... along with expressing irritation at media studies degrees, social media, vox pops and political branding, Humphrys is damning about BBC management and exasperated by what he views as the corporation’s “institutional liberal bias” and “groupthink mentality”. While he makes apt points about the role of the BBC in public life, his old-man-yells-at-cloud shtick gets wearying. Tetchiness and irascibility are all part of the Humphrys package, of course, and taking the powerful to task, whether prime ministers or his former employers, is in his blood. Still, one is left with a sense of the author having not so much set the record straight as confirmed the suspicion that he is increasingly out of touch.
It’s a vivid read, impassioned, occasionally furious, but always observing the line between personal experience and any possible legal action ensuing from the expression thereof. He is, after all, what he would call a proper journalist, proud that he learnt his trade early and has spent a lifetime honing it. He didn’t waft into the BBC on a graduate-training course. He left Cardiff High School at 15, did two years on the Penarth Times, worked his way up to the Western Mail and turned down The Sunday Times to go into regional television...He writes from long experience and close observation when he makes an even bolder point about the BBC’s assumed independence and why three of the last seven directors-general lost their jobs suddenly — “Alasdair Milne in 1987, after political pressure from the Conservative government, Greg Dyke and George Entwistle. What history tells us is that when the BBC is under real political pressure or is facing a dangerous clamour in the press, it will put its own survival ahead of any consideration of the impact on its employees, even those at the very top.”
Behind the fluff and grumbles, this is an unparalleled record of contemporary politics at the jaggy end. In Humphrys’s time ruling Today’s 8.10am interview slot he grilled every prime minister and high office of state (interestingly, No 10 grants only one in 12 requests from Today) and helped to shape history. Margaret Thatcher — “fiercely clever and entirely unpredictable” — phoned to speak to him on air with approximately two seconds’ notice. Tony Blair was slick, well-drilled. With Alastair Campbell as the enemy, employing spin, the 8.10 entered a darker era. Politicians who repeat the same message are as infuriating to listeners, says Humphrys, as journalists who interrupt too much. He is aware that the increasingly gladiatorial process may have dehumanised politicians. Humphrys reveals he has voted for all the main parties and for Remain in 2016. He believes the BBC was blindsided over Brexit by its own liberal bias, fretting that the corporation’s world view is ever more middle-class, privately educated, young, urban and smart, remote from ordinary life. The more you read this wry, angry, often poignant book the drier and more serious his tone becomes. But the BBC’s purpose, the unassailable facts, impartiality: these are his lifelong mission.