John Humphrys did not know his jokes about equal pay were being recorded by the BBC, he has said, as he dismissed a leaked tape as the work of a “nasty person” with a grudge.
The presenter of Radio 4’s Today programme was recorded joking with Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America editor, about Carrie Gracie’s resignation as China editor. “Oh, dear God. She’s actually suggested that you should lose money,” Humphrys said, referring to Gracie’s call for the corporation’s foreign editors to be paid the same.
He also claimed to have taken a pay cut greater than Sopel’s £200,000-249,999 salary “but I’m still left with more than anybody else and that seems to me to be entirely just”.
The private conversation took place on Monday, hours after Gracie made her resignation public, as Humphrys and Sopel pre-recorded an interview about the Trump administration. Unbeknown to Humphrys, it was recorded on a centralised system, and later leaked to the press by a disgruntled staff member.
As BBC presenters and politicians called his comments “outrageous” and “staggering”, Humphrys was relaxed about the matter.
“This is not something that’s going to dominate my existence. As far as I’m concerned, it’s over and done with.
“If one could relive the last few days, I probably would not have done the same chat with Sopel. Or would I? Perhaps. It was just silly banter,” he said.
“Some nasty person decided that the world was entitled to hear it, and that one is not entitled to have private conversations.”
A transcript of the exchange shows that Humphrys opened proceedings by telling Sopel: “Slight change of subject: the first question will be how much of your salary you are prepared to hand over to Carrie Gracie to keep her, and then a few comments about your other colleagues - you know, like our Middle East editor [Jeremy Bowen] and the other men who are earning too much…”
Humphrys told the Telegraph: “The thing I didn’t know is that there is a relatively new thing, where everything that is said in the studio is recorded from the time the studio is active, not just from the point you begin your interview. It’s an emergency back-up.
“It was four o’clock in the morning and I had literally just got in. I went into the studio to have a conversation about Trump. And because we have known each other for 30 years, I said, ‘We’re not going to talk about Trump, we’re going to talk about this.’ It was just a wind-up. And then we got on with the interview.”
BBC insiders said the knives are out for Humphrys, whose salary of £600,000-649,999 dwarfs those of his Today colleagues. The veteran presenter, 74, has indicated that he will retire within the next two years, and some executives are said to be keen to hasten his departure.
Rumours of the recording had circulated for several days before it was made public, and one insider said: “There are very hard-working people on shows like Today who earn less than one-tenth of what John Humphrys is on, and they hear him say this.
“Studio managers, engineers and producers are incredibly skilled. If you treat them nicely, they tend to treat you nicely too. I’m afraid one or two of them have been on the receiving end from John and may have decided enough was enough.”
Asked if a junior member of staff might have leaked the recording to teach him a lesson, Humphrys said: “I’m sure a lot of people would, cheerfully. I’ve been with the BBC for 50 years. A lot of people know me, for good or ill.”
The leak piled further pressure on Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s head of news, who has had a chaotic first fortnight in charge.
On Monday, she reminded staff that they could not report on the equal pay story if they had expressed an opinion on it. Winifred Robinson, the You and Yours presenter, was taken off air after tweeting her support for Gracie.
Yet Unsworth decided that Humphrys can continue to report on the subject because in the recording he did not declare himself either for or against equal pay.
Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, said: “It stinks. He’s clearly not impartial. The BBC needs to get a grip on the impartiality issue.”
Miriam O’Reilly, the former Countryfile presenter who won an age discrimination case against the BBC, claimed that she was invited on to yesterday’s Today programme to discuss equal pay, but the invitation was withdrawn over fears she would take Humphrys to task.
“If Mr Humphrys was interviewing me I quite possibly would have - but why not - he would have done the same. It’s called freedom of speech,” O’Reilly said.
Antoinette Sandbach, Tory MP for Eddisbury, said the views expressed in the conversation were “staggering”, adding: “Welcome to the ‘old boys’ network’.”
Rachel Burden, the Radio 5 Live presenter, retweeted a comment describing Humphrys’ remarks as “outrageous”, while Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey said the exchange between the two men “reveals, very neatly, what we’re up against”.
Last night Garvey said: “It was a private conversation and I have a certain amount of sympathy for the manner in which this has been exposed, whilst also feeling a bit let down. The man is a brilliant broadcaster and an incisive interviewer, and I’m disappointed by this.”