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Tuesday, October 28, 1997 Published at 16:12 GMT


Clarke grills Humphreys for breakfast

John Humphrys: "You're not going to interrupt me, are you?"

BBC Radio's Today programme reached its 40th birthday today, and to celebrate, the former chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, turned the tables on the programme's long-serving presenter John Humphrys and interviewed him on the show.

The big interview

The role reversal gave Mr Clarke the chance to get his own back on Mr Humphrys who once, it was claimed by Tory former minister Jonathan Aitken, interrupted the then chancellor 32 times in one interview.

In the three-minute exchange, Mr Clarke, who has swept aside many interviewers in his time with his robust style, delighted in trying to put Mr Humphrys on the spot. It was Mr Clarke's second time behind the microphone in recent weeks - he previously hosted a jazz programme for Radio Nottingham.

Mr Humphreys certainly seemed to have taken a few pointers from the former chancellor's sharp style of argument. Countering Mr Clarke's very first question he said, "May I just say, before I answer that question, that I've come in here today to deliver my bit of propaganda, which is what you lot do all the time."

"You come in here with the intention of delivering a particular message," continued Mr Humpheys. " Now that may or may not have anything to do with the questions to which the listeners want answers. And it's our job - er, you're not going to interrupt me now are you?"

"A word in the ear of the nation"

Broadcast between 6.30 and 9.00 every day except Sunday, although there will soon be a Sunday Today as well. Today is often seen as setting the day's news agenda with its reports and interviews surrounding major events at home and abroad.

[ image: James Naughtie: one of the Today programme presenters]
James Naughtie: one of the Today programme presenters

The programme has occasionally courted controversy - usually because of the presenters' notoriously tenacious interviews. The regular presenters are James Naughtie, John Humphrys, Anna Ford and Sue MacGregor.

Sir Robin Day first mooted the idea of a 15-minute topical news programme featuring "intelligent, pithy comment" in 1955 and on Monday October 28, 1957 the first Today went out on the airwaves, presented by Alan Skempton and Raymond Baxter. Today alumni include Jack De Manio, John Timpson, Brian Redhead, Barry Norman, Derek Cooper and Jenni Murray. Even Des "Cool Hand" Lynam had a short spell as a presenter before returning to sports broadcasting.

[ image: Kenneth Clarke: turned the tables on the Today programme]
Kenneth Clarke: turned the tables on the Today programme

Today is Radio 4's flagship news and current affairs programme. Former presenter, the late Brian Redhead dubbed it "the newspaper of the airwaves", and said "If you want to drop a word in the ear of the nation, then this is the programme in which to do it."

But it's not all headline news and politic, as John Humphreys says, "You never know what you're going to be doing; you might be interviewing the Prime Minister or the Archbishop of Canterbury or Delia Smith or the organiser of a national conker contest . . ."

The programme has a peak daily audience between 7.30 and 8am, when up to 2.3 million people tune in, making it the most listened to early morning news programme in Britain.

Former premier Margaret Thatcher and deputy prime minister John Prescott have both telephoned the Today offices to correct stories as they were broadcast on air. Both Labour and the Conservatives have levelled accusations of bias against Today. John Humphrys has been accused more than once of being overly aggressive in the big "ten past eight" interviews.

In this morning's interview, Kenneth Clarke suggested that this kind of controversy stems from Today's forward-thinking interview strategy. Mr Clarke asked, "Why are we always brought in to talk about what is going to happen, and not about all the virtuous and distinguished things we've done the day before."

Mr Humphreys replied, "We set the agenda. That is the purpose of the Today programme"

In 1996 Labour and the Conservatives were accused of trying to "rig" the result of the programme's Personality of the Year poll by urging party workers to flood the phone lines with votes for their respective leaders - John Major eventually won -- even after four thousand of his votes were disqualified. Tony Blair failed to make the shortlist.

[ image: Broadcasting House - home of the Today programme for 40 years]
Broadcasting House - home of the Today programme for 40 years

Presenter Anna Ford was forced to apologise to listeners after her infamous broadcast in April of this year when she labelled Simon Pemberton, a fictional character from the Radio Four soap 'The Archers' "a bit of a s**t" live on air.


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