The Today presenter preferred to score political points rather than properly interrogate his intervieweesby Julian Baggini / February 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
After 32 years on BBC Radio Four’s flagship news programme, Today, John Humphrys has told the Daily Mail that he is “assuming” he’ll leave the programme this year. Unfortunately, his legacy will be a style of interviewing that has made our news media less, not better equipped to give our politicians the scrutiny and interrogation a healthy democracy needs.
The media plays a vital role in holding those in positions of power and responsibility to account. One of the tools at its disposal is the interview, where leading players in public and civic life are interrogated. But the antagonistic, dismissive interviewing style which Humphrys has exemplified—“Humphing” as we might call it in (dis)honour of its most famous practitioner—encourages a form of point-scoring which fails to address the most important issues and instead turns the interview into a kind of debating contest.
Humphry’s recent interview with Ireland’s Europe minister, Helen McEntee, was not, thankfully, vintage Humphrys, but it still exemplified the failings of his approach all too well. Part of the problem is the tone and manner, which transcripts alone cannot convey. Humphing involves a world-weary cynicism, with dismissive laughs and sighs of exasperated disbelief. “You know full well…” he told her in one characteristic hector. Most egregiously, he also let out an incredulous “Oh come on, you know that makes no sense…” when McEntee had made the perfectly sensible point that the referendum result was to leave the EU and it was the government that chose to interpret that as leaving the single market and customs union. All this encourages a sense of superiority in the interviewer and listener, irrespective of what the interviewee is actually saying.
Humphing also involves making accusatory assertions where there should be a question. For example, in the McEntee interview Humphrys said: “what you’re now saying, and it will sound a bit arrogant to a lot of people on this side of the Irish sea, is that you’ll have to go along with something that you voted to leave.”This begs the question as to whether staying in the customs union was what the referendum result meant (I won’t bore you further with the details of the Northern Irish backstop). It is also an accusation that the Irish are guilty of telling the UK it can’t…