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Interviewer: Hello, and welcome to “On The Ropes”, the Radio 4 programme in which we talk to people who are up against it. Normally, the interviewer is John Humphrys, but today, John Humphrys, you are in the subject’s chair. Tell me, when you first started On The Ropes, did you ever expect to be the subject of the programme ?

Humphrys: Well, I didn’t exactly start the programme, it was more an idea that came from...

Interviewer: Just answer the question. Did you expect to be the subject?

Humphrys: No.

Interviewer: Now, your contract with the BBC comes to an end next year, and it is generally supposed that either you or they will fail to renew it. You are thought to have had enough of presenting Today. You have said that getting up in the middle of the night might bring you to an early death, as it may have done Brian Redhead. You have just published a book called “Devil’s Advocate” in which you express extreme dissatisfaction with the way the BBC and the country are going. You are no longer married, your children have moved away, and you live all alone.

Humphrys: I don’t think that exactly adds up to being on the ropes...

Interviewer: I haven’t asked a question yet.

Humphrys: Right. Let me know when you do.

Interviewer: Now, taken as a bundle, all those factors do not paint a man who is at peace with himself do they ? Perhaps not even a happy man?

Humphrys: What a lot of tosh. The way you said all those things was very weighted.

Interviewer: It is a technique I have learnt from Today.

Humphrys: Point taken. Still, why should I not be happy? I have one of the plum jobs in radio. I have just published a book. I am a high profile media person and get paid jolly well for after-dinner speeches...

Interviewer: Are you suggesting that being an author and a radio interviewer should make you happy? Most authors are miserable solitary people. Most radio interviewers are parasites. It is commonly thought that you cannot wait to get out of the Today studio and back to real life. Is that true?

Humphrys: I really don’t think that’s a question I can answer while I am still working for Today.

Interviewer: Well, I think we can all draw our own conclusions from that. Now, looking back on your life, might it not be said that you have devoted the best years of your life to the futile task of asking questions of Kenneth Baker and Norman Lamont? To which nobody gave the answer? Were there not better ways of spending your life than asking forgettable questions of forgotten people which were never answered straight?

Humphrys: Which of those questions do you want me to answer?

Interviewer: None of them. I was merely using the Today technique of putting questions which contained the answers I wanted but did not expect to get. The question I wish to ask is a quite different one, namely this; is it true that you are used on Radio 4 only as a token Welshman? It has been suggested that James Boyle, Scottish Controller of Radio 4, has filled the airwaves with so many Scots people and stuff from the Edinburgh Festival that you are there to provide a tiny Welsh presence, even though you aren’t very Welsh any more, and certainly don’t sound it.

Humphrys: Who has it been suggested by?

Interviewer: The producer, in my earpiece.

Humphrys: It is a very frivolous question.

Interviewer: That is why I asked it. It’s an old Today type of question.

Humphrys: It most certainly is not. I would be ashamed to ask it. Incidentally, you asked me whether I had wasted my life asking forgotten questions of forgotten people - well, that is like asking a weather forecaster if he regrets forecasting forgotten weather or if a sportsman regrets scoring goals in forgotten matches. Things are important at the time, even if they are not later.

Interviewer: That is true.

Humphrys: Do you really think a journalist can be judged by how well the news lasts ten years after he has covered it?

Interviewer: No, not really...

Humphrys: Should a milkman be saddened by the thought that all the milk he has delivered in his life has been drunk? Would he feel better if the milk was preserved?

Interviewer: No....

Humphrys: Can you honestly say that any of the questions you have asked me in this interview have made anyone wiser? Or have been anything but a complete waste of everyone’s time?

Interviewer: Hold on -  I thought I was meant to be asking the questions !

Humphrys: You had your chance. You failed. And failed miserably, if I may say so. If anyone is on the ropes, it is you. Good day, everyone.

The Independent Thursday Sep 2 1999


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© Caroline Kington