Political spin, reality television, British newspaper journalism and an unfulfilled longing to interview the Queen were among the many subjects touched upon in conversation with the University’s Chancellor, Sandi Toksvig.
Sandi Toksvig brought as her guest Britain’s highest paid and arguably best known broadcaster and her friend of many years, John Humphrys, the host of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The University ranks in the top 400 universities in the world in the Times Higher World University rankings.
She said: “I am delighted this event is taking place – it is the first Chancellor’s dinner and one which we hope will become a traditional fixture in the student and alumni calendar, giving our current students and our alumni the opportunity to take part in an elegant occasion in the splendour of the Guildhall, to meet each other and network and share stories.”
The event was Sandi’s brainchild because, she said, “creating and following traditions helps bind people together”.
Guests included hundreds of former students who graduated as early as 1973, to those who graduated just last year, as well as current students who took the opportunity to be entertained by their Chancellor and to network with alumni. The University’s Vice-Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Chief Operating Officer, Deans of faculties and heads of professional services also attended.
Asked about his career highlights, John said: “Watergate. I was there on the morning Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace, the first US president ever to do so. I actually broke the story. I told the country, this country, that Richard Nixon was going to go on television that night and resign.”
John discussed how difficult it was to interview Tony Blair when he first became Prime Minister.
“He had come into office under a whiter than white, purer than pure banner which was fiercely guarded by press secretary and spin doctor Alastair Campbell who, for four years, refused to allow Blair to be interviewed live on the Today programme.
“It was four years without a single interview, then Campbell retired and I got an interview the next day.”
The Today programme has an audience of more than seven million and is widely seen as setting the daily news agenda for the rest of Britain’s media.
John refused to be drawn on his own political views and said: “The BBC has a sacred duty to be impartial” but defended Britain’s print journalism arguing that the country needed “properly independent newspapers” which weren’t subject to the same restrictions.
He said: “If people don’t like a newspaper, tough, don’t buy it. They certainly have more respect for people’s privacy than you’d have seen before and are a lot less vindictive than they were a decade ago.”
After more than 40 years interviewing the heads of government and leaders in industry from across the world, Sandi asked if there was anyone he was “still gagging to interview”, and he replied, “The Queen, Her Majesty”. He had once met her at a formal dinner and when he’d asked if he could one day interview her, she’d replied: “No, and what’s more Mr Humphrys, if I were to be interviewed, it would certainly not be by you.”
He spoke about his loathing for reality television and said he was once offered £50,000 to appear on a reality television programme but that no amount of money would persuade him to take part.
When Sandi suggested they try a job swap he laughed and said what she did was “far, far harder” and suggested she take on one of the annual guest editor roles of the Today programme, in the week between Christmas and the New Year.
After an interview punctuated by many jokes at her own expense, Sandi thanked him for agreeing to attend, saying: “I’m delighted the event has given us the opportunity to hear from one of the biggest names in broadcasting on how he built his career, thank you.”