John Humphrys: On the ropes

The leaking of his anecdotes about Tony Blair and Cabinet members showed he is still in the sights of the Government

He suggested that there were four people at the BBC who needed to consider their positions as a result of its findings: and by the weekend three of them had resigned - the chairman Gavyn Davies, the director-general Greg Dyke and the reporter Andrew Gilligan. The only one of the four who remains is John Humphrys. The Today programme presenter later said that watching that speech felt "like lying in the gutter while your head's kicked in" and that Campbell was intent on "destabilising the BBC in a pretty tacky way".

Humphrys has long been considered a thorn in the side of the New Labour government: his combative style has tossed and gored many ministers on many mornings, and Tony Blair is alleged to avoid being interviewed by him. He admits that he is a naturally argumentative person - "I will argue with anyone about anything" - but declares that it is his job to ask tough questions.

"One thing Today exists for is to put ministers under fair pressure so they tell you something they didn't mean to," he said. He is clear that there is a distinction between giving someone a "hard time" in an interview and being biased. "I am not entitled to put my views in interviews and I don't. I certainly put views in interviews. I attribute them to someone or I say 'Nonetheless, there's a view that ...' There's a big difference."

That the Government still has Humphrys in its sights became apparent last month when some of his anecdotes about the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet made in an after-dinner speech were leaked to The Times by Tim Allan, a former No 10 spin doctor.

The initial story implied that Humphrys believed that all government ministers were liars and that he held them in the deepest contempt. The article was widely viewed as a deliberate smear operation by the Government - it had been written by the notoriously Labour-friendly journalist Tom Baldwin - and, not surprisingly, on investigation in the following days the disobliging remarks were shown to have been taken out of context.

What was surprising was the alacrity with which the BBC chairman Michael Grade publicly demanded that the director-general Mark Thompson investigate the speech. His inquiries led to an official rebuke of Humphrys from Thompson for his "inappropriate and misguided" comments - though this consisted of a short chat on the telephone, rather than being hauled into the DG's office. (It wasn't the first time. He had been rebuked by the BBC's board of governors in 2002 for overstepping the mark in an interview with Lord Robertson, the secretary-general of Nato, over the bombing of Kosovo. Humphrys was said to have snorted audibly during some of the Labour peer's answers.)

Now a further layer of conspiracy against Humphrys has been alleged in this week's New Statesman. The magazine's editor John Kampfner claims that Grade had wanted to take the opportunity offered by the speech to sack him and that Thompson was minded to agree with his chairman, only to change his opinion when he saw the furious reaction in the press to what appeared a piece of government black propaganda.

"Michael would like to see a high-profile casualty to demonstrate to ministers that his new governance strategy has teeth. Humphrys would have been a nice fat plum," said one senior BBC executive. The implication is that, as charter renewal and licence fee negotiations proceed, there has been a corporate loss of nerve at the BBC, and that Humphrys would have been a sacrifice worth making for better relations with the Government.

It would not have been one the British public could have easily put up with. There is much evidence of the fierce loyalty which this veteran broadcaster inspires, as John Kampfner observed on a recent edition of Question Time, in which he was taking part: "When members of the panel defended Humphrys, not one hand was raised in the audience to support the BBC management. These were no metropolitan lefties, but loyal Radio 4 listeners from Exeter and the Devon countryside."

The phenomenally energetic Humphrys is now 62, and has been a presenter on the Today programme since 1987. His contract with the BBC runs to June 2007 which is when he has indicated he will retire. His salary has been reported as £150,000, though, of course, this is supplemented by his after-dinner speaking engagements which pay up to £12,000 each. (His rebuke from the director-general did not ask him to give these up.)

His 18 years on Today now equals the tenure of Brian Redhead, who died in 1994, under whose direction the programme became essential listening for politicians, journalists and anyone with the slightest interest in news and current affairs. There are now 6.2 million listeners tuning in each morning.

