John Humphrys: National treasure or the rudest man in Britain?

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When John Humphrys was growing up in Cardiff, he says, "My mother thought it was rude to talk politics at table." I wonder how she would have felt about her son talking politics at the breakfast tables of the entire nation? He has done all right out of it, anyway. On Thursday night, at the Sony Radio Awards, he won the Gold Award for "Outstanding Contribution" to the medium.

When John Humphrys was growing up in Cardiff, he says, "My mother thought it was rude to talk politics at table." I wonder how she would have felt about her son talking politics at the breakfast tables of the entire nation? He has done all right out of it, anyway. On Thursday night, at the Sony Radio Awards, he won the Gold Award for "Outstanding Contribution" to the medium.

Speaking on the phone yesterday, he was modest about the achievement: "You have to be realistic about these things. Once you reach a certain age, so long as you can stagger up to the stage, hold on to the thing and walk back to your table without falling over, that's the main qualification."

Perhaps. A more realistic appraisal might be that the award confirms Humphrys' status as one of the nation's most widely loved and respected broadcasters, the undisputed star of the Today programme. But unlike, say, John Peel, Humphrys also attracts widespread loathing, from those who see his abrasive interviewing style as instrumental in the decline of political discourse – politicians afraid of getting sandbagged by Humphrys tend to resort to the soundbite, repeated early and often, as an alternative to actually answering any questions.

Over the 16 years he has been presenting Today, some of Humphrys' exploits have passed into legend. In one interview with Kenneth Clarke, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Humphrys interrupted him more than 30 times (some put the tally as high as 35). In 1997, after he badgered Harriet Harman – Social Security Secretary at the time – about plans to reduce payments to single mothers, Dave Hill, Labour's director of communications, spoke publicly of "the John Humphrys problem". In 2000, he was rebuked by the BBC's own Board of Governors for overstepping the mark in an interview with Lord Robertson, the Secretary-General of Nato, over the previous year's bombing of Kosovo (Humphrys was supposed to have snorted audibly during some of Lord Robertson's answers).

Humphrys himself thinks that his reputation rests on things that happened a long time ago, and offers an analogy with turning round an oil-tanker. "I went through a period, I think, a few years ago, when I think probably my judgement was wrong," he says. He attributes that primarily to a lack of confidence during his early years on Today, but adds, "There is always the danger of believing your own publicity." These days, however, he believes he has settled down: "I think if you listen now I'm much more inclined to laugh at something that's absurd rather than lose my temper. To lose your temper is unforgivable."

I used to get quite cross about his style myself; but thinking it over, the last incident I remember was two or three years ago. He still gets listeners writing in – "Of course" – to complain that he was too rude to this or that minister: "But for every letter you get like that, you get a dozen saying 'Why did you let the bugger off the hook?'" In any case, attempts to muzzle him have tended to backfire. In 1995, when Jonathan Aitken accused Humphrys of "poisoning the well of democratic debate", the Express, of all papers – this was long before it converted to Blairism – ran a column suggesting "Humphrys for Prime Minister" .

That wouldn't suit him at all, though. Humphrys says that the function of journalism – his sort of journalism – is "to question what we're being told. The job of a journalist is to question authority, to ask why they're doing what they're doing and whether they get it right. Which implies that in part, at any rate, you have to be a bit of an outsider."

But that is surely putting the cart before the horse: he has not become an outsider to fit his career; he's the sort of journalist he is because he is – or sees himself as – an outsider. He has said that as a trainee at the BBC, he was conscious of sitting apart from the Oxbridge graduates who were his contemporaries. Humphrys himself came from Splott, a working-class area of Cardiff, and left school at 15 to work in local papers.

It is tempting to speculate that he inherited a contrarian streak from his father, a staunch Tory who was nevertheless a republican: on one occasion he was thrown out of the local Conservative club for refusing to sit beneath a portrait of the Queen. Humphrys remembers his father as a man who "really wouldn't tolerate authority". He worked as a French polisher: Humphrys recalls that when they visited a big house and his father was sent round the back to the tradesman's entrance, he wouldn't do the job.

Humphrys started work on The Penarth Times, before moving to the Western Mail, and then independent television. He joined the BBC as a reporter in 1966, and worked as Northern Industrial Correspondent – shocking to recall there were days when there was enough northern industry for it to need a correspondent of its own – before postings to Northern Ireland and then abroad. There is some dispute over whether he or John Simpson was BBC Television's youngest-ever foreign correspondent – it depends on whether Dublin counts as a foreign posting (Humphrys says it doesn't).

He went to Washington and covered Watergate; he spent three years in southern Africa, and saw Zimbabwe achieve independence. But travelling kept him apart from his family – he had married Edna Wilding in 1961, and had two children. So in 1981 he quit reporting to join the Nine O'Clock News. When it switched to a two-presenter format in 1986, he was miffed to be given second billing, after Julia Somerville, and jumped at the Today job when it came up.

