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Humphrys in the Hot Seat in Salisbury
JOHN Humphrys doesn’t mind being asked questions.
He doesn’t worry if people disagree with him or object to his interview style.
And when he visits Salisbury today he says he will be looking forward to any questions the audience care to throw at him.
He will be pleased to answer where many a politician over the years has ducked, dodged, hedged, and done everything short of turning tail and running away to avoid answering those tricky questions Humphrys regularly fires their way.
“I’m absolutely happy to take any questions,” he says. “If people want to have a go at me, or they think I’m rude to interrupt the people I interview, then that’s fine. It makes it more interesting.
“What I want, and what the audience wants, when I interview a politician is not to be treated like fools; politicians saying ‘I’ve already answered that question’ when they quite clearly haven’t.”
So what do people usually ask him?
The answer is, a little prosaically, ‘what time do you get up in the morning?’.
Humphrys, who turned 70 last month, has been presenting Radio 4’s most popular early morning programme Today since 1987, so he does indeed get up at an hour most of us would prefer not to see.
Not surprisingly, people also want to hear his views on the many powerful political figures he has interviewed over the years.
He makes a point of not placing anyone in the category of the ‘worst person’ he has ever interviewed.
“I may want to interview them again some day,” he laughs.
His favourite “in a perverse way” was Margaret Thatcher.
She was terrifying, he says, but a good interviewee in retrospect.
“She was so unpredictable,” he explains.
“And she was prime minister before the Alistair Campbell era, when politicians were trained to within an inch of their lives how to handle people like me.
“When they do that they sound like a speaking weight machine.
“The idea that you could teach Thatcher how to answer a question – she would have told you not to be so ridiculous.”
Humphrys never seems to have been far away from controversy and, like Thatcher, he does not shy away from saying what he thinks.
Last year he put his boss, BBC director-general George Entwistle on the spot as scandals enveloped the corporation.
Entwistle was shown to be ill-informed and ill-prepared for the questions he faced. He resigned the following day.
Although Humphrys will be glad to answer questions about this, and about what the BBC has done since to rebuild the public’s trust and ensure standards are maintained, the reason behind his visit to Salisbury is to raise money for and awareness of both the local Childrens Chance charity and the Kitchen Table Charities Trust, a charity he set up in 2005.
Humphrys doesn’t come from a privileged background.
He was born in Wales in 1943 and grew up in a working class family in Cardiff.
“We weren’t starving but my father was often out of work,” he says. “It was in the post-war years and times were hard.”
When his later role as a foreign correspondent took him to some of the poorest places in the world, it made a lasting impression and he was “conscious of my good fortune”.
When he decided he wanted to set up a charity, he initially considered funding a school in a poor community in Africa, but on visiting Tanzania “decided quite quickly that would be a stupid idea” and that people already working there had far more expertise than he did.
He spoke to people trying to help their own communities; running charities and reaching out to where they knew the help was needed most.
Humphrys did not want to go down the ‘corporate charity’ route, with board members and budgets and huge advertising and administration costs, so he decided the best way to help would be to raise money through the trust and give it to the small, unsung charities already out there working to improve people’s lives.
The money goes to organisations that make a difference in the poorest parts of the world, and with no staff or offices, only a tiny proportion of the money donated to or raised by the trust needs to be spent on administration costs.
The charities have all been seen either by Humphrys himself or someone he knows who can make an independent assessment.
“I worked in Africa for a long time,” he says. “I lived there. I have seen real poverty and I’ve seen children starving to death.
“The awful thing is that this doesn’t have to happen. The only reason it happens is because their parents are poor.
“You can offer a lot of other reasons; there was a drought, the crop failed and so on. But that isn’t true.
“What is true is that rich people don’t starve. Only poor people.”
* To find out more about Kitchen Table Charities Trust go to kitchen tablecharities.org.
* John Humphrys will be in conversation with Andrew Harvey at Salisbury City Hall this evening (Thursday, September 12) and will be available to sign copies of his books after a question and answer session.
Tickets at £15 are available on 01722 434434.
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