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The inquisitor arrives: An evening with John Humphrys

Mark Damazer

John Humphrys came (with 200 or so in the chapel) to talk about his career, trends in broadcasting, and a little about the state of British politics. This was a joint event with the Oxford University Media Society. The audience separated itself: the more mature (sic) largely at the front, and students, for the most part, at the back, but there were plenty of them and they were keen to ask questions.  

We played in some clips of John re-visiting Aberfan, from where he had reported very early in his career on the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip into the local primary school; from South Africa (where had been the BBC Correspondent); and an interview he had done last year, very shortly after Grenfell, with Sajid Javid, about the catastrophic cladding.

John left school in South Wales with a few O Levels and worked his way up in a way that he felt would now be almost impossible. The industry has changed – and is graduate-based – and something has been lost as a result. (I rather agree with this.) He was very moving, and indeed modest, both about Aberfan ("It was impossible to report it poorly. Anyone could have done it"), and Nelson Mandela’s election, where John had been in the polling queues as black South Africans cast their vote for the first time. This led to a reflection on the role of the reporter, as opposed to presenter or interviewer, and the view that reporters and reporting were the cornerstone of any journalistic enterprise and insufficiently recognised (with a particular mention for the great Lyse Doucet).

John Humphrys at St Peter's

We took some time exploring his role as the longest serving and senior Today presenter. Were so many politicians right to be so defensive, or at least so bland? John’s key answer revolved around the idea that he was trying to have an informed conversation with them about their policies and decisions, and that he was not trying to make then suffer. If they had good enough arguments they would be aired and public understanding would grow. I happen to know that John takes not only his work seriously, but is resolutely interested in democracy as a whole, and absolutely understands the legitimacy that accrues to elected politicians.

We talked, but not endlessly, about Brexit. John did not agree with the estimable Robert Peston’s view about BBC coverage during the referendum in 2016, and I think John is right. 

There were questions about the BBC gender pay issue ("There should  unquestionably be equal pay for equal work"), and about Trump, social media, and the quality of contemporary politicians.

He was as he is: engaged, coiled, riveting and committed. It was wonderful that he came.

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