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Justin Webb on watching his estranged father on the news

BY Rob Crossan

16th Aug 2023 Celebrities

Justin Webb on watching his estranged father on the news

BBC Radio 4 presenter Justin Webb remembers a life shaped by the news, from listening to the radio as a child to reporting in America and Afghanistan

Growing up with the news

My earliest memory is being told who my father was. Mum and I were watching children’s TV when the news came on presented by the 1970s newsreader Peter Woods. “That’s your father,” she said. Then she left the room to make tea.

We never spoke about him again and I never met him. I never questioned it and I still don’t. There was a slight tinge of regret when I was working on my memoir, and I had to write the words, "We never met", but really I’m so glad we didn’t meet. It wouldn’t have been good for him or his family.

I was a solitary child—I spent hours in my childhood home in Bath listening to the radio that I was given for my 11th birthday. It opened up the world and gave me an insight into the news of the 1970s as I grew up during that decade: strikes and IRA bombs and the Cold War. I loved it. I wanted to be part of the world.

My happiest memories are of coach trips when I was young. We would go on day trips from Bath, and Mum and I would escape from an unhappy home for a day by the sea or in London, or just travelling along. I wanted more than anything to be a coach driver.

"I spent hours in my childhood home in Bath listening to the radio that I was given for my 11th birthday"

I went to a Quaker boarding school in Somerset where we grew our hair and smoked cannabis and failed exams. I feel lucky to have escaped in the end and scraped into university.

I travelled around Europe as a student and was almost killed in a coach accident in Yugoslavia. One poor chap was crushed to death when we came off the road. I carried on by train. In the photographs I look confident but I think the shock was profound.

Justin Webb and friends at Quaker schoolAfter a slacker start at school, Justin Webb scraped his way into university

Life was tougher in the 1970s but also, for children, simpler. I remember when I needed some money to buy my first LP (it was by the Scottish singer Frankie Miller), I worked for an afternoon picking potatoes in a local field.

At the end of the day I think I got a few quid and took it straight to the record shop.   And then got the bus home with the record in a bag. Very satisfying!

Becoming a globetrotting news reporter

Before I went to university I made a trip to New York—which in the 1970s was properly grungy and dangerous. There were bus tours to go and see the worst parts of the city in which tourists were thought to be safe.

Much of New York was a kind of bomb site in that time; huge burned out buildings dominated the landscape in the poorer parts, as people deliberately set fire to property in order to claim the insurance. It all made a big impression on a boy who had not often left the city of Bath; terrifying and thrilling at the same time.

One of the happiest days of my life was getting onto the BBC training scheme at the age of 23 and meeting my dear friend Jeremy Bowen. We thought we had the world at our feet and, in those days, BBC trainees were indeed hugely privileged.

We both knew we wanted to be in front of microphones and making a splash. In our own way, I suppose we have.

"We lived under the shadow of talk of the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein"

Years later I found myself in Saudi Arabia the day that US-led forces re-took Kuwait. The whole experience was strange. We lived under the shadow of talk of the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein. We wore these weird "nuclear biological and chemical" suits that were completely sealed in, but the training we had was rudimentary at best.

In the event of having to use them in a panic, there is no question in my mind that we would all have perished, probably strangling ourselves on the cuffs and fasteners long before any chemical took effect.

I remember that we got into unarmoured cars and simply followed the tanks over the sand dunes. I am not sure health and safety would have been keen but we survived it.

Justin Webb reporting on Gulf warJustin Webb spent time reporting on the Gulf war as a fledgling news reporter

Presenting the BBC's flagship news segments

I presented BBC1’s Breakfast News programme in the 1990s and I disliked it, mainly because I wasn’t any good at it. I struggled with that easy manner in front of a camera, like Bill Turnbull and Jill Dando had. Clive Myrie is brilliant at it but I just felt a distance between me and the camera.

Some days it was me and Andrew Harvey doing the show and so there wasn’t even that sexual chemistry—or even a bromance between us, although he is a very lovely guy. I just didn’t enjoy any aspect of it at all.

"I loved going to the White House and living in what seemed like a film set"

I was based in America during the period after the attacks of 9/11. It was a huge thrill to be there and to report on such a momentous time in US history. My young children grew up there and we still have a huge love for the nation and the American people. I loved going to the White House and living in what seemed like a film set.

I remember, from my years of presenting the Today programme with John Humphrys that his dream was always to interview Her Majesty. I’d have loved to have interviewed her too, of course.

But John also did say that, no matter how many times he asked the Palace, he thought how very wise she was to say no! She did the right thing but God, it would have been fascinating to hear John and the Queen together, wouldn’t it?

Justin Webb interviewing someone on BBC radioJustin Webb hit his stride as a presenter on BBC 1's Breakfast News programme and BBC Radio 4's Today show

Coping with the rigours of the job

I decided a few years ago to build an eco-pod in my garden. I built it to sleep in when I do the Today programme.

I didn’t want to be the ogre father who demanded the rest of the house and my children, when they were growing up, had to be silent after 8pm as "Dad is sleeping", so I decided to start taking myself down to the pod to sleep—and I still do!

I’ve recently published my autobiography, which tells my story of the 1970s and my early life. It's not about journalism—there are far too many books written about our craft, in my opinion—but more about the psychology of coping and the need for resilience and humour in all of life.

It's dedicated to my step-father, who was deeply mentally ill and led a pretty awful life, and to my mum, who loved me with fierce determination and who was always confident that, somehow, I would be OK.

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