A Day Like Today

A Day Like Today

John Humphrys
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
A Day Like Today” is John Humphrys' professional autobiography, cataloguing the author’s experiences in journalism over the past five decades. Whilst he held many posts in the BBC, Humphries is most famous for his three decades long stewardship as the lead presenter on BBC Radio 4’s “Today Programme”, still the premier political / current affairs programme in the UK. It is often viewed as the flagship of BBC News, (much to the chagrin of the rest of the BBC, particularly the TV News arm). This is where the main meat of the book is concentrated.

Laid out mostly conventionally (starting at the beginning and moving chronologically forward, but hopping about a little where Humphries believes it worthwhile) this is a phenomenally easy book to read; it is also a painfully honest book which spares neither the author nor his employer. Humphries relates his experiences reporting on and sometimes making the headlines in an engaging, and well paced style; what’s more – he’s actually quite funny. As well as opinionated, stubborn and argumentative, as he readily admits.

Although this is his life story, Humphries has not apprised the reader of his domestic history (marriage, children, divorce, marriage, children etc) other than as brief asides where they impinge on his professional experiences, presumably (and correctly in my case) believing that they won’t be particularly interested in his kids or love life. However Humphries does delve into one aspect of his personal life, his childhood mired in poverty and its formative experience along with the influence of his parents. However, mainly the book confines itself to his professional life; his earliest forays into journalism, moving to local TV and then to the BBC.

As a TV reporter, Humphries held the fabled “ringside seat to history” for many tumultuous events: Aberfan, the invasion of East Pakistan, the Watergate crisis, apartheid South Africa. He followed this international reporting with x years as the anchor of the BBC’s nine o’clock news. Nowadays a newsreader being a journalist is expected; when Humphrys took over (with John Simpson) it was very much a novelty and a departure from the days of presenters such as Richard Baker and Angela Rippon simply reading the autocue. Humphrys and Simpson were now helping to put the programme together, conducting interviews and so on. Not only that, he got to live in his home, and get a decent night’s sleep The move from TV to radio some x years later was a culture shock; his description of getting up in the middle of the night day after day, year after year, chips away at any supposed glamour. However, it’s as the central big beast of Today that Humphrys found his metier, which can be characterised as either reducing political giants to quivering wrecks with his incisive interrogations, or battering away at them in oral combat until something hopefully cracks. Whilst Humphrys wishes he’d done more of the former, he concedes that much of his effort was the latter.

About two thirds of the book covers his thirty years at Today, with much said of Maggie Thatcher and Tony Blair (I don’t think he rated Major much, and who can blame him). The most fascinating part for me was the coverage of the Iraq war, the dodgy dossier and the fearsome power of Alastair Campbell. The story from the inside of the BBC and how it was brought to its knees by Campbell and the Labour government machine is a sobering read; Humphries makes no bones about the fragility of BBC independence, and also its ability to be its own worst enemy. A case in point is his telling of the Jimmy Savile scandal – along with the poorly judged attack on Lord McAlpine.

The subject of BBC bias raises its head often, and although I’m not fully convinced by the arguments presented, it can’t be said that Humphrys doesn’t argue them well. He does concede that the nature of the BBC is such that many hold the same left wing views, but denies there is a planned and managed bias. Humphrys is no fan of Royalty, and has avoided reporting on Royal occasions and the funeral of Diana as he felt he didn’t have sufficient empathy to deal with the subject matter effectively. He does make the valid point that much of the furore over that funeral seemed to him to be conflated by the media, and particularly by the BBC, due to an unintentional bias toward believing everyone was desolate that “the Queen of our hearts” had pegged out. Humphry’s opinions on bias over Brexit are less convincing to me, but he does give a hat tip to Robin Aitken and his works (one of which I reviewed earlier this year: “The Noble Liar”), and allows that he might be wrong.

There is much to enjoy in this book and nothing that I can find to dislike. Humphrys appears to be a scrupulously honest, angry, curmudgeonly and combative searcher after truth, who knows his own failings and doesn’t shirk from shining light on them. This is not a man I would particularly want as a friend, but he is someone I think I could trust. The book is enlightening, amusing and pacey; he is certain of his beliefs and is not afraid to make judgements, but at the same time he’s aware that at any point he might be wrong. As a valediction for an old newsman that’s not bad at all. What’s not to like?

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