John Humphrys, Photo: BBC
This is one of a series of features on, and by, young journalists.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that journalists talking about journalism is incredibly boring - unless of course you want to hear about it from someone who’s been at the top of their game for fifty years; hailing from a time when becoming a journalist was a rarity, before the internet, social media, and computers...
John Humphrys is the longest serving member of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, a highly respected interrogator. As he answers the phone, I realise why he’s the best: just ahead of leaving to give a complicated presentation about Greece, he’s making time for an interview he could probably do without.
I ask John about journalism now compared to when he started out.
“There’s some rubbish journalism out there - always has been, always will be. It’s the nature of the beast. There may be more of it now because so much of it is unmediated on the Internet. But in many ways, the standard of journalism has increased over the years. Take the Beeb’s correspondents… I’d struggle to find a time in my nearly 50 years with the BBC when the standard of journalism has been any higher. Politically at home, would you argue that Nick Robinson is in any sense a weaker political correspondent than his predecessors? I wouldn’t. The Today programme, my own programme, is it any less responsible or afraid to address serious issues than it ever was? I don’t think there’s any evidence of that at all.”
“When I joined I was a rather weird specimen… it was difficult to get into the BBC as a trainee - BBC leaders of the future joined as trainees. They were almost invariably Oxford or Cambridge or sometimes Bristol or Durham. Almost all had jolly good firsts - jolly bright, from the same section of society. It is now relatively rare on the Today programme to find somebody with an Oxbridge degree - some do, some don’t, it’s not a factor. It used to be a very big factor and they were almost all male, they were almost all white. It’s now common for me, when I go to do the programme at 4am in the morning - I don’t know whether the overnight team putting the programme on the air will be all men or all women. It’s as likely they’ll be all women - or a mixture - as it is they will be all men. That’s changed completely over the years; it had to change of course. We still haven’t got the balance quite right - the balance of contributors - but we make a positive effort to achieve a balance as far as we can.”
I think about Lenny Henry’s very public criticism of the lack of Black and Minority Ethnic representation at the Beeb and ask John whether he thinks there was a need for Lenny’s Today programme guest edit at Christmas: an attempt to redress the ethnic imbalances he’s concerned about.
“I didn’t approve of the programme, personally, because it smacked to me of racism almost in itself. The fact that presenters were removed from their presenting duties - taken off the programme - two presenters, because they were white - seemed to me, a slightly dubious procedure. And the black presenter who was brought in was brought in because he was black. It made a point and I suppose to that extent, that’s ok, it didn’t do any particular harm. If I had a choice in these matters – which mercifully I don’t – I wouldn’t have allowed Lenny Henry to do what he did. That’s way above my pay grade and I don’t suppose it did any harm at all. People took relatively little notice of it – it didn’t seem to rock any mountains or anything. The world carried on. It barely noticed. I thought it was a rather boring programme.”
“We’re not – by any means – there yet. But it seems to me, we are getting there. I’ve seen the difference myself over the years. A black face in the BBC newsroom or an ethnic minority face in the BBC newsroom was rare – it isn’t any longer. I mean, it was appalling, there’s no question… and it wasn’t just race or sexuality, it was class. I mean, I am a working class kid who left school at the age of 15 and joined the BBC. I got fed-up with being asked which university I went to. Well I didn’t. And you get: ‘Oh, really – oh’. That’s changed. Not very much, but so many more people go to university now. Then, it was relatively rare that working class people were at the BBC. I think it’s changing enough now for us to be able to say - without being complacent - yes, we are heading in the right direction, lets make sure we don’t take our foot off the brake, off the throttle. You’ve got to take the nation with you. We’re called the BBC: the British Broadcasting Corporation. We’re a national institution. And we have to take not just our audience with us - we have to take the country with us. Not that there’s much difference because obviously the audience is the country and that’s an important point to make, it seems to me.”
I want to know what John would do if he was starting out now. Would he aim for a big organisation like the BBC in a digital age? At a time when you can write things, record things - whack them up online and get stories out there? Is there scope to be more innovative?
“I don’t see any contradiction in a sense. The suggestion implicit in that seems to be that if you work for the BBC you can’t do the kind of exciting stuff you can do in other forms, on other platforms. I reject that notion. I’ve never had any problem since I’ve been working for the BBC doing the kinds of things that I want to do. Obviously, I’ve had editors who have said go for it and sometimes said don’t be so bloody stupid. But by and large I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do. I’ve had the freedom - for which I’m boundlessly grateful - to practice the sort of journalism that I do and I can’t imagine that I’d be any freer.”
But doesn’t that put John in the minority? The privileged few? Most people don’t have those options.
