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."

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