Apart from his contrariness – what some journalists from more privileged backgrounds have called "chippiness" – his most striking inheritance from his parents is his work ethic. He is indefatigable. At one point, he regularly presented Today in the morning, and the BBC1 Six O'Clock News in the evening. Once, he did Today, The Six O'clock News, On the Record, Panorama and The Nine O'clock News in a single span of five days. Meanwhile, at weekends he did the Sunday lunchtime political interview programme On the Record, which came off air last December after 13 years.

Alongside all this, he has had a second career, often overlooked, as a more sympathetic and probing interviewer. Radio 4 briefly ran The John Humphrys Interview: his own assessment is that "some of the chats were pleasant and enjoyable and even interesting, but there was absolutely no compelling reason to listen to them." By contrast, the more tightly formatted On the Ropes, in which Humphrys talks to public figures about periods of turbulence in their lives, has been going for almost a decade, and looks set to run and run. He enjoys having 30 minutes, as opposed to the three he gets to do an interview on Today: "We used to say that all politicians are trained to deal with the first 10 minutes, after that it gets more difficult for them. If you've got a bit longer you can probe the defences a bit more."

On the Ropes does often show another side of the interviewees – Humphrys remembers having Neil Kinnock on the programme shortly after he had resigned as Labour leader: "I'd interviewed him God knows how man times as leader of the opposition. But he was a different man. You were able to get a sense of the humanity and the humility..." But it also shows another side of Humphrys. He says: "I profoundly hope I'm not a one-dimensional figure on the Today programme – I laugh, I cry." But On the Ropes allows him another side: patient and, surprisingly, kind.

To some extent, the terrier personality is a blind. Off air, he is prepared to admit to some sympathy for the politicians who evade his questions: "They can't say 'What about this idea...?' People in power can't do that – at least, they think they can't. What they're doing, sensibly in some respects, is looking at what will happen to that interview in the next eight hours and how that bit will be presented."

Off air, he is also self-critical: he has spoken of how he goes over interviews in his head and sees how they could have been done better; and speaking to me yesterday, he was surprisingly ambivalent about the role of the inquisitorial interviewer, worrying about "the effect that people like me and Paxman and the rest have had on politics" – though he thinks that the root problem is not the media but an adversarial political system.

He may question himself a lot; but in the end, he seems to arrive at satisfactory answers – how could it be otherwise, if the job wasn't to drive him insane? He is not shy about airing his own convictions, as long as they are not party political: "What you'll never find from anything I've written is anything on party politics, you'll not find the way I vote." But he also demands rhetorically "Is there such a thing as a sentient human being who's 60 and hasn't got some opinions?"

His frankness can cause offence: last year, giving an after-dinner speech in Edinburgh during the World Cup, he referred to the England team as "that bunch of overpaid tossers". The Conservative MP Michael Fabricant responded by saying "It's a shame the European Court of Justice has forced Britain to get rid of the death penalty for treason."

More seriously, his advocacy of organic farming (he tried to run a farm in Wales for 10 years) has led to accusations of bias when issues such as GM crops have come up on Today. He is conscious of the possibility of bias, but says he does his utmost to avoid it; and believes that his knowledge of the issues means that he can be a more effective interrogator.

In between all the radio and television, he earns a lot of money (around a £250,000 a year, according to one newspaper) from journalism, chairing conferences and debates, and after-dinner speaking. He has his third child, Owen, born three years ago when Humphrys was 56 (makes Tony Blair's late burst of fertility look pretty feeble). And just to soak up any spare time or energy, he has agreed to take on the role of chairing the revived Mastermind. There has been speculation as to whether he will take on Magnus Magnusson's catchphrase, "I've started, so I'll finish." But it looks like John Humphrys will never finish.

LIFE STORY

Born Cardiff, 17 August 1943, to George and Winifred Humphrys.

Family Married Edna Wilding, 1965 (marriage dissolved, 1991). Two children, Catherine and Christopher. Current partner, Valerie Sanderson, TV presenter; one son, Owen, born in June 2000.

Education Cardiff High School.

Career Left school at 15 to begin working for local newspapers, including the Western Mail. Joined the BBC as a reporter in 1966, based in Liverpool. From 1971 to 1977 he was the BBC's Washington correspondent; Southern Africa Correspondent (1977-80); Diplomatic Correspondent (1980-81); Presenter, Nine O'Clock News (1981-86); Presenter, Today (R4), since 1987. He replaces Magnus Magnusson in June as host of Mastermind. Also spent 10 years running an organic farm in Wales.

Honours Hon Fellow, Cardiff University (1998), Hon DLitt, Abertay Dundee, (1996), Hon MA, Wales (1998).

Awards Crystal Clear Broadcasting from the Plain English Campaign; Journalist of the Year (2000), House magazine and Channel 4; Radio Personality of the Year (2001 ) Variety Club; Outstanding Contribution Gold Award (2003), Sony Radio Academy

He says "Taking on a Cabinet minister is as nothing to handling three tons of kicking cow."

They say "He is poisoning the well of political debate." Jonathan Aitken, former Conservative minister

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