“If I worked for a blog, I suppose I could call the PM, or whoever I wanted to call, a dickhead. I suppose I could do that, but I don’t want to do that. The journalism to me that matters is responsible in the sense that - I go back to what I said - it’s got to meet every criteria that every journalist worth his or her salt knows about. It sounds a bit creepy, but so be it. The ultimate privilege is to be able to work for the BBC. I have never been told by an editor that I should adopt this or that approach to a particular story. I’ve have had bollockings over the years. I’ve overstepped the mark occasionally and I think with hindsight, the editors have been right. Once or twice, I think I’ve been right and they’ve been wrong but mostly not. I have been able to do exactly what I wanted to do. I can’t think of a single way in which I have been limited or restricted and the only freedom that you have if you’re outside the BBC - if you’re a blogger or whatever it happens to be, is that there’ll be nobody looking over your shoulder - I mean that in the best possible sense.”
I tell John that I was thinking in the context of journalists coming through now: interning; zero hour contracts.
“Oh that stuff …”
I want to know his views about something that’s making life for me, and so many people like me, very difficult. I wonder if he’s simply not going there because it’s too far away. That despite his humble beginnings it’s not a reality he’s lived. I persist. Doesn’t it feel like an affordability issue? It’s hard, finding another way of supporting yourself whilst interning or doing zero hours. Is there a viable alternative or is it seen as character building, a case of ‘stop moaning, get on with it’ …
“Sorry, I’m not sure what you mean by credible alternative …”
Third time lucky. This feels like a losing battle. I should give up. But I really want to know. I’m not quite in the realm of when he asked Ken Clarke a question 52 times but I am driven by a journalistic desire to get an answer. I explain that for a lot of journalists coming through now, certainly at City University, the BBC, ITV - all the big broadcasters were seen as the pinnacle, the place to be. But there are only so many places for so many people. People try and get somewhere through blogging, writing…
“What do you mean, what’s the question?”
‘I suppose the question is, when you’re starting out as a journalist, a lot of people get worried that if they try and write their own stuff, film their own stuff and push it out through other channels it won’t be taken seriously’.
I’ve touched a nerve.“Well, sometimes it won’t and why should it be? Nobody has a God given right to be heard. If you want to write a pamphlet and print off a thousand copies and stick it through peoples doors or if you want to put something on the internet that you’ve just written because you feel strongly about it, that’s your God given right to do so. You don’t have the God given right to be heard.”
According to John there isn’t much of a problem. “I don’t think it happens in mainstream BBC journalism, we make the people who want to work for us do things that they find a bit disagreeable and they’d much prefer to come in and start off reading the 10 o’clock news or presenting the Today programme or something, I’m sure, because they’re ambitious young people. I disapprove entirely of wealthy organisations abusing their positions in the sense that they know people want to work for them and therefore they’ll do it for free. I disapprove of that hugely”. He singles out film as the key culprit. “I think that’s happened in the film industry particularly and in film production and there’s a huge amount of that. I don’t know what the answer to that is.”
Over the years, I’ve interned for weeks, sometimes months, for free, at the BBC, ITV, Sky, Grazia, The Times, The Sunday Times, South Kent press – working a night job to survive; literally – to stay within my overdraft. Turning in articles with by-lines, interviews, radio packages, field producing, researching, writing scripts, briefs, cues, ‘shadowing’, ‘training’- all unpaid. Seemingly endless stints of zero hours – not knowing whether I had work from one week to the next, whether I was buying a train pass for a day or a week, averaging four hours unpaid work a day on top of a paid 8 hour shift - so short staffed were they and such were the demands of the role - unable to plan, to think, to live; reduced to turning my flat into some sort of commune - renting out my bedroom and box room and sleeping on my sofa; scrabbling around for odd shifts here, there and everywhere; constantly flogging anything remotely decent on e-bay. 5am starts for a pittance. And that worry, that constant worry…
“I know what the problem is. There are too many people who want to be journalists. There are too many institutions - and I include City in that - encouraging them to think that they probably can be.”
John thinks universities should halve their admissions to media courses. “It’s a highly competitive industry. I suppose what I’m saying is, there is absolutely no reason on earth why people who want to be journalists shouldn’t go for it so long as they know that they’ve got a pretty limited chance of landing a good job. If they’re good enough, they will in the end but ... I would hate to be starting out as a journalist today. It was a damn sight easier when I was young. I went for a job on the local newspaper and got it. And that was it.”
Describing his career trajectory, John admits things have been "incredibly easy."
“I applied for two other jobs, I think, in the next 50 years and I’m still doing it. It’s not like that any longer. And that’s sad but inevitable because there are so many people. I didn’t know anybody else who wanted to be a journalist when I was a kid, now everybody seems to want be a journalist and there aren’t enough jobs - certainly not at the BBC or any of the mainstream institutions. That’s why an awful lot of them end up doing blogging or whatever the hell it happens to be.”
