MEDIA : A rude awakening? Not with them

Michael Leapman relishes the opportunity to put Today's James Naughtie and John Humphrys on the receiving end of an interview

"But you see ..." Just three little words, but few regular listeners to Radio 4's Today, or before that to The World at One, will need any further clue to the subject of this article. In the goldfish bowl of national radio, no verbal mannerism goes undetected for long.

When I mention the phrase to James Naughtie, the perky Scot who this month celebrates his first year as a presenter of Today, his face turns scarlet for a moment. Grilling someone whose job is to probe the weak spots of public figures, it is endearing to discover that he recognises one in himself.

"I try to stop it," he confesses shyly. "You do develop these verbal tics and I'm lucky that I have an editor [Roger Mosey] who's quick at spotting them. He'll ring me after the programme and say: `You've done it again!' There's a great danger that you'll fall into habits you don't recognise, and you need the candid friend.

"Another problem is that I ask questions that go round the block and back again. It's a lack of mental discipline, but I'm working on it. Persuading myself to be briefer and more concise is my main task."

This is starting to get a bit embarrassing, like a session of self-revelation at Circumlocutors Anonymous ("Hello, my name's Jim and I talk too much"). The truth is that the 43-year-old Naughtie, in his first year as a presenter of the nation's most influential radio programme, has proved an immense success at the formidible task of replacing the much-loved and lamented Brian Redhead, whose Mancunian spirit still hovers over the place: a large picture of him dominates the corridor outside the Today office, while inside is a framed certificate of the posthumous award given him by the Broadcasting Press Guild.

As for "But you see ...", it often signals a particularly acute moment when Naughtie is about to tell his interview subject that what he or she has just said may sound all very fine, but you see that is not quite how it looks to the man on the Clapham omnibus. It is an irritating device only because it is so often repeated and because it sounds a shade patronising, as if he is having to spell something out to an especially dumb school pupil.

"In the end," he explains, "you're asking the question that most people wait to hear asked, not to sound clever or make some grand point that can be picked up by some columnist. They're sitting at breakfast or driving their cars to work and they want you to ask the question they would ask if they could: `Why?' "

The big interview is not the only task that Naughtie - along with the other four regular Today presenters - performs, but it is the one that provokes the most debate and the most brickbats. When John Birt, the BBC director-general, attacked what he saw as the over-aggressive tactics of some interviewers, the Today team, and particularly Naughtie's colleague John Humphrys, were thought to be among his targets.

Naughtie and Humphrys are certain that Birt was not, in fact, gunning for them. They told me why when I met them together on one fairly routine morning, just after a programme that had included two low-key interviews with second-tier cabinet ministers and a potentially dangerous one with Liz Forgan, managing director of BBC Radio.

"We know Birt wasn't getting at us," says Naughtie. "If there was a feeling that we weren't going the right way, we'd know, and, in fact, we know quite the opposite, that the programme is greatly valued. We get direct messages from on high."

Just as important as the occasional blessing from on high are the numerous messages the presenters receive from members of their daily congregation.

"We get thousands of letters," says Humphrys, "and in 90 per cent of them the theme is the same: don't let up. We don't get many complaints from politicians, either. Most of them rather like it.

"The irritating thing about people who sound off is the implication that it's all wham-bam-thank you-ma'am. A lot of our interviews are quite discursive. It's the aggressive ones that catch the headlines and stick in the mind, but the truth is that an awful lot of them aren't. This morning, I had an almost philosophical discussion with Brian Mawhinney about the future of transport. Nobody was trying to score points."

Naughtie agrees: "In some interviews you're not there to put someone on the spot but to discover something. It isn't all a great confrontation of `Explain yourself, minister'. Some are and some aren't.

"Our audience want us to look at issues that matter to them, what they'll be talking about in the pub. The purpose is never to gaze at our own navels or count how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. If we did that, people would start switching off, and they don't."

The audience figures bear him out. Last year, the first without Redhead, the number of people listening to at least 15 minutes of the programme in any one week was up from 5.4 million to 5.5 million, and its share of all radio listeners within its time slot rose from 14 per cent to 16 per cent - a creditable achievement, given increased competition from commercial stations. The average audience for the programme at any time in its 6.30 to 9am slot is 1.8 million.

That is why politicians, although they sometimes complain about the tone of the interviews, are seldom reluctant to take part. Despite breakfast television, Today remains the place where they can be certain that what they have to say will be picked up by other media and chewed over, becoming a required text for that day's instalment of the national debate. And if the interviewers were less acerbic, the politicians would not feel so proud of themselves for having managed to put their message across.

Indeed, the criticism that hurt Naughtie most was not that he was too sharp but that on one particular occasion he was too soft. At last autumn's Labour Party conference, it fell to him to interview Tony Blair after his first speech as leader. His opening question: "Were you nervous?"

"I thought it was a good question," he explains, "the kind of thing people would want to know. But I was subjected to a lot of good-natured flak from cabinet ministers, who said things like: `Gosh, I hope you aren't going to ask me difficult questions like that!' "

Naughtie joined Today after more than five years as presenter of The World at One, a more leisurely news programme, with none of the spicy early morning dramas of flood alerts and traffic jams on the M6 that give Today its sense of urgency. Before that he was a political journalist on the Scotsman and the Guardian.

Naughtie is on duty from Monday to Thursday, with Humphrys doing Wednesday to Saturday, so they are usually together on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Humphrys, 51, was also formerly a newspaper journalist, and both insist they are happiest when reporting a story. Occasionally, they are allowed out on the road - last year Humphrys went to South Africa and Naughtie to the United States for the mid-term elections.

"Like other journalists," says Humphrys, "we like to break a good story or tell a story well."

Like other journalists, Naughtie interrupts: "The best part of this job is the number of people you meet during the day who've heard you that morning and want to talk about what you've done. That's very satisfying for a journalist. Although John and I are different in that we ask questions in different ways, we're both very journalistic in our approach because that's our background."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
people
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Darrell Banks’s ‘Open The Door To Your Heart’
music
News
Detective Tam Bui works for the Toronto Police force
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Charter Selection: Graphic Designer, Guildford

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Charter Selection: This renowned and well establish...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'