Justin Webb

Today programme presenter, 61

Interview by Rob Crossan



Daily Telegraph



Justin Webb, 61, is one of the main presenters of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. Born in Portsmouth and educated at a Quaker boarding school in Somerset, he began his career with the BBC in 1984 at Radio Ulster. He went on to become a presenter on BBC One’s Breakfast News in the 1990s and later became the BBC’s North American editor. He lives in Camberwell with his wife Sarah. YOUR BEST CHILDHOOD MEMORY I had a pretty solitary childhood as my stepfather was very mentally ill and my biological father (the late BBC newsreader Peter Woods) wasn’t in my life at all. My mum bought me a radio when I was 11 and I still remember the very first day of listening to it. I was so fascinated by this other world where I can turn a dial and instantly hear anything from Jimmy Young on Radio 1 to hard news on Radio 4. I became absolutely obsessed with it and it was then that I thought, “I like talking to people too”, and the idea of maybe working in radio one day began. THE BEST DAY OF YOUR LIFE SO FAR Definitely the day I met my wife Sarah. I was in my mid-30s and doing an absolutely terrible job of presenting BBC Breakfast News on television, a job I really didn’t like at all. I was beginning to think that I wanted more of a life than just my career and Sarah and I met at a leaving party Jeremy Bowen hosted at his house in Camberwell before he went off to work in the Middle East. I’m not sure which of us made a beeline for the other but I do wind Sarah up by telling people that we met after she wrote into the BBC requesting to meet me – it’s not true at all! THE BEST INTERVIEW YOU EVER DID I really believe that the best interviews are ones where the journalist doesn’t have to do very much at all but just be the conduit for the other person to say what they’re desperate to say that is going to make a difference to people’s day. My interview with Lord McDonald last year on the Today programme felt like one of those moments. He only agreed to do it about two minutes beforehand. He didn’t need to be harassed and cajoled into saying more than he wanted to. I just needed to lay the interview out in a cogent way. It was a devastating interview and I think it, essentially, toppled Johnson’s government over the edge after it had looked in major danger of toppling for quite a while. It made a big difference and I think anyone who heard it would have been in no doubt as to the message McDonald was putting across. YOUR BEST PERSONALITY TRAIT Not taking it all too seriously. Front of camera or microphone jobs always attract people who are determined and egotistical. I’m both of those things but I’m also capable of seeing the funny side of it. I’ve got a friend who is a paediatric heart surgeon and to compare what he does to the interviews I do, it’s always very clear to me that what I do is important, but really not that important. THE BEST RADIO SHOW YOU’VE EVER HEARD I used to absolutely adore a programme that went out late on Friday nights on Radio 4 in the 1980s called Week Ending. The satire of the show was so sharp, the jokes and sketches were so quick at reacting to the week’s news. I have no idea why that show ended. THE WORST MOMENT OF YOUR RADIO CAREER TO DATE? I remember when I was on BBC Breakfast News and I had to interview David Blunkett. Links were always going down on that programme when I presented it and we used to have terrible problems getting through to guests who weren’t in the studio. I remember seeing David on screen and I asked him, “Can you see and hear us David?” He replied, “I can hear you. But if I can see you it would be a miracle.” I think if you saw my reaction in the studio you would have seen me physically cringe in my seat. I just wanted the earth to swallow me up. THE WORST MOMENT OF YOUR LIFE SO FAR? Definitely the day my son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. We were living in the USA and he was eight. He’d been listless and hungry for weeks so we knew he was ill but the diagnosis was still a shock because it’s the end of normal childhood, or at least it was in those days when the only way of dealing with it was endless finger sticks to draw blood and injections of insulin. Thankfully – and because of the work of the wonderful JDRF, the type 1 charity – things are better now but it’s still an awful thing to have a child with an incurable condition so that day, the doctor’s visit, the hospital, the realisation that he was very ill, all sticks in my mind. THE WORST PERSON YOU EVER HAD TO INTERVIEW? Radovan Karadžić, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the Balkans conflict. I was a reporter in the Bosnian War and went to their headquarters just outside Sarajevo. I was in a military helicopter flown by Russian mercenaries and Paddy Ashdown was with me for reasons I can’t remember. He was in the Special Forces and lit a cigarette when we landed as even he was scared we were going to be shot down. I just couldn’t pin down Karadžić as he just wouldn’t accept reality. It was unpleasant. The interview was a failure as we didn’t get anywhere. He was very angry and intimidating at times but also very dismissive which I think was even more sinister. YOUR WORST CHARACTERISTIC? I could probably take more care with my work. I wish I’d been less lazy when I was younger. I think you do things better if you take a lot of care with things and I look back on some of the things I’ve done and I think I could have cared about the work a bit more. It’s probably too late to change now. WORST ELEMENT OF MODERN-DAY JOURNALISM? The belief that some journalists have that an asinine, cutting up of news into tiny little slivers is the only way people will understand the news. It’s patronising and condescending. And the truth is actually the opposite. Serious political podcasts, often very long in length, do incredibly well. Journalists patronise everyone if we try to make everything simple and short. Because life isn’t simple and short and we shouldn’t be going down that route. I definitely think the BBC has to avoid that tactic as there is such a hunger among audiences for having issues chewed through properly and in depth. THE ABSOLUTE WORST The phrase “see it, say it, sort it” that you always hear on tannoy announcements about safety on the London Underground. It makes absolutely no grammatical sense, it’s utterly inane and it just doesn’t work on any level. I’ve always wanted to bring this up with various transport ministers but something more important always seems to be at hand. It’s just an absolute atrocity of language isn’t it?” “The Gift Of A Radio” by Justin Webb is published by Doubleday and is released on Feb 2 (£11.99)