Captain Moonlight's Notebook: 'I don't set out to be agressive but sometimes I might be . . '

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The Independent Online
FOR A man who seems to get involved in more 'ding-dongs' than most people - and who enjoys them - John Humphrys, the broadcaster, is a surprisingly edgy man. Like many journalists he is not at ease being interviewed by another journalist.

Perhaps it did not help that I had told him I found his interview last week on Radio 4's Today programme with the veteran Northern Irish politician John Hume aggressive, almost bullying. For a moment, as I was eating my boiled egg, it was hard to tell whether I had tuned in to Britain's most popular news programme - four million listeners - or a phone-in, such were the interruptions on both sides.

'Are you listenin' to me?' Mr Hume, leader of the SDLP, asked each time Humphrys tried to talk him down.

'I've given you a fair crack of the whip,' Humphrys boomed.

'Aye,' replied Mr Hume, 'and its you who've been crackin' it.'

Compared to the hypnotic gentleness of Brian Redhead and the brisk approach of Sue MacGregor, John Humphrys is coming across as the beast of the Today programme. Captain Moonlight's colleagues say they spotted the transformation some time ago.

'I don't accept that at all,' he said to me in his editor's office in Broadcasting House. 'I don't have a technique. I like to think that if a gentle and sympathetic approach is called for then I'll be gentle and sympathetic. If a forensic approach is called for I will do my best to be forensic.

'The object of the exercise is to extract as much information and sometimes you can get what you want by asking questions in a certain way. But yes, it is true, occasionally I'm a bit aggressive. It invariably happens with politicians who are not answering questions. We are not giving them a soapbox for party political broadcasts. They expect to be questioned, vigorously, sometimes combatively.'

And so he went on, showing a distinct wariness of today's leaders, all trained, he says - and he's probably right - to deal with 'people like us'. The public too, he says, does not expect to tune to the Today programme and hear its presenters behave like 'speak- your-weight-machines'.

Captain Moonlight first came across John Humphrys, 49, at Khyber Gate, the entrance to the Khyber Pass, in January 1980 when Humphrys was the BBC's diplomatic correspondent. He was with Lord Carrington who, as Foreign Secretary, was stroking the Pakistanis to stand firm against the Soviet army, which had just marched into Afghanistan. I listened with interest as Humphrys, for the benefit of expatriates, described with passionate outrage the collapse of British industry and the queues of unemployed under the new prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

When I mentioned this to him last week he said he could not remember any great feeling of outrage against the Leaderene. I did not believe him. He admitted he was passionate. After all, he explained, he was a Welshman. But he refused to tell me what issues set him off. 'In this job I have to be a bit careful. My problem is I always want to take the other person's view. I have to be the devil's advocate.'

He is tense. When my photographer began pointing his camera at him he said: 'Is my hair all right? How do I look?' There were other nervous spasms. He played with a yellow plastic duck, then put it down quickly as he caught me watching his hands. 'You're not going to use the duck as a metaphor, I hope?' And when we got on to his run-in with Private Eye, when he was BBC correspondent in South Africa, his subsequent attempt at farming in Wales - since abandoned as an unrealistic dream - and his divorce, he was uneasy, but he didn't brush me off.

He seemed truly relaxed only when talking about his life as a journalist - the good times, the bad times; working- class boy (dad was a French-polisher, mum a hairdresser) leaves grammar school in Cardiff with nine O-levels at age 15; the first job on the Cardiff and District News in 1958 at a weekly salary of pounds 1 17s 6d; his rapid progress through television and radio, here and abroad, to his present exalted status.

Colleagues say he is a workaholic and that lack of sleep probably accounts for his irascibility. He most definitely has a short fuse, but who wouldn't, they say, if you had to deal almost every day with evasive politicians. He told me he went to bed at 9.30pm and was up around 4am. He writes a weekly column for a Welsh Sunday newspaper. Some days he also presents the six o'clock television news. Other days he is John Humphrys plc, speaking at business and media seminars for a respectable fee. He was described to me as a 'serious money- making machine'.

As I left, my accusation still seemed to worry him. 'It's not an insult to be called aggressive,' Humphrys said, 'as long as you give them the chance to make their point.'

(Photograph omitted)