John Humphrys was joined by ex-prime ministers David Cameron and Tony Blair – and Dame Edna Everage – for his last day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
A characteristically tough interview with Mr Cameron began with the former PM thanking him for “striking the fear into politicians like me”.
Dame Edna penned a poem that said: “You won’t grow old, you’ll just get nicely mellow/So hug your trees, play Elgar on your cello.”
Humphrys is leaving after 32 years.
The presenter made his career out of “asking us questions we don’t always want to answer, and calling us to account”, Mr Cameron said.
The former leader’s comments came after Humphrys put it to Mr Cameron that he had “misled the nation” by failing to deliver on the result of the 2016 EU referendum by leaving his post in government
Humphrys has built a reputation as a tenacious interrogator of politicians, and said he had been “a seeker of truth” during his time on the programme.
In a discussion about the state of interviewing and politics, Mr Blair said: “The fact that I worry about doing an interview with you is a tribute to you, not a criticism.”
Their interviews were “often a pleasure”, he said, adding: “It was occasionally not a pleasure but it was always worthwhile.”
Humphrys has interviewed every prime minister on the flagship programme from Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May, but has not grilled Boris Johnson since he came to power.
The fact Mr Johnson avoided Today “probably means that he is anxious about a sustained and forensic analysis of what he’s trying to do”, the former Labour prime minister said. “Otherwise he’d come on.”
Another guest on Thursday was with the new chief executive of the Woodland Trust, Dr Darren Moorcroft. Humphrys asked about punishments for people who chopped down trees – but joked that he was dissatisfied with the answer.
“I was thinking of something a little more draconian – send them to jail if they chop down trees, that kind of thing,” the presenter said.
Dr Moorcroft replied: “That may be your next job John if you become a judge at the Supreme Court.” Humphrys added: “You’re on – accepted.”
Thought for the Day, delivered by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, was also about Humphrys and his “fearless moral passion”.
BBC director general Lord Hall said public figures would breathe “a sigh of relief” at Humphrys’ departure.
Describing him as “a journalistic great”, the director general wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “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.”
He added: “There is perhaps no greater tribute than the collective sigh of relief issued by leaders and public figures all over the country.”
Today will continue with four main presenters – Justin Webb, Mishal Husain, Martha Kearney and Nick Robinson – and will not directly replace Humphrys. 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. 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.
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 then 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 Mr 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 soon afterwards.
- 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”.