Humphrys in 2012
Desmond John Humphrys
17 August 1943
|Education||Cardiff High School|
|Agent||Kruger Cowne Ltd|
BBC Nine O'Clock News (1981–1986)
(m. 1964, divorced)
|Relatives||Bob Humphrys (brother)|
Desmond John Humphrys (born 17 August 1943) is a Welsh broadcaster. From 1981 to 1987 he was the main presenter for the Nine O'Clock News, the flagship BBC News television programme, and from 1987 until 2019 he presented on the BBC Radio 4 breakfast programme Today. Since 2003 he has been the host of the BBC Two television quiz show Mastermind.
Humphrys has a reputation as a tenacious and forthright interviewer; occasionally politicians have been very critical of his style after being subjected to a tough interview on live radio. In recent years, he has also attracted controversy for a series of alleged sexist remarks and attitudes throughout his broadcasting career.
Early life and career
Humphrys was born in Cardiff at 193 Pearl Street, Adamsdown, son of Winifred Mary (Matthews), a hairdresser, and Edward George Humphrys, a self-employed French polisher. He was one of five children. During early life Humphrys had a bout of whooping cough and concerned that he would be known as 'Dismal Desmond', his mother opted to use the name John. His parents encouraged him to do his homework and he passed the eleven plus exam. He became a pupil at Cardiff High School (then a grammar school), but he did not fit into the middle class environment there. He was an average pupil and left school at 15, choosing not to go to university and instead became a reporter on the Penarth Times. The weekly newspaper that employed him served the town of Penarth in South Wales and focused on local news.
Humphrys later joined the Western Mail, a larger newspaper based in Cardiff. He joined Television Wales and the West (TWW), a commercial television channel based in Wales, and was the first reporter on the scene of the Aberfan disaster in October 1966.
Career at the BBC
Humphrys joined the BBC later in 1966 as the district reporter for Liverpool and the Northwest, where he reported on the dock strikes of that time, sometimes for the national news. He then worked as a foreign correspondent, initially having to go abroad and leave his family for six to nine-month periods at a time when his children were still young and growing up. Later he took his family with him to the United States and South Africa where he was sent to open a news bureau. He reported the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974 on television by satellite from the United States, the execution of Gary Gilmore in 1977, and later, when based in South Africa, he reported on the end of Rhodesia and the creation of the new nation of Zimbabwe. Humphrys became disillusioned with living in hotels and life on-the-road as a foreign correspondent, and returned to London in 1980 to take up the post of BBC Diplomatic Correspondent.
In 1981 he became the main presenter of the BBC's flagship Nine O'Clock News. This appointment marked a change in the BBC's approach to news broadcasting. With the appointment of Humphrys and John Simpson, the presenters of the news became part of the process of preparing the broadcast, rather than just reading a prepared script as with previous presenters. In addition to this, Humphrys also briefly read the midweek classified football results. Humphrys began presenting Today in January 1987, joining Brian Redhead. He still made occasional appearances fronting BBC Television news bulletins in the 1990s. During the 1991 Gulf War he was a volunteer presenter on the BBC Radio 4 News FM service. From 1993 he presented the weekly On The Record political TV show until its demise in 2002. Humphrys has also presented Panorama. Humphrys is the presenter of the revived version of the game show Mastermind. He became the programme's fourth regular host in 2003, succeeding Magnus Magnusson, Peter Snow and Clive Anderson.
Humphrys is an agnostic, but has said that he has a curiosity to test his agnosticism and challenge established religions to see if they can restore his childhood belief in God. In 2006, he presented a BBC Radio 4 programme, titled Humphrys in Search of God where he spoke to leading British authorities on Christianity, Judaism and Islam to try to restore his faith.
On 12 November 2009, he became a temporary replacement for David Dimbleby as the host of Question Time when Dimbleby was recovering from an injury. On 3 January 2011, Humphrys announced that he had extended his contract to present the Today programme, but in doing so had agreed to a pay cut. In 2014, he appeared as himself in The Life of Rock with Brian Pern.
In a March 2014 interview with the Radio Times, Humphrys noted some of the biases at the BBC, describing it as "broadly liberal as opposed to broadly conservative". He highlighted failing in coverage of issues of Europe and immigration, stating: "We weren't sufficiently sceptical – that's the most accurate phrase – of the pro-European case. We bought into the European ideal. We weren't sufficiently sceptical about the pro-immigration argument. We didn't look at the potential negatives with sufficient rigour."
