John Humphrys: You Ask The Questions

Is your aggressive line of questioning good for democracy? And do you try to make each other laugh on the Today programme?

Thursday 26 August 2004 00:00 BST

John Humphrys, 61, left school at 15 and spent six years working for various newspapers. In 1966, he became a BBC reporter based in Liverpool. By 1970 he was reporting from Northern Ireland and then from the India-Pakistan war. A year later, he was the BBC's first full-time television correspondent in the United States, aged 28. He then covered the transformation of Rhodesia into Zimbabwe. During the 1980s he returned to London to become a BBC diplomatic correspondent. In 1987, he joined Radio 4's Today programme and has been there ever since. He is currently presenting Mastermind. He lives in west London with his second wife and young son and has two children from a previous marriage.

Under what circumstances would you resign from your job?
Shane McKellen, Edinburgh

If they told me to go easy on a politician.

Who has been, or is, the most awkward minister to interview?
George Hinton, York

Probably Thatcher. I thought I was being very clever once when she was Prime Minister and asked her (in her capacity as a practising Christian) what is the essence of Christianity. I was convinced she'd say "love" or "charity" and I'd have great fun with that. But she said "choice" and floored me. I recovered - but it was too late. Moral: never try to be smart.

Would you recommend becoming a father again in your fifties?
Henry Parker, Southampton

For other people? Absolutely. Why shouldn't they suffer too?

On Mastermind, how do you read the questions in the dark?
Bruce Schofield, St Albans

My biggest problem is not the light (they rig up a spotlight over my head that shines on the cards) but my eyes. I'm short-sighted and too vain to wear specs on the box, so I make them print the questions in ludicrously large type. Even then I struggle a bit. I fear the vanity will have to be sacrificed by the next series and my dark secret revealed. God, radio is simple!

"War on terror": right or wrong?
Karen Bown, Slough

Wrong use of language: you can't wage war on an abstract. Nor, I suppose, can you "win" the war in any meaningful sense - or lose it, for that matter.

If you could ask any politician, alive or dead, one question they had to answer truthfully, who would you choose and what would the question be?
Jacqui Francis, by email

What lies have you told? I would ask it of whoever happens to be in power at the time and wants another term in office.

You never seem to miss a programme and you always sound so chirpy. How do you do it?
Bruna Greco, Luton

Bananas (never coffee until after the show) - and going to bed very, very early.

Do you not feel that your aggressive style of interviewing has contributed to a real decrease in appropriate respect for our elected representatives... and before you have time to answer that could I know whether you feel this is undermining the health of our democracy?
David Baker, by email

I suspect [the audience] might judge [our MPs] by their answers, rather than by my questions. One or two might even feel that persistent questioning of those in power is essential for a healthy democracy. A cheap point maybe, but if I'm such a bad guy I wonder why MPs and peers voted for me (in a secret ballot) as journalist of the year.

Do you never want to shout "Answer the question, you waffling idiot" to the politicians you interview on Today?
Richard Rose, Torpoint

Never more than 17 times in any given programme.

There seems to be a fair amount of spontaneous and unplanned humour on Today. Do you ever try to put each other off, or pull faces to instigate the giggles?
Jack Cunningham, Oxford

It has been known. I vaguely recall a story about some sexual shenanigans that was followed by a story involving the politician Jacques Tuat (pronounced "twat"). The presenter placed an entirely unnecessary emphasis on his surname with the predictable result. No one ever said presenters had to be grown-up.

Would you like to appear on Desert Island Discs?
Lisa Jones, Belfast

Certainly not. You know what shy, retiring types we presenters are.

You have a dinner party and can only invite a single group of people, eg politicians, philosophers, farmers or comedians. Which group do you choose, and why?
G Faiella, London SW19

Tricky one. Not farmers: they complain too much. I know; I used to be one and did it all the time. Not comedians: they're never funny off-stage. Probably not politicians: I might have to meet them in the morning over a microphone and I prefer to keep a distance. That leaves philosophers, which is fine, if only because, "Why are we here?" is a more interesting questions than: "How much is your house worth these days?"

In the highly unlikely event that Tony Blair ever agreed to be interviewed by you on Today, what questions would you ask him?
Neil Coppendale, Shoreham-by-Sea

You really think I'd give that away before the interview?

Why do you always start with an easily countered saloon-bar question, and then interrupt the speaker as soon as he or she tries to say things are more complicated than that?
Peter Mullins, Grimsby

Why don't you listen to the programme and base your own question on what you hear? Incidentally, you're obviously too grand ever to frequent saloon bars, but those who do are actually capable of asking intelligent questions.

At the end of an interview you sometimes say, "Thank you very much," and sometimes, "Thank you very much indeed." Is one better than the other?
Fabian Acker, by email

I've never really noticed that. I suppose the "very" creeps in if they haven't made me look too much of a fool. I probably use it quite a lot. There's a good argument for saying we shouldn't thank our correspondents at all on account of they're getting paid to do it, but it's difficult not to. How else do you end the interview?

Have you ever had voice training?
Ralph Taylor, by email

Never. Doesn't it show? But I have lost my original accent: Splott. That's a district of Cardiff whose accent makes Scouse sound dead posh. I didn't try: it just happened.

Have you and Tracey Emin made up following your bust-up on the Today programme?
Katy Sanderson, London

Not to mention the second bust-up on Have I Got News For You? (She called me the rudest man in Britain). But yes, she did an interview with me for On the Ropes and was delightful. So we're the "bestest" friends. But I still don't get the unmade bed.

When do you intend to retire?
Ron Haddon, London

At the end of my current contract. But I've been saying that for the last 10 years.

'Junior Mastermind' is on BBC1 Monday to Friday next week at 7pm. The final is on 4 September at 7pm

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