Stephen Pollard: I don't want bias with my cornflakes

Testosterone rather than intellectual rigour seems to be the main precondition for preferment on 'Today'

You could, had you been so inclined, have read the thoughts of John Humphrys, the Today programme presenter, in his newspaper column yesterday. If the reports are to be believed, however, you may not be able to hear them on Radio 4 for much longer. Mr Humphrys is, apparently, on the point of resigning from the programme, pushed to the limit by the decision to cut a critical part of his interview on Friday with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Good. He should have been put out to grass years ago. I can barely listen to Today any more, with its reliance on Mr Humphrys' hectoring, smug, self-satisfied, argumentative tone. There may have been a time when he was indeed as good as he appears to think he is. If so, it has long since passed. Today, he has just two modes: sneering condescension and straightforward contradiction.

Remember that wonderful Monty Python argument sketch? "Shut your festering gob, you tit! Your type really makes me puke, you vacuous, coffee-nosed, malodorous pervert!" "Look, I came here for an argument." "Oh. I'm sorry. This is abuse. Try next door." Clearly, John Humphrys has made a careful study of the script: "Oh look, this isn't an argument." "Yes it is." "No it isn't. It's just contradiction." "No it isn't." "It is!" "It is not." "Look, you just contradicted me." "I did not." "You did!"

But he has moved way beyond mere contradiction and aggression, and has now entered another universe altogether, where it is John Humphrys who defines what is acceptable behaviour.

At the end of July he interviewed the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, an eminent foreign policy specialist who, although in favour of the Iraq war, is a critic of George Bush. Mr Humphrys' casual, blatant anti-American bias was paraded as if it was only rednecks who could possibly disagree. Friedman seemed genuinely taken aback. After one anti-Bush rant by the Today programme presenter, Mr Friedman interjected rather meekly: "The American people elected George Bush" - to which Humphrys replied, "Just - or possibly not, as the case may be."

Then this: "What, Thomas Friedman, could cause the Americans to pull back from this?" "From what? Iraq?" "No, this position that 'we are the masters and we can do whatever we want'." Only John Humphrys and a few hard-line anti-Bushites bother with that old chestnut any more. But then only John Humphrys is allowed to get away with his constant sneering interjections.

Take his newspaper column (it's not OK for Andrew Gilligan to write, but it is, it seems, for the master himself) after the destruction of the World Trade Centre. He criticised President Bush by writing how wrong he was to "damn those who did it as evil, as though there is nothing more to say, as though we still believe in a devil with a forked tail". But he couldn't leave it at that. At a time of unprecedented trauma for Americans, when they naturally looked to their President for leadership, he added this sneer: "Perhaps President Bush truly does - his Christianity is of a pretty fundamental variety - but most of us do not."

I am neither Christian nor American but I, like most decent people, was moved by the way many Americans' faith helped them through the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Is there anyone left who can listen to a man whose technique is to behave as if he is prosecutor in a show trial rather than as a seeker after truth?

The Humphrys style infects the programme. Instead of calm, deliberate, thoughtful interrogation by the likes of Ed Stourton and Sarah Montague - two ridiculously under-rated presenters - the Today programme sounds, when presented by Mr Humphrys and his colleague James Naughtie, like a gratingly unpleasant competition between male egos. Testosterone rather than intellectual rigour seems to be the main precondition for preferment.

When one of the women, or less self-satisfied men, is presenting, the tone and content change for the better. Ms Montague and Martha Kearney, of Woman's Hour and Newsnight, would make a fine pairing. Both know how to ask worthwhile questions and to draw an interviewee out without sneering at them.

And if the BBC really promotes on the basis of ability rather than a sense of self-worth, why was Nick Clarke, of The World At One - the best presenter/interviewer now broadcasting, by an embarrassing long margin - not long ago made chief presenter of the Today programme? Instead, I have to pay my licence fee to have John Humphrys thrust his prejudices at me every morning.

The sooner he resigns, the better. And if it's all bluster designed simply to screw more money out of the BBC, here's some advice to the powers that be at Radio 4. Make our day. Sack him.

mail@stephenpollard.net

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