In February 2019 Humphrys announced that he was to leave the Today programme, saying that he should have quit "years ago". He hosted his final edition on 19 September, where his interviewees were Tony Blair, Dame Edna Everage and David Cameron.
Humphrys has written several books, including Lost for Words, in which he criticises what he sees as the widespread misuse of the English language, plus Devil's Advocate, Beyond Words, The Great Food Gamble and In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist. In September 2019, he released his memoir, A Day Like Today, which included his views on the "institutional liberal bias" at the BBC.
This article's Criticism or Controversy section may compromise the article's neutral point of view of the subject. (December 2019)
Comments on women
Humphrys propositioned fellow newsreader Moira Stuart in the 1980s when the microphones were off but the visuals were still on air, saying: "You're the most sensationally sexy lady I know. The best thing we can do is to make mad passionate love in the basement." This was during a broadcast for the deaf, in which Moira commented to Humphrys that many of the viewers could lip read. In 2009, he introduced newsreader (later co-host of the Today programme) Mishal Husain as a "newsreader and a very good-looking woman" on Celebrity Mastermind, before asking: "Are you doing your job only because you are good-looking?"
In September, former editor of British Vogue Alexandra Shulman criticised Humphrys for "mansplaining" fashion to her in an interview. Humphrys questioned her about what he saw as the loss of the hourglass figures, rarely seeing "reasonably cosy, comfortably shaped women" on the magazine's cover and accused Vogue of promoting anorexia and eating disorders in impressionable girls. Shulman wrote in the Daily Mail: "Suddenly I was confronted by a grey-haired guy in chinos hectoring me on the business I had worked in for a quarter of a century and which he neither knew, nor cared, much about". Shulman said this was the same "banal conversation" that she had been subjected to before and said it was repetitive and limited. Humphrys responded, "I did resent the idea that I was being painted as some sort of token, as a man – apparently I'd committed the sin as well of wearing chinos. I'm not sure what chinos are ... if I'd accused her of being, say, a grey-haired woman who wore whatever, that would have been sexist. But she was allowed to write that about me."
In June 2014, co-chair of the Conservative Party Lady Warsi accused Humphrys of downplaying sexual violence over comments made on the Today programme to William Hague. He had asked if Hague was "starstruck" by the presence of Angelina Jolie at a sexual violence in war summit in London. Warsi described Humphry's comments as "everyday sexism", adding: "If there are men out there who believe women can't be beautiful and brainy maybe they should read the foreign secretary's speech in Washington last year when he said it is finally time for women to take their place at the important tables where decisions are made."
In 2016, when interviewing Labour MP Angela Eagle (who cried after leaving the shadow cabinet), Humphrys asked: "Do we want somebody who weeps in the face of this sort of thing confronting Putin, for instance?", later adding "Shouldn't you be able to control those emotions when you're under great stress?". Eagle replied that "being in touch with your emotions is quite an important thing", but Humphrys continued to criticise her." Responding to this line of questioning, Emma Kennedy tweeted "will John Humphrys tackle Obama on his occasional crying during office?", and leader of the Women's Equality Party Sophie Walker criticised Humphry's line of questioning. In December 2017, following fellow presenter Nick Robinson's interview with Conservative MP Vicky Ford, in which she did not deny being reduced to tears by the party's whips, Humphrys said to weather forecaster Stav Danaos: "Time for the weather forecast – are you in tears, Stav?" Today and Humphrys were accused by some of having a "blokey joke" at Ford's expense and being unconcerned about her views on Brexit, but rather her emotions.
In 2017, Humphrys earned between £600,000 and £649,999 as a BBC presenter. In January 2018, an off-air conversation between news colleagues and old friends Humphrys and BBC North America editor Jon Sopel was recorded in which they appeared to mock the gender pay gap issue raised by Carrie Gracie (former BBC China editor who had written a letter and resigned the previous night, accusing the BBC of a "secretive and illegal pay culture" which favours men). Humphrys reportedly asked Sopel about "how much of your salary you are prepared to hand over to Carrie Gracie to keep her" and mockingly referred to "other men who are earning too much" at the BBC. Sopel replied "if we are talking about the scope for the greatest redistribution I'll have to come back and say well yes Mr Humphrys", who then swore and said that he was "still left with more [pay] than anybody else" at the corporation. Miriam O'Reilly, who won a case against the BBC in 2011 on the grounds of age discrimination and alleged sexism, described the exchange as "base, smug and condescending" and typical of the attitude of "back-slapping entitled males" such as Humphrys and Sopel. Then-Deputy Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson asked in a tweet whether Humphrys would be prohibited from presenting stories on the issue of gender impartiality; the BBC responded that he was subject to the same impartiality rules as any BBC presenter and that his comments did not cross the line. BBC Women, a feminist group within the corporation, threatened a mass walkout in protest of Humphrys' continued employment, saying "The only acceptable outcome they [BBC female stars] can see is for him to go. They blame Humphrys, not Sopel. ... They are so angry that Humphrys would not only hold these views, but share them in a studio while being recorded." In January 2018 he took a voluntary pay cut to the £250,000–£300,000 range in the light of the controversy.
