In Depth

John Humphrys leaves Today: eight of his most memorable moments

The veteran broadcaster has hosted his last episode of the flagship show after 32 years

BBC presenter John Humphrys has broadcast his final episode as host of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Humphrys, 76, has presented the flagship current affairs programme for 32 years, during which time he “built a reputation as a tenacious interrogator of politicians”, the BBC says.

On his final show, he was joined by ex-prime ministers David Cameron and Tony Blair, with the former congratulating him for “striking the fear into politicians like me”.

Humphrys first sat in front of the Today show microphone on 2 January 1987. “No other presenter has come close to matching his record and the next longest serving host is Jim Naughtie, whose stint lasted 21 years and 291 days, between 1994 and 2015,” says the London Evening Standard.

The paper also notes that has survived eight different editors of the Today programme and seven directors-general of the BBC, one of whom - George Entwistle - he helped bring down in a brutal 2012 interview, in which he exposed severe failings in the BBC chain of command after the broadcaster had incorrectly implicated a prominent politician in a sexual abuse scandal.

Humphrys, The Guardian notes, has been described as the “BBC’s attack dog” and “the rottweiler-in-chief”. Despite the presenter claiming he has done thousands of “perfectly unremarkable” interviews over the last 30 or so years, here are some of the more memorable ones:

Humphrys vs. David Dimbleby

Former Question Time host David Dimbleby was invited to guest edit the Today programme in December last year but ended up arguing with Humphrys over who was the “poshest”. After Humphrys said Dimbleby was “quite posh”, the TV presenter protested: “Sorry John, there’s a typical sneer in that question. You’re quite posh, I’m about as posh as you are. I come from Wales, you do. I’m not posh, I happen to have been a broadcaster for a long time.” Humphrys pointed out that he had a “very distinguished father” (news commentator Richard Dimbleby OBE MBE) to which he replied: “Well, that doesn’t make me posh… that’s a ridiculous question.”

Humphrys vs. George Entwistle

It took George Entwistle just 12 hours to resign as BBC director-general after a gruelling interview with Humphrys in November 2012. During the broadcast – described as the “dead man walking interview” by The Guardian – Entwistle revealed his ignorance about a Newsnight report that wrongly implicated a Tory peer in allegations of sexual abuse. Humphrys later said: “Once you start an interview like that, the years of doing it take over and you don’t think, ‘That is my boss.’ You just do your job. Then when it’s over, you think, ‘Oh my God.’”

Humphrys vs. Jeremy Paxman

Humphrys went head to head with Jeremy Paxman in September 2012 in an interview described as a “clash of the media titans” by the Daily Mail. Paxman went on Today to discuss the 50th anniversary of University Challenge, but subsequently accused Humphrys of choosing bad questions and later made a jibe about his “advanced age”, to which Humphrys replied: “My hearing’s probably better than yours, but go on.” Listeners were subjected to repeated interruptions and gasps of exasperation from both sides, as well as accusations of poor research and failure to pay attention.

Humphrys vs. Julian Assange

Shortly after Julian Assange was freed on bail by the High Court in December 2010, he was pressed to answer questions about his sexual experience in an extraordinary interview with Humphrys. In the light of claims by two Swedish women, Humphrys suggested to the Wikileaks founder that he was a sexual predator who enjoyed having sex with young women, preferably without a condom. Assange replied: “A gentleman does not discuss his private life.” Pressured to tell the listeners how many women he had slept with, Assange answered: “A gentleman does not count.”

Humphrys vs. Tony Blair

It was a quote that haunted Tony Blair for years. Appealing to the public to trust him over the 1997 Formula One donations scandal, the then prime minister told Humphrys on BBC’s On the Record: “I think most people who have dealt with me think I am a pretty straight sort of guy, and I am.” Blair denied that a £1m donation to the Labour Party from F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone had led to motor racing’s subsequent exemption from a tobacco sponsorship ban. However, the quote stuck and was rolled out by the media and political opponents every time Blair’s integrity was questioned.

Humphrys vs. the Queen

Humphrys was affectionately accused of trying to “doorstep the Queen” when she visited the BBC headquarters in 2013. Any attempts to get an impromptu scoop about Prince Philip’s health at the time were, however, rebuffed by the monarch. Humphrys told the Queen that her husband “was looking well yesterday”, to which Her Majesty retorted: “That’s because he’s not ill.” When Humphrys offered her a present – a DAB digital radio – the Queen looked at it and said: “I don’t get an awful lot of chance to listen to the radio.” Humphrys later laughed off accusations he was after a scoop, saying: “You can’t doorstep the Queen. She wouldn’t let you.”

Humphrys vs. George Osborne

After revealing grim public finances in March 2016, then-chancellor George Osborne faced a grilling for missing two of his three key economic targets. Humphrys refused to let him off the hook for failing to get the debt down as a share of GDP and for breaking his own cap on welfare spending, finally asking the killer question: “I suppose what I’m asking is - what’s a bloke got to do in your job to get the sack?”

Humphrys vs. Trans activists

In a special segment on gender in October 2017, Humphrys was accused of trivialising the experiences of trans people by claiming: “If a man thinks he’s a woman, all he has to do is fill in a form and say so, he doesn’t need to convince anybody else”.

He had been referring to the planned overhaul of the Gender Recognition Act to remove the bureaucratic hurdles currently faced by trans people, Pink News says, and ended up caught in a scrappy exchange with Stonewall’s Bex Stinson, a transgender woman.

Humphrys drew criticism for then asking her: “Do you have anything to prove that?”

Stinson replied that, as well as her driving licence and passport, her “life experience is my fundamental proof” of her womanhood, drawing the reply: “But you don’t have a certificate that says you are a woman?”

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