In the dark and bleary hours of Thursday morning, BBC Four’s radio show the Today Programme broadcasted live from Eldon Building, with journalist and presenter Justin Webb taking the spotlight.
He describes the Today Programme as an important part of the way that Britain runs. “It’s been, for the last fifty or sixty years or so, within an important part of the way that the nation wakes up and thinks about itself.” Today is well-known for its talks on the UK’s politics, closely following the news on Brexit as the UK prepares to leave the EU. “To listen to the Today Programme, almost by definition, you’re interested in the way things are run,” Justin explains. “You want be part of the conversation. And I think that’s an incredibly important part of it.”
But, with this focus on Brexit and news, why universities? “University life at the moment is really, really central to the life of the nation,” Justin points out. “We’ve got this really important review into the funding of higher education in England and Wales coming up. […] A big question asked about [is] whether universities are worth the money. We know that there are big question marks about people’s freedom in universities to show what they like, and to hear the speakers that they want to hear.” Although I didn’t know it at the time, he is, of course, referring to Peter Hitchens who took to Today to accuse Portsmouth of censorship, when the student union tried to rearrange the talk that clashed with LGBT week at the university.
In 1984 Justin joined the BBC as a graduate trainee, working in Northern Ireland for Belfast’s BBC Radio Ulster. After that he worked as a foreign affairs correspondent covering news from all over the world. For him, the most exciting part of journalism is the unpredictability— you never quite know where you’re going. You might wake up in one country, and fall asleep in another. He’s never wanted a 9 to 5 job. “It’s a privileged thing in a way— you just get to see things and experience things that most people never do and that’s what I’ve always enjoyed about it.”
Justin spent eight years of his life living in the states as the BBC America Editor, where he kept a blog, and interviewed presidents and other famous people, including Barack Obama after he’d only just been sworn in. “There was just a weight of expectation on his shoulders and it was fascinating to see him close up.”
“When you talk to people like that you realise how raw life is, and how tough it is for people.”
But for those looking to get into journalism, Justin says that the glitz and the glam side of things isn’t all that interesting — or not as interesting as you think it would be. “The most interesting people are not always politicians, not well-known people at all, but just people that are dealing with daily lives.” He goes on to talk about a woman he interviewed recently with cystic fibrosis — a hereditary condition that damages the lungs and the digestive system — who’s hoping for the government to give her a grant. “When you talk to people like that you realise how raw life is, and how tough it is for people. And if you can, in a way, help them get their case across, that feels like a good day at the office.”
That being said, if Justin had to pick the most surprising person he interviewed, it would have to be Keith Richards, from the band Rolling Stones. He’d expected him to be a little stuck up, or to have written a book just for publicity, but as it turned out, he was “such a nice guy”. “You’d think he wouldn’t be that interesting. But he was absolutely charming. He’d listