John Humphrys has revealed that he chose not to present the Today programme on the day Prince Harry was guest editing the show.
The former host of the Radio 4 flagship said he would have wanted to ask questions that the prince’s ‘minders’ would not have liked.
Writing in his Daily Mail column today, Humphrys also reveals there had been talks about him interviewing Prince Charles, but that the royal had ‘wanted only to talk about trees’ and so it was ‘no deal’.
But the ‘lifelong republican’ praises Princess Anne as the ‘most hardworking’ royal, adding that ‘she doesn’t believe in’ unearned deference.
In December 2017 Prince Harry was guest editor on the Today programme, which saw him interview his own father, Prince Charles, as well as former US president Barack Obama.
The programme, which included an interview with Harry, was presented by Justin Webb and Sarah Montague.
In his column Humphrys, 76, says of Harry: ‘He was invited to be the guest editor of the Today programme nearly three years ago and used it, unsurprisingly, to deliver messages close to his heart.
‘I’m afraid to say I declined the opportunity to present the programme that morning. I knew what would happen. I would want to ask what his minders would regard as impertinent or embarrassing questions and that would be the end of that.’
He added: ‘My then editor Sarah Sands tried hard to get me an interview with his father, but Charles wanted only to talk about trees and I wanted to talk about other things as well. No deal.’
Humphrys left the Today programme last year after 32 years.
Covid has affected everyone, but one group of workers has been especially hit.
They can no longer do what they have done for generations, if not centuries. And yet their plight has attracted surprisingly little attention, let alone concern. They are members of the Royal Family.
Their job is mostly to rush around the country shaking hands with people. Sometimes we go to them, but mostly they come to us. A glance at the much-abbreviated daily Court Circular tells the sad story.
They have been well and truly furloughed — though without getting 80 per cent of their salary that lesser mortals have been able to claim. The calculation might prove tricky.
But they have another duty to fulfil. It’s called being in the news.
If the Royal Family operated under the radar, avoiding the cameras, we might start forgetting it exists and then wonder what exactly is the point of it. Which is why Palace spin doctors go to such lengths to make sure reporters and photographers are always there when the handshaking and unveiling of plaques is going on.
Naturally, some pictures have more value than others. The basic rule of thumb is that one snap of Kate in a pretty dress doing anything with her lovely toddlers trumps all the others, no matter what they are doing. Unless, of course, they are Harry and Andrew.
Both have dominated the headlines to the exclusion of pretty much every other royal story and both, in very different ways, have raised serious questions about how we perceive the Royal Family.
Andrew has tried his best to make himself invisible since that catastrophic interview with Emily Maitlis on Newsnight nine months ago. Perhaps his brief appearance this week riding through the grounds of Windsor Castle was designed to demonstrate that life is going on as normal for him. But it’s not.
The Queen may have relieved him of all his royal duties and silly titles, but he is still HRH Prince Andrew and he is still a ticking bomb at the heart of the family.
Harry and Meghan are a different kettle of fish. They are the journalists’ gift that simply keeps on giving — though for very different reasons. Scarcely a week goes by without journalists throughout the land offering up their thanks for yet another story about them that will have the nation gobbling up every word with a mixture of horror and hilarity.
This past week has been a vintage one. Only yesterday, we had the news that they have bought a house in California. By ‘house’ I mean, obviously, a vast mansion that’s more akin to a luxury country club than to, say, Frogmore Cottage, which had been intended to be their home in this country. You’ll remember it. They still owe the taxpayer a couple of million for renovating it to their taste.
Their new home cost £11million, which is, apparently, a fraction of its true value. But it’s the background of the previous owner that has attracted the greatest interest. With their uncanny ability to commit PR suicide, Harry and Meghan bought it from a Russian oligarch who has allegedly threatened to chop up his wife. Maybe they didn’t know about that. Maybe it’s just rotten luck.
