John Humphrys leaves Today: A look back at the presenter's colourful and controversial career as a 'seeker of truth'

The veteran - and often-controversial - presenter John Humphrys has stepped down from the Today programme after 32 years. Chris Burn looks back on his extraordinary career.

John Humphrys has left the Today programme after 32 years. Picture: PA

From being the first reporter on the scene of the fatal Aberfan disaster which killed 144 people in his native Wales to covering the fall of President Nixon and the birth of Zimbabwe, presenting the Nine O’Clock News and becoming a quiz show host on Mastermind, John Humphrys has enjoyed a remarkable career since leaving school at 15 to start working at the Penarth Times local newspaper.

Why John Humphrys will be missed as the voice of Today - The Yorkshire Post says But the 76-year-old has become indelibly associated with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the early-morning current affairs show which he is now leaving. This morning was his final programme and featured an interview with former Prime Ministers David Cameron and Tony Blair.

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Humphrys discussed his famously-combative interview technique in an interview with Mr Blair. The pair also chatted about how many politicians now deal directly with people on social media instead of being interviewed by journalists.

Humphrys with Tony Blair in 1997. Picture: PA

Humphrys admitted critics say "the problem with the Today programme interview, for instance... is that it's too confrontational, too argumentative... and (we) put ourselves on a pedestal..."

He added: "I don't think I'm the only target... I am a seeker of truth."

During the interview, Humphrys said Boris Johnson had not been on the show since he entered Number 10 and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had stayed away for nearly three years.

"Increasingly, politicians are talking directly to the people via social media so they can choose the questions they answer without being challenged," he said.

John Humphrys with James Naughtie and Brian Redhead in 1993. Picture: PA

Later as he signed off for the final time, Humphrys said "thanks" to everyone he had interviewed, "including the politicians, or at least those of them, the vast majority, who still recognise it is important that people in power should be held to account, even if just occasionally we might give them a hard time".

Humphrys, born as one of five children in Cardiff to Winifred Mary Matthews, a hairdresser, and Edward George Humphrys, a French polisher, has been part of the Today programme since 1987 and has a hard-won reputation as a relentless interrogator.

Among his most famous interviews was the grilling of BBC director-general George Entwistle in 2012 that revealed the latter’s lack of knowledge about an Newsnight report which had wrongly implicated a Tory peer in sexual abuse allegations. Entwistle resigned just hours later.

But his tenure has not passed without controversy. Last year, an off-air conversation between Humphrys and BBC North America Editor Jon Sopel was leaked in which he joked about his Today co-host Carrie Gracie’s comments on the gender pay gap at the corporation and her resignation as the broadcaster’s China editor. Humphrys defended the conversation as “silly banter between old mates” but a BBC spokesman described it as “ill-advised”.

The presenter gives a thumbs-up following his final show. Picture: PA

Jon Sopel on why the media will miss Donald Trump if he is not re-electedThat followed a 2017 conversation with William Hague about allegations of sexual misconduct within Parliament in which the presenter was criticised for asking if the “witch hunt” would lead to men being afraid to approach women.

Just last month, Humphrys was also in hot water after being accused of joking about domestic violence with Yorkshire MP David Davis as they reacted to a news story about a Russian dancer being disqualified from the World Tango Championships for punching his wife. Immediately after, Davis said ‘I guess this is our last tango’ in reference to Humphrys’ imminent retirement before the presenter laughed and replied: “″It is indeed. But I promise not to punch you if you don’t punch me.”

He has also been the target of ire from anti-Brexit campaigners, who have suggested he has been too forgiving of pro-Brexit guests. Among the critics have been Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney, who accused the host of failing to remain impartial and “speaking for” Boris Johnson in October 2018.

But while he has been controversial at times, one thing in little doubt is the esteem in which many of his colleagues hold him, with the former and current Today presenters like Nick Robinson, Sarah Montague and Edward Stourton all paying tribute to him in recent weeks.

Today programme editor Sarah Sands said: "Losing John in the mornings is a bit like Big Ben being silenced. I will miss his restlessness, his capacity for delight, his profound curiosity and his humanity."

Co-presenter Justin Webb recently accused his critics of ageism. “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,” he told the Radio Times. “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.”

As Webb put it, Humphrys has never been out to win friends. “John doesn’t give a stuff what you think of him. John wants enemies, or at least for respect, when it is paid, to be paid only grudgingly.”

But as he signed off from the show for a final time, Humphrys sounded somewhat emotional as he thanked listeners for their "loyalty" to the programme.

"I really do feel that I have got to know you over the decades and you are decent people," he said. "I'm more proud than I can say that you have put up with me for so long. Thank-you, all of you. I do hope you keep listening. Today matters for tomorrow and if that's a rather corny way to end my years on the programme, so be it."

Of listeners who had written in over the years, "sometimes to give me a pat on the back, often to give me a kick up the backside for getting it wrong or for being out of touch", he added "you're always right, or nearly always".