Humphrys was born and grew up in a small terrace house in Splott, a working-class part of Cardiff. His father was a French polisher and his mother a hairdresser. There were five children. He was educated at Cardiff High School, which he left aged 15 to become a reporter on the Penarth Times and later worked at The Western Mail, where he changed the spelling of his surname from Humphries to its present form, in order to avoid confusion with a colleague. In 1964, he married Edna Wilding and they had two children. (The marriage was dissolved in 1991 and today he lives with Valerie Sanderson, a television presenter, with whom he has a son, Owen, aged five.)

His first job at the BBC came in 1966, as a reporter based in Liverpool, and a year later he became northern industrial correspondent. He moved to London in 1970, but spent long periods covering Northern Ireland and then began foreign assignments with the 1971 India-Pakistan War.

At 28, he became the BBC's first full-time television correspondent in the United States and the corporation's youngest television foreign correspondent. Based in New York for a year and Washington for five, he covered stories from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, including the revolution in Chile, the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Moving to South Africa in 1977 he reported, among other things, on the transformation of Rhodesia into Zimbabwe.

On his return to London in 1980 to take up the post of BBC diplomatic correspondent, he set up the Kitchen Table Charities Trust, which helps underfunded charities in Africa, and which absorbs at least some of the proceeds of his after-dinner speaking. In 1981, he joined the Nine O'Clock News team as its main presenter. When it switched to a two-presenter format in 1986, it is alleged that he was unhappy with second billing after Julia Somerville and so was delighted when the Today job appeared.

He immediately made his mark with his tough questioning of Conservative ministers. In 1995, Jonathan Aitken accused him of "poisoning the well of democratic debate", and the criticism triggered an earlier outbreak of pro-Humphrys comment among listeners and the media, including the Daily Mail which described him as "one of the most brilliant journalists in the country".

But when New Labour won the election in 1997, they also soon found themselves at odds with Humphrys. Dave Hill, the party's director of communications, coined the term "the Humphrys problem" after a typically robust confrontation with Harriet Harman, the former social security secretary, over the proposed cutting of payments to single mothers.

New Labour's problem with Humphrys has become chronic, but are there now people in charge at the BBC willing to rid the Government of this turbulent presenter? No matter how grumpy and annoying he might be, could they really find a way to sack him without a catastrophic loss of public confidence in the BBC's independence and credibility?

Rod Liddle, a former editor of Today, said: "The BBC after Hutton seems to have lost its spine. It has no intellectual grip on what constitutes impartiality, objectivity and subjectivity. It doesn't understand that we know that presenters and journalists within the BBC have views and that if they have given a speech about them, it's a form of transparency. If what John said demonstrates anything, it demonstrates utter impartiality. He's the most impartial journalist I've ever come across ... He's sceptical of all politicians."

Liddle also confides that in 15 years of friendship, "despite countless, often fairly drunken, conversations, I still couldn't hope to tell you how he votes".

A Life in Brief

BORN 17 August 1943 in Cardiff.

FAMILY Partner is Valerie Sanderson. They have one son. Two grown-up children from a previous marriage.

EDUCATION Cardiff High School.

CAREER Joined Penarth Times as a reporter aged 15. Later worked at The Western Mail. Joined the BBC in 1966. Foreign correspondent in the US (1971-76) and South Africa (1977-80). Diplomatic correspondent (1980). Presented Nine O'Clock News (1981-86). Presenter, Today (1987-present). Also quizmaster of Mastermind and interviews public figures who have experienced difficulties in On the Ropes. Author of Lost for Words, an attack on the widespread misuse of the English language.

HE SAYS "Anyone can do my job. That's not false modesty, just a statement of the obvious. What I do is interview people."

THEY SAY "What Humphrys most dislikes is not politicians as such, but humbug. Some politicians relish their encounters with him. Others, like Tony Blair, avoid him at all costs." David Elstein

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