Broadcaster John Humphrys is to present his final edition of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday.
The presenter’s departure will bring to a close his 32 years on the flagship show, during which time he built a reputation as a tenacious interrogator.
“Losing John in the mornings is a bit like Big Ben being silenced,” said Today editor Sarah Sands.
“I will miss his restlessness, his capacity for delight, his profound curiosity and his humanity.”
Humphrys interviewed every prime minister on the programme from Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May, but has not grilled Boris Johnson since he came to power.
The 76-year-old will continue to present Mastermind on BBC Two.
Before joining Today in 1987, Humphrys worked as a BBC foreign correspondent in both the US and Africa, as a diplomatic correspondent and as a presenter of the Nine O’Clock News.
On the daily Radio 4 morning news programme, he became known for pinning down political leaders and public figures and drawing revelations out of them.
On occasion, his interviewing style incurred the ire of both politicians and listeners.
When he announced his departure in February, Humphrys said: “I love doing the programme. I have always enjoyed it.
“That’s the problem. I should have gone years ago. Obviously I should have gone years ago.”
He is Today’s longest-serving presenter and has been one of the corporation’s highest earners.
His salary in 2016-17 was between £600,000-649,999, but he took a pay cut and went down to £290,000-£294,999 in 2018-19.
In a tribute in the Radio Times, Today co-presenter Justin Webb said: “There are plenty who don’t like him, who think he’s gone on too long, who want him ‘pensioned off’ or ‘put out of his misery’ or whatever the phrase is they use to suggest that being a man in his 70s on air is somehow an affront.
“Most of these folks would see themselves as impeccable anti-sexists and anti-racists, but ageism is alive and well and apparently deeply acceptable in the anti-John movement.”
Webb said Humphrys, unlike some presenters, would talk to people at all levels of the BBC.
“When John arrived [at Today]… he would talk to anyone. Shout at them, too. Throw things, even,” said Webb. “But they usually missed, and he always said sorry.”
He also told the magazine: “John doesn’t give a stuff what you think of him. He is bemused when Jon Snow of Channel 4 News talks of his followers online. Why would John want followers?
“John wants enemies, or at least for respect, when it is paid, to be paid only grudgingly.”
Speaking on Desert Island Discs in 2008, Humphrys said he did not think most politicians deliberately told lies on the programme.
But he said: “I do start with the assumption that they are there for their benefit, rather than necessarily for the benefit of the audience. And it’s my job often to try to get them to be a bit more candid than perhaps they intended to be.”
Six of Humphrys’ most memorable (and controversial) interviews
- He said his first interview with a prime minister – with Margaret Thatcher in 1987 – was “a truly scary prospect”. But he showed his knack for getting insights into politicians’ characters when he asked about the link between her Christian faith and her politics. “How can you express unselfish love if you have no choice?” she said. “The fundamental choice is the right to choose between good and evil.”
- Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken accused Humphrys of “poisoning the well of democratic debate” in 1995 after saying he had interrupted Chancellor Kenneth Clarke 32 times. But Humphrys got support from other ministers and the Daily Mail, which called him “one of the most brilliant journalists in the country”. The next time Clarke appeared on Today, Humphrys gave him a calculator to count how many times he was interrupted.
- Labour director of communications Dave Hill spoke publicly of “the John Humphrys problem” after the presenter’s robust confrontation with social security secretary Harriet Harman about plans to reduce payments to single mothers in 1997.
- An early-morning three-minute interview with correspondent Andrew Gilligan in 2003 led to a confrontation between the BBC and the government. Gilligan said he had been told by a reliable source that a government dossier about the threat from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction had been deliberately “sexed up”. This ultimately led to the suicide of the source, Dr David Kelly, and the resignations of Gilligan, the BBC director general and the BBC chairman.
- Humphrys hastened the downfall of another director general, George Entwistle, in 2012 with a interview about how Newsnight wrongly implicated a former Conservative deputy chairman in a child abuse scandal. Entwistle, who struggled badly and appeared out of his depth, resigned the next day.
- Humphrys got into hot water for a leaked off-air exchange about the BBC’s gender pay gap with North America editor Jon Sopel in 2018. It followed the resignation of Carrie Gracie as BBC China editor over pay inequality. In what Humphrys described as a “jokey” exchange, he asked Sopel about “how much of your salary you are prepared to hand over to Carrie Gracie to keep her”.