In March 1995, after being interviewed on Today, the former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Jonathan Aitken, accused Humphrys of "poisoning the well of democratic debate" and that "John Humphrys interrupted him no fewer than 32 times", referring to an interview with Kenneth Clarke earlier in the year. Humphrys was supported by BBC journalists, executives and listeners.
Humphrys refuted the claim that he had interrupted Clarke 32 times during the interview in question.
Use of language
Humphrys attracted further controversy in September 2005 when he allegedly branded all politicians as liars and made disrespectful comments about Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and John Prescott in an after-dinner speech which was subsequently leaked to The Times by Tim Allan, a former aide to the Prime Minister. On 6 September 2005, Humphrys was censured by the corporation for his use of "inappropriate and misguided" language.
George Entwistle interview
Humphry's interview with the Director-General of the BBC George Entwistle on 11 November 2012 on the Today programme was widely reported to have been a major factor in Entwistle's resignation later that day. In the interview, Entwistle admitted he was unaware of a Newsnight investigation which wrongly accused a senior Conservative figure of child abuse until after it was broadcast. The report came about during the unfolding of the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal, which was also considered a factor that contributed to Entwistle's resignation.
On the day of the interview, Humphrys' co-presenter James Naughtie recalled "It was electric in that studio. There were three of us sitting there, George, John and me. And I think all three of us knew we could see a man destroying his own job, on the spot. He was at sea. And it was a deeply uncomfortable 10 minutes." Humphrys later said: "I know it was said in the papers the following morning that he had been humiliated. I didn't set out to humiliate him, of course I didn't."
In March 2017, Humphrys disputed that Thomas Mair, who murdered MP Jo Cox was a terrorist despite him being prosecuted and described by the Crown Prosecution Service as one, claiming it "muddied the waters". Humphrys was criticised for his statement and listeners called on the BBC to correct him.
Accusations of xenophobia
In July 2017 before the Wimbledon women's semi-finals, Humphrys was accused of sexism and xenophobia when he questioned Johanna Konta's national identity, saying: "We talk about you as being British but you were born in Hungary, Australian citizenship, and I seem to remember that the Australian High Commissioner when you won the quarter-final said 'Great to see an Aussie win' and we were saying 'Great to see a Brit win' – so what are you?" Konta responded, saying: "I was actually born in Australia to Hungarian parents but I've lived here for half my life now almost and I'm a British citizen and I'm incredibly proud to represent Great Britain... I've represented Britain in the Olympics so I'm definitely a British athlete".
Views on sexual offence prosecutions
In October 2017, an interview with the Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders discussed a report released by the Crown Prosecution Service. The report said that a record number of people in England and Wales were prosecuted for sexual offences. Humphrys said in his interview with Saunders that "problem" with sexual assault cases (which he called "sex cases") is that the accused person is named publicly while alleged victims are provided with anonymity. He also said that there was "anecdotally" a rise in the number of false claims of rape and sexual abuse; Saunders criticised this claim on the show, and campaign groups such as End Violence Against Women criticised Humphrys' comments on the show, calling on him to no longer do interviews relating to sexual offences.
In November, Humphrys asked William Hague if there was a "witch hunt" against members of parliament following the Westminster sexual misconduct allegations of that year, and that there was a "danger" that male MPs would not be able to ask women out on dates innocuously. Hague dismissed this line of questioning, saying "I don't think we've reached that point, I think there is a real problem here that needs to be dealt with." Humphrys persisted with the point, alleging: "We're heading in that direction, aren't we, where, seriously, where MPs would be terribly nervous about it – an unmarried MP asking an unmarried assistant for a date." Labour MP Sarah Jones described it as "unbelievable pointless questioning" and retweeted Bloomberg political correspondent Robert Hutton's comment: "No, @BBCr4today, we're really not heading in a direction where people will be afraid to ask people on dates or to get married." Women's Equality Party leader Sophie Walker said: "John Humphrys: do an interview on sex harassment without using the words 'witch hunt' or 'gone too far'. You are part of the problem."
