The Today programme in the 1980s was a like a rather down-at-heel English boarding school. There were (metaphorical) prefects and frequent (metaphorical) beatings; bullying was not unknown and newbies like me had to earn their stripes. There were some very kind people – the editors Jenny Abramsky and Phil Harding among them – but the atmosphere was demanding, to put it mildly. Into this walked John Humphrys. I don't know where he went to school but I suspect he never had his own toast-fag; from the day he arrived he was a breath of egalitarian fresh air, a presenter who engaged with everyone.
Sure, he occasionally threw typewriters. But he was never aiming at individuals. He cared deeply about what he did and how the programme sounded. This was not a man who "took time" to encourage and advise the junior reporters in the manner of a self-aware mentor; with John it is just a part of who he is. I doubt he ever gave a thought to how he should behave towards me or anyone else, he just did it. But a word of praise from someone so obviously possessed of lively critical facilities is a word to be savoured.
In truth though, it's not about the praise or encouragement; it's about setting an example, showing the way. In the years since then, John has interviewed me hundreds of times as a correspondent in the field, and every time feels like the first; the man is not following a script. More recently I have filled in as a Today presenter myself, and witnessed John's undiminished energy and drive. Again he treats the newbie as a pal; but still he sets the standard to be beaten, in commitment and forensic skill.
There are other broadcasters I talk to more regularly, but John has always been there. The other day he was talking about eventually retiring. He won't. It wouldn't suit him. He was built to keep prodding, harassing, and talking.
Justin Webb is the BBC's North America Editor. John Humphrys presents BBC Radio 4's Today programmeReuse content