James Naughtie: Trump, Brexit and life after Today

by Charles Miller

James Naughtie (left) and John Humphrys in the Today programme studio in 1997.

James Naughtie is enjoying his post-Today programme life. After 21 years presenting the Radio Four flagship, he left, almost tearfully, last December, to take up a new role as special correspondent for Radio 4.

You can see why he’s content with his lot. He’s interviewing writers every week on his old programme, he’s got his own books coming out, and at a Media Society talk in London, he ranged widely across politics and history, seemingly having discussed the big issues personally with all the main players and their confidantes in Britain, Europe and the United States.

So what did Naughtie make of Britain’s current crises? He took his audience back to the 2015 election. Naughtie was presenting the results programme on Radio 4. A BBC colleague popped his head round the studio door just ahead of the announcement of the BBC exit poll: “it’s sensational” was all Naughtie was told at first. The poll put the Tories ahead, against expectations, and turned out to be right. Naughtie said that compared to today’s upheavals, “that fades into insignificance”. This is “the biggest political imbroglio we’ve been in, in my lifetime.” (Imbroglio: n. an extremely confused, complicated or embarrassing situation. E.g. “the abdication imbroglio of 1936”.)

Naughtie said he was aware of criticisms of the media for not having challenged politicians enough on claims made during the referendum. He wasn’t sure that “a very good job” had been done of explaining what the process would be in the event of a Brexit vote: “we did not get to the guts of what would happen.” He described that as “a lapse”.

But in answer to a question about whether the BBC’s “obsession with balance” had got in the way of examining those claims, he defended the Corporation. “You can’t say ‘we have decided that this person’s argument is inadequate’.” You’ve got to hear people” The BBC “can’t say ‘we’re not going to have this person on because they’re stupid’.”

A journalist with interests outside news and politics

When this time is looked back on, Naughtie thought the verdict may be that “the commentariat missed the depth of anger against the political class”.

And that was a connection with the other part of his discourse, about the US presidential election.

Naughtie described a Trump rally he’d attended. The expectant audience was greeted by a “voice of God” from the ceiling, warning of the presence of audience members who may have come along because they don’t support Trump. If anyone became aware of such impostors, said the voice, they were urged “not to touch them.” Instead they were advised to “gather round with your posters and begin to chant ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’.”

At that point, said Naughtie, the whole audience began spontaneously to chant “Trump, Trump, Trump”. And that was the cue for the music and for Trump’s children to appear on stage, followed by the man himself.

As for Trump’s message, Naughtie noted his get-out formula for any tricky question was to answer meaningfully: “you just watch me!” He quoted a remark made to him in Washington, that Trump is “the lovechild of 24 hour news”. But, when asked to rate Trump’s chances in November, Naughtie said “of course he could win.”

Naughtie did admit to sometimes lying in bed listening to the Today programme and wishing he was back in the studio while the multiple dramas unfold.

He spoke affectionately of his former colleagues: “you’re sitting there at four in the morning, of course you get on.” On the other hand, “we’re all individuals”. Even John Humphrys: “if he loses the spoon for his muesli, he gets upset.”

But then Naughtie is aware of his own failings too. He revealed, with a hint of pride, that one of his producers had timed his questions, and found one that lasted one minute 17 seconds, “which I have to admit is a bit excessive.” But then, he added winningly, “I can’t help it.”

Originally published at www.bbc.co.uk on July 6, 2016.

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