In October 2017, a piece on transgender issues by Humphrys was criticised for misgendering and trivialising trans experiences, first by claiming that transgender women are "men who think they are women". Humphrys went on to say, "In other words, if a man thinks he's a woman, all he has to do is fill in a form and say so, he doesn't need to convince anybody else." When talking to Bex Stinson, a transgender woman from the LGBT charity Stonewall , Humphrys asked whether she had "anything to prove that" she was a woman. Stinson referred to her driving licence and passport as well as "life experience" as "my fundamental proof" of womanhood. However, Humphrys asked whether Stinson had "a certificate that says you are a woman?", and spent much of the segment talking to controversial Times columnist Janice Turner, who received negative attention for her columns on transgender issues.
Domestic violence joke
In August 2019, Humphrys and Conservative MP David Davis made light of a news story in which a Russian competitor had been disqualified from the World Tango Championships in Buenos Aires for allegedly hitting his wife, who was also his dance partner. Davis said as the interview got underway: "I guess this is our last tango", to which Humphrys responded: "It is indeed, but I promise not to punch you if you don't punch me." The exchange was criticised by some, including Shadow Equalities Minister Dawn Butler, Labour MP Chris Bryant and Sky News presenter Kay Burley, as making light of spousal abuse.
In September 2019 it was reported by The Daily Telegraph that Humphrys, in his book A Day Like Today, said that BBC bosses had "badly failed" to read the public's mood on Brexit and they "simply could not grasp" why anybody voted Leave. He also stated that he himself had voted Remain, after facing complaints that he was guilty of pro-Brexit bias during his BBC career.
Humphrys married Edna Wilding (August 1942 – September 1997) in 1964 and they had two children, a son and daughter, Christopher and Catherine. Their marriage broke down in the late 1980s. Wilding died of cancer in Glamorgan, South Wales; Humphrys described her last days in a hospice in his book Devil's Advocate (2000). Humphrys' son Christopher is now a professional cellist.
On 2 June 2000, when he was 56 years old, Humphrys and his then partner, Valerie Sanderson, had a son, Owen James. Sanderson was a newsreader with Spotlight then BBC News 24 and is now a radio producer. Humphrys had a reverse vasectomy. He referred to these facts on 31 October 2006 on BBC Radio 4 in the programme Humphrys in Search of God. He and Sanderson subsequently separated. In 2009, he began a relationship with the journalist Catherine Bennett, a contributor to The Observer.
In 2005 he founded the Kitchen Table Charities Trust, a charity that funds projects to help some of the poorest people; it not only helps the most vulnerable but, in the longer term, "helps the country to stand on its own feet."
Humphrys is a keen listener to classical music and cites Mozart, Beethoven and Bach as particular favourites, although he once saw The Rolling Stones in concert and said "they blew me away". He was a guest on the BBC Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs on 6 January 2008. His favourite record of the eight he selected for the show was Elgar’s Cello Concerto; he chose the biggest poetry anthology possible as his book and, as his luxury item, a cello.
In December 2013 Humphrys was featured in an episode of the BBC Wales series Coming Home, together with his older brother Graham. It was revealed that their great-grandmother Sarah Willey was, from the age of six, resident at the Cardiff workhouse and that their paternal great-grandfather was from Finland.
Humphrys has won a number of industry awards, including being named Journalist of the Year in February 2000 at an awards ceremony organised by The House and Channel 4, the Gold Sony Radio Award in 2003, and a silver platter for Crystal Clear Broadcasting from the Plain English Campaign.
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- Humphrys, John (2001). The Great Food Gamble. London: Coronet Books. ISBN 0-340-77046-5.
- Humphrys, John (2004). Lost For Words: The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-83658-X.
- Humphrys, John (2006). Beyond Words: How Language Reveals the Way We Live Now. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-92375-X.
- Humphrys, John (2008). In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 978-0-340-95126-2.
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| Host of Mastermind
| Today presenter
with Brian Redhead, Peter Hobday, Sue MacGregor, Anna Ford, James Naughtie, Edward Stourton, Sarah Montague, Carolyn Quinn, Evan Davis, Justin Webb and Mishal Husain