But they did know about the other big story of this past week: the publication of that massively hyped book that promised to reveal the true story of their relationship and their self-isolation from the Royal Family.
Nobody knows exactly how much help they gave the authors, but what a spectacular own goal it turned out to be.
The brilliant Richard Kay summed it up perfectly in the columns of this newspaper: ‘Page after page drips with self-pity and indignation sandwiched between dollops of oily sycophancy.’
The title, Finding Freedom, was disconcertingly suggestive of Nelson Mandela’s great autobiography Long Walk To Freedom. In Mandela’s case, it was freedom from 27 years in jail and a life lived under an inhuman apartheid regime. In Harry and Meghan’s case, it was freedom from … what exactly?
To most eyes it was freedom from a life of the most extraordinary privilege. Not just the creature comforts that only vast wealth can buy, but freedom from the sort of pressures that even the wealthy cannot always escape.
Harry was free to make choices. If he wanted publicity for some of his praiseworthy charity work, it was his for the asking. True, he was occasionally snapped doing stupid things as a young man, but nobody really minded and anyway nobody made him do stupid things. It was his choice. He was free to marry the woman he loved — and the nation applauded him for it.
And he had a pulpit. When he spoke, the nation listened. He was invited to be the guest editor of the Today programme nearly three years ago and used it, unsurprisingly, to deliver messages close to his heart.
I’m afraid to say I declined the opportunity to present the programme that morning. I knew what would happen. I would want to ask what his minders would regard as impertinent or embarrassing questions and that would be the end of that.
My then editor Sarah Sands tried hard to get me an interview with his father, but Charles wanted only to talk about trees and I wanted to talk about other things as well. No deal.
Maybe the Palace remembered that I have form. I filmed a BBC TV interview with Prince Philip on his 70th birthday. It was pretty boring except for a section when he got very cross because I’d asked him why the Queen hadn’t helped him out when he had to sell his racing yacht because of the expensive upkeep. The Palace complained and the BBC cut it out.
I did try to get an interview with the Queen herself. She’d invited me to one of her private lunches at Buckingham Palace and, when we were having a coffee in the anteroom afterwards, I popped the question. It was a one-word answer: ‘No.’
Again I tried, putting the case that I had carefully prepared. She listened politely and then another: ‘No!’ followed by: ‘What’s more, Mr Humphrys, if one were ever to do such an interview it would most certainly not be with you!’
I made one more attempt when she came to open New Broadcasting House. She brushed me aside pretty sharply. Fair enough. Why shouldn’t she? She’s the monarch. And if this nation is united behind anything, it is that the Queen has done a pretty good job in her 68 years on the throne. She has scarcely put a foot wrong. Respect and affection for her are at stratospheric levels.
Even a lifelong republican like me can accept that the monarchy is safe. But the Royal Family is different. The nation is perfectly entitled to ask what is the point of it if one of its most senior members wants to live abroad, make great piles of cash and no longer wants to do the hand-shaking duties.
Of course, there are still loyal subjects entranced by the Royal Family. For them the marriage of an otherwise obscure princess is an occasion for national rejoicing.
But it was noticeable that when another of them wed during lockdown with no more fuss than the girl next door, the nation broadly approved. And I wonder how many young people even know the names of the lesser royals, however grand the titles of their parents.
In pre-lockdown days I was asked to present some awards at a royal palace. In return for my time, I would have the honour of being ‘presented to HRH the Earl of Wessex’. I declined politely on the grounds that bowing wasn’t really my thing and, anyway, I wasn’t sure who he was. The email I got back was surprisingly sympathetic.
If that sounds a bit childish, forgive me, but can’t we at last acknowledge that the age of automatic, unearned deference has come and gone — however distantly you may be related to the Queen?
But may I conclude by wishing happy birthday to Princess Anne. She’s 70 today. She’s still the most hardworking of the lot. And the way that she’s dealt with her own children, by not making them HRHs, proves that she doesn’t believe in it, either.