A good man with a question: Andrew Marr and Mark Lawson pay homage to Brian Redhead, the embodiment of political independence and journalistic cheekiness, and champion of the listening classes

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The Independent Online
THAT Brian Redhead was a dangerous fellow. He was unpredictable, anti-establishment, a radical - in the sense of being a person of the roots, rather than of the airy, waving branches - and hugely popular. More popular, indeed, than most of the people he was interviewing. So, dangerous: a toppler-over and restorer of reputations, a stirrer-upper of the stinking mud. No, this is not another obituary, just a short meditation on the Redhead virtues.

Much of his popularity was merely about the noise his voice made and the talents needed for radio. His mildly Geordie-cum-Mancunian vowels and his intense gusto made him a great technical broadcaster, who could pack an uncanny quantity of relish, hand-rubbing anticipation and mischief into the single, word, 'Now . . .' Extraordinary. But having expressed admiration, there isn't much more for anyone outside the trade to say about it.

Of wider relevance were his political or public virtues. He had vices, but he was high-minded; provincial; politically unaligned; and he acknowledged no one as his natural superior or inferior. These are not all the modern virtues. Perhaps they have never been. But they gave Mr Redhead great authority, even power. It is worthwhile recalling why.

First, the high-mindedness. By that, I mean seriousness and moral proportion, rather than piety. (Mr Redhead was a faithful Christian, rather than a pious one.) That requires simplicity rather than sophistication. To be truly high- minded you need to be shockable, uncynical, even a bit wide-eyed. Mr Redhead was less sophisticated than perhaps he liked to think. But at least the impression of simplicity in an over-sophisticated world is a formidable weapon. He seemed less interested in tittle-tattle than most hacks and more interested in the legislation. Politicians recognised that, and liked him for it. More important, it gave the serious grounding to his banter that helped to make Today essential listening. So much journalism seems, by contrast, merely sharp- suited smirking.

Second, and closely related, was his provincial outlook. He was not a natural metropolitan, but scuttled home to Macclesfield each week with relief. Yes, there was an element of Northern posturing, all that People's Republic of the M6 stuff. But it is a good thing not to think too much of London. By 'London', I don't mean the urban sprawl where 8 million people live and work but Chattering London, the opinionated, conceited little village whose bumpkins go round telling each other about what 'the country thinks' and so often get it wrong.

They - we - can get it wrong about taxes and morals and magistrates' courts and local government and what matters and what doesn't matter. Sometimes Chattering London is ahead of the rest of the country, and right. Sometimes it's behind and wrong. At any rate, the arrogant domination of Britain by London, as if there were not equally valid 'national' viewpoints bubbling up in Scotland, Manchester, Cardiff or Coventry, is part of the problem with our political culture and a strong incitement to cynicism. 'Metropolitan opinion' is often simply another blighted provincialism, blind to its own condition.

But Mr Redhead was like a good backbench MP, spending long hours on British Rail on the way to and from his ethical constituency: his authority in interviewing ministers often came from seeming closer to the instincts of everyday Britain than they were. There's a lesson there for those who want to hear it.

And there's another in his political independence. 'Redbeard' was generally thought of as a man of the left, partly because of his Guardian background, partly for his rebellious nature (court-martialled once, sacked once) and partly because his years of greatest prominence happened to make him an inquisitor of Tory ministers, not Labour ones. But, according to his colleague John Humphrys, he privately voted for the maverick Tory rightwinger Nicholas Winterton.

Just where was his heart? All we know for sure is that he believed independence of party to be important in understanding and reporting public affairs. He had little time for the polemical style of broadcasting that has become so influential in the United States and is starting to encroach here. He was right: most people are not instinctive partisans. They want to know how policies will affect them - what works, what doesn't, what's fair, what isn't. Voters may enjoy the salt of spirited abuse but there is no evidence that they confuse it with the meat of politics, as politicians often do. Man of the left, Tory voter, whatever, Mr Redhead had a reassuring sense of proportion, a feel for what mattered. Politicians who took his questions seriously rarely damaged themselves by doing so.

For those readers who are starting to feel I might as well paint on a pair of wings and a halo and be done with it, let us turn finally to his sense of self-worth. This was high. Mr Redhead felt no whit inferior to, or less interesting than, anyone he interviewed. This gave him a directness and self-confidence that helped the broadcasting no end. But it did not always make him easy to work with. This was a man who rarely let a conversation progress for long without turning it to the life and views of B Redhead.

But I started by saying he was dangerous, meaning to be complimentary about his power and his status in this democracy. It is, on the face of it, a ludicrously portentous thing to have said about someone who was, after all, just a chap who read out the time, the traffic news and asked people a few questions. But in a healthy political culture it is the questions that matter. Mr Redhead's political virtues - seriousness, common sense and independence - are rare enough to be cherished. And if that message seems to have a special resonance for this particular newspaper, on this particular day, then fine.

(Photograph omitted)

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