John Humphrys: BBC host compared to religious prophet as he leaves Radio 4 Today programme

Several public figures make gushing tributes to veteran interviewer’s ‘fearless moral passion’

Roisin O'Connor
Thursday 19 September 2019 08:00
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pays tribute to John Humphrys for presenter's final Today programme

John Humphrys has hosted his final edition of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme after 32 years helming the show.

The broadcaster’s tenure has featured interviews with prime ministers Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Theresa May.

Humphrys is the Today programme’s longest-serving presenter and has been one of the BBC’s highest-earning journalists. His salary in 2016-17 was revealed to be between £600,000 and £649,999, but he took a pay cut the following year, to £290,000-£294,999.

His final programme included interviews with former prime ministers David Cameron and Tony Blair. Over the years Humphrys faced accusations of political bias, including by the then chief secretary to the treasury Jonathan Aitken, who in 1995 claimed he was “poisoning the well of political debate” with his “ego-trip interviewing”.

A BBC statement at the time defended Humphrys and said: “Viewers and listeners expect BBC interviews with politicians to be fair but also robust and testing. Day in and day out John Humphrys and his colleagues on the Today programme demonstrate with great professionalism how it is possible to achieve both those objectives.

“We invariably take great care to investigate complaints from any party, and we also have to be alert to the kind of pressures which in the past have tended to increase as a general election gets nearer.”

BBC director general Tony Hall said public figures would breathe “a sigh of relief” at Humphrys’ departure, in a piece for The Telegraph.

Describing him as “a journalistic great”, the director general wrote: “He is driven by a profound sense of justice and a deep distrust of authority. It means that he has always, unerringly, represented the listener and championed their right to know.”

“There is perhaps no greater tribute than the collective sigh of relief issued by leaders and public figures all over the country,” he added.

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Appearing on the Thought for the Day segment, rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks paid tribute to Humphrys, commenting: “We don’t have prophets nowadays but if we did, one place you’d probably find them would be the Today programme.

Today’s tough interviewers are recognisably in that tradition of holding power accountable to truth... John Humphrys has been one of the best of our time. What’s made John distinctive has been his fearless moral passion, and his refusal to be fobbed off with evasions and equivocations. He’s been called ‘radio’s rottweiler’ and the BBC’s ‘scrappy, scruffy mongrel terrier’, chasing every rabbit, catching every ball, leaping on the grandest sofa with mud on his paws and a bark of amused defiance.”

“He’s been called the listener’s champion because he asked the questions we’d like to ask but don’t get the chance to. To do that for 32 years without loss of energy or integrity is quite something.”

In a tribute in the Radio Times, Justin Webb wrote: “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 seventies 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.”

Today editor Sarah Sands revealed that Mr Cameron joked he was coming on Thursday’s programme “to make sure he got the old bugger out of the building”.

“He doesn’t let go,” Sands said of Humphrys on Radio 4’s The Media Show. “He’s a terrier, so I think you should expect something exciting.”

The Today programme will continue with four main presenters – Justin Webb, Mishal Husain, Martha Kearney and Nick Robinson – rather than directly replacing Humphrys, who will continue to present Mastermind on BBC2.

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