a very, very febrile atmosphere and I've never experienced anything like it at the BBC." He adds that the response to Hutton from the rest of the media helped convince the public that His Lordship had got things wrong.

Whatever the television bigwigs might think of him, Humphrys has found it "very gratifying" that three years after his Edinburgh attack on Big Brother and other reality television shows, the chickens have come home to roost. The announcement that Celebrity Big Brother will not be made this year means that the "argument has been fought and won", he says.

He cannot understand why BBC executives obsess over attracting young audiences, as if they were chasing advertising revenues. "They see that the Today programme audience is old. Oh my gosh, how dare they be old! Many of them are over the age of 50, they will all die and we won't have audience. Well actually, 20-year-olds get to be 21 and eventually 50. What happens when they get older is that they start to listen to the Today programme – that's the way it has always been. We are not a commercial station trying to sell iPods to people."

He might be often portrayed as a grumpy old man, but Humphrys has a seven-year-old child and a house strewn with toys. He also helps thousands of children in Africa through the Kitchen Table Charities Trust, which he set up two years ago. Bypassing the bureaucracy of some larger NGOs, it assists the funding of 87 smaller projects. "It's mostly helping kids, usually orphans of kids who died from Aids, helping them to get educated, because if you can read and write you've got a slightly better chance of doing something with your life." He goes off to fetch an ornate metal sculpture fashioned from a bicycle chain and car parts into the shape of a dinosaur by a disabled Tanzanian street urchin, after training from a British welder.

Humphrys, a working-class boy from Splott in Cardiff, hopes to go back to Africa to make a special despatch for Today. But he doesn't claim to have all the answers, especially not after researching this latest book, which he wrote after the deluge of responses to a series of programmes he made on his search for God. Once an atheist, he is now a proud agnostic. "I get cross at the assumption that people who doubt are these dopey people in the middle, pathetic milksops who can't make up their minds. You can't prove the existence of God and you can't prove the nonexistence of God, therefore doubt is not just a credible, respectable position to take, but seems to me the only credible, respectable position to take."

So, after years of relentlessly pursuing his studio guests for full disclosure, accusing politicians of obfuscation and spin doctors of concealing the facts, John Humphrys has found that there can be a place for ambiguity after all.

In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist is published on 6 September by Hodder & Stoughton