John feels that it’s “hugely regrettable” that “an awful lot of them” have to work for virtually no money, lamenting that it’s wrong. “Quite what you do about it I don’t know. The worry, as you rightly say, is that it will squeeze out those people who can’t afford - who either don’t have mummy or daddy who has contacts who can get them in for their internship or whatever it is – to do work experience, but that is regrettable. So a number of people, talented people, are being squeezed out because they can’t afford to work for no money. I don’t know what we do about that. But, as I say, my overall approach would be to say let’s stop telling young people that there is a pot of gold at the end of the journalistic rainbow because usually there isn’t.”
I mull over what John’s saying. ‘So it’s that age-old thing: come at it because you’re passionate about it?’
I’m caught off guard, unprepared for the change in tone.
“Tell you what, do me a favour, don’t use the word passionate in my presence, I detest it".
“I wasn’t passionate about journalism. God almighty! I was passionate about the girl next door or whoever it was, but passionate about journalism? Bollocks.”
I stand corrected: swiftly and good-humouredly chastised. “Use language that can be sustained. Passionate about journalism? They think it’ll be fun! That’s what I thought. I thought it would be really, really good. I listened to ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ on the Home Service - as it then was - and I thought, oh, I’d like to do that. Really? I could have a job where I could travel the world. I’d never been abroad, obviously. And to do all that? Wouldn’t that be great! ‘Passionate’ my bottom. Get rid of that stupid word - passionate about journalism? Rubbish!”
There’s one question I have to ask. ‘If you had one single piece of advice for journalists coming through now – as you’ve said, it’s so very different for journalists coming through now and perhaps a lot harder – what would it be?’
“Don’t do it.”
Err. Seriously? I laugh nervously.
“Pretty much…regard it as a very long shot indeed. Not don’t do it, that’s a bit reductive I suppose.”
Then it hits me. I realise I would tell anyone the same thing, the very same thing.
‘I feel like that quite often’, I offer. ‘I absolutely see where you’re coming from – it’s tough’. “It is much, much tougher than it’s ever been before and too many people have simply got the wrong idea of what it’s all about. And it’s changed. And there are … I mean, the problem is, there are too many people who are perfectly prepared to work for nothing or who are - and sometimes there are many - very clever people who can write well and who do write stuff for nothing and eventually they manage to make it … and all that’s fine. But the days when you could guarantee a job if you did all the right things – a good job: ideally at the BBC or whatever – because, as you say, that’s where people want to come, for obvious reasons. Those days are gone. And it’s bloody difficult, so if I had any advice, it would be, think…”
John describes his son’s early experiences as a classical musician. “I remember when I went with my son to his audition at the Royal College of Music and for every kid who got into the Royal College there were 500 who didn’t. He had his audition with the principle and he heard him play - I sat in for it. After he played his couple of pieces the principle said: ‘Well, right, I’d better tell you what I think’. And he said: ‘I think you should not be a cellist’. My son’s face fell through the floor and if he hadn’t been a big strong boy he’d have wept, I’ve no doubt.”
“The principle paused for the words to take effect and he said: ‘I should add, unless doing anything else would make you desperately unhappy’. And he replied ‘well, it would – it’s all I want to do’. And he said: ‘Well in that case I think you’ve got a very strong chance’. In the end he was accepted and the rest is history. Bom, bom, bom, bom …” John trills. “I think those were probably wise words and that’s what I’d say to would be hacks. Don’t do it unless doing anything else would make you absolutely bloody miserable”.
Is it worth it? I ask myself that question all the time - the sacrifices, the loneliness, being broke and worried. Am I making a terrible mistake? Throwing years of my life away? Will I ever break into the ‘club’ of print and broadcast journalists? Find a way to not be so busy surviving that I can actually think, focus – turn in the stuff that courses through my veins? The stories I am aching to tell.
Out of time, I manage one last, quick question. ‘You’re so sharp in your reporting and on point, I wonder how on earth you keep up with so much news?’ It’s a constant battle for me – I want to know if some sort of alchemy occurs in his brain that fails to happen in mine.
He finishes with a flourish. That trademark bombastic sign off. “Bloody well working hard! I’m afraid. That’s the other thing about this trade - people think you don’t have to. I suspect, because you haven’t got to learn anything to be a journalist. I mean, this is one of the other reasons why I disapprove.”
I’m treated to a parting anecdote. “I was once invited, by Warwick University, years and years ago, to be a professor of media studies. Not full-time because they understood what I wanted … and I said, yeah, I’d be happy to do that. And then I did the usual pausing thing. And they said: ‘Oh really? Oh, well that’s very good’. And I paused and said, so long as I have the power of ... and they said: ‘Oh no, you’ll have plenty of authority…’ And I said, right, well in that case, I’ll close down the department after a week. And they said: ‘well maybe you’re not the right man for it.'”
I’ve had a peek behind the voice. And yet I’d like to know so much more. “I read everything all the time. I read all the papers all the time. I listen to... yeah, I keep on top of it or try to. If you don’t you soon regret it…”
As the door to the studio opens, I tell John that I’m being kicked out. He’s back with his Today hat on – he knows how it works.
“Well you’d better go!”
Get our weekly email