John Humphrys vs David Irving: no contest

Just listened to the Today programme, in which John Humphrys – the feared inquisitor, maker of politicians to tremble – tried to pin down David Irving, notorious Holocaust “revisionist”, about Irving’s recanting in an Austrian court of his crime of “denying” the Holocaust.

Note all the quotation marks, because this simply wasn’t a contest. Humphrys had been badly briefed, and handled the interview with all the aplomb of a man wearing boxing gloves trying to pull a fish covered in soap out of the bath.

It went badly right from the first question, to which Irving insisted that when he recanted his crime – or regretted it, as he said – in the Austrian court in order to be let out of jail, that was because that’s what Austrian law requires, and Austrian law requires. “You’re told what to do by your lawyer, so you do it.”

Clearly Humphrys didn’t know this, and hadn’t been briefed, and from there he was just flummoxed on and on. Irving’s style is to examine every word in every sentence in a forensic manner, and Humphrys just isn’t used to having his own interview-fu used back on him. “Are you denying that six million Jews died in the Holocaust?” he asked. Well, said Irving, that depends on the meaning of “six million”, “Jews”, “died” and “Holocaust” – though by the end of it he was using the latter word in the way it’s generally used.

Humphrys started from the wrong place. Irving admits he’ll agree that Hitler ordered the killings if someone will come up with some documentary evidence. Humphrys might have asked him where that could be found, now so long after the fact. But he didn’t, instead choosing the bang-your-head-against-the-wall technique of trying to get Irving to say something he won’t.

I’m not in agreement with Irving on anything – except maybe that one needs to be able to research and say anything. He’s prepared to accept that he could be wrong, which is a small start, and that the evidence to do it might be out there. Of course with his experience, he probably knows the evidence isn’t to be found, not because it didn’t exist, but because it’s been destroyed in the intervening years.

But the lesson of the interview was that interviewing Irving should be left to the lawyers, who know a thing or three about how to create a watertight set of questions leading from one place to a conclusion. And it’ll leave John Humphrys in a considerably better mood to have not been rope-a-doped on the big set-piece Today interview.


  1. I was wondering why, in my dreams whilst dozing this morning, I was having a conversation with my grandma about why free speech is important, and even David Irving should be allowed to say whatever he wants.

    Having the radio come on to wake me up results in me having lots of current affairs knowledge, but never being sure what’s actual knowledge and what’s just dreams.

  2. Why the surprise? Humphrys is a buffoon. Not the least bit intelligent, he believes that the way to interview a politician is to sledgehammer them to death. All they have to do to get the upper hands is to say “If you would just let me finish…”

  3. But the lesson of the interview was that interviewing Irving should be left to the lawyers,

    What have you got against Historians?
    Humphrys is really a joke- think back to his master-class interviews on religion. The poor man has no understanding of Theology.
    Perhaps errant Theologians should also be interviewed by lawyers too?

  4. Haven’t got anything against historians as a group, but Irving is one of the slipperiest you’ll find. (I thought I tried to get that across with my metaphor?) That’s why you need him to be interviewed by really precise thinkers.

  5. Irving’s position – that he’ll believe if you show him any documentary evidence – is a long-established one among Holocaust deniers. I believe there’s a French guy called Faurisson whose best-known line is “one proof – just one proof”. The fact of population statistics and the vast amount of eyewitness evidence doesn’t cut it with them.

  6. Charles, the mere presumption that a legal framework is necessary for the expression of historical opinions, and that those best suited to conduct such examinations are professional lawyers, doesn’t sound like freedom of expression to me.
    In fact, it replicates a state of affairs we had in England in the 19th century regarding religion. The Church of England set themselves up as legal guardians of theology, if you disagreed with certain postulates such as the Trinity, you were branded a non-conformist. David Irving is an historical dissenter, what you are demanding is really on a par with what the Spanish Inquisition did.
    I went on the demo against the censorship of the Mohammed Cartoons, I disagree with what Irving has written, but the point here is that we cannot lock historians up for expressing their opinions. And we cannot obfuscate this by requesting legal examination of historical opinions either!

  7. Charles

    Monday 25 December 2006 at 11:59 pm

    You’re missing my point about Irving, which is that he keeps shifting the ground on which you’re interviewing him. Today asks him if he’s sorry for what he said, whether he truly recants? Feel the ground shift. You’re generalising to all historians. I’m specifying to Irving: to get him to engage with an argument – or even to agree what the argument is – you need it done by lawyers. I’m not sure I can put it any more clearly. You’re obfuscating this point, by trying to pretend that I said historians need some sort of legal framework. I didn’t.

  8. I guess it save to say that most of the Irvings and his alikes actually know that the Holocaust did happen. There is no discussion necessary and one should keep this in mind when talking to the Irvings in the world. They know better but just prefer to play stupid because it fits there political agenda

  9. Here’s an interview where Irving fell to pieces:

  10. Irving has looked extensively for the document that shows Hitler’s intent or orders on Jews, and has not found one. Perhaps, like weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the documents cannot be found because they never existed. Maybe they never existed, because Hitler was not the architect. Absent “proof”, no one’s opinion has a lot of foundation. All Irving asserts is that no one has found proof.

  11. Readers should listen to the interview mentioned above in #9. It is vintage Irving. He outrages his critics, but is very factual in stating that millions of Jews were murdered or died at the hands of the Nazis. Still, he attacks what he views as the fairy tales surrounding the holocaust. For the thousandth time, he says the holocaust bores him, drawing the ire of Ms. Appleton, whose grandparents did by the hands of the Nazis. Yet the Irving critics respond mostly with insult and invective, not facts, to disagree with him. They appeal to the heart, not the head, of the listener. That is just bad history. Irving does not fall to pieces, I am afraid. He comports himself quite well while outnumbered three to one.

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