Justin Webb: the day I was forced to hide from John Humphrys

20 January 2018

9:00 AM

20 January 2018

9:00 AM

My friend John Humphrys has managed to get on to the front pages again. We first met in the 1980s when I was a very junior bod on Today and he had just arrived to present. He was the same then as he is now: argumentative, hostile to authority of any kind, gimlet-focused on what people said (on and off air) but quick to smile too, and quick to laugh at himself. He was also uninterested in his own seniority at a time when the BBC was still as conscious of rank as the department store bosses in Are You Being Served? I don’t think Brian Redhead or John Timpson ever addressed a word to me but this new presenter would talk to anyone about anything. He still does: the other day, at four in the morning, he offered to show me his exercise regime. I had to hide in the loo.

John doesn’t do Twitter. Which, let’s face it, is wise. If it weren’t for Twitter I would have written an Important Novel. Instead, I find myself constructing rapier-sharp put-downs to online attacks. Which can take hours. And I never post them anyway because: BBC and all that. Anyway, I am quite fond of several regular critics. Among the band are ‘Thought for The Day’ fanatics, a sociologist from a Welsh university, the boss of a literary festival who says I should be demoted to newsreader (what an exquisite and telling sense of hierarchy that is!) and, my favourite by far, the astrology columnist of The Lady. This is not your bog-standard green ink.

Tipsy on the CNN presenter Christiane Amanpour’s champagne, I discover that the ‘leaving party’ she is throwing for her husband is not celebrating that kind of leaving (phew)but an ever-upwards and still conjoined success. Jamie Rubin, late of the Bill Clinton State Department, is going to lobby in Washington but still be here in London as well. Where’s Concorde when you need it? Jamie still harbours, I think, a desire to be part of another Democratic administration. I am sceptical. The next US presidential election might well be between Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey. What’s missing from this picture: political parties. Under Trump, the Republicans are tottering. Under Winfrey, the Democrats too would give up the ghost. If Jamie wants to get ahead, he should become a producer on Oprah, not a hack in DC.

I have admired Christiane since the day I met her. The Bosnian war was raging and a peculiar array of people — desperado battle photographers festooned with lenses, nervy spectacle-wearing types from the Economist or the Telegraph, Paddy Ashdown (I can’t remember why), and Christiane with her CNN team — were trying to elbow their way on to a battered Soviet era military helicopter that was going to take us to the Bosnian Serb HQ in Pale near Sarajevo. We struggled on and hugged the interior webbing as it tried to take off. But it was too heavy. We got as far as the treetops (which feels a long way in a helicopter) but returned to earth. The Russian pilots said someone had to get off. I was about to volunteer when I heard Christiane giving the Bosnian Serbs hell: ‘I am staying on this fucking chopper unless you drag me off.’ And so she did. And so did I, my very limited courage fortified by hers. Now Christiane is terribly grand: when she guest-presented the Today programme recently, she came with a helper who carried her jacket to the studio. But she’s still sharp and funny and humane and braver than me.

As is Matt Banahan, the Bath and England rugby winger who is moving his 6’8 heavily tattooed frame from Bath to Gloucester, much to the upset of all of us Bath fanatics. Matt is a lovely man — a proper sports hero — and I will miss seeing him around the city and at the ground. I don’t think he’s a regular Today listener, but after a match this month he asked if he should call me ‘Your Royal Highness’. Like almost everyone in the world, he had heard that Prince Harry had guest-edited the programme. Only Jim Naughtie’s mishap with Jeremy Hunt’s surname has travelled further. How will our editor, Sarah Sands, top this publicity coup? Of course, one man knows already: the astrology columnist of The Lady. C’mon Mr Stargazey, let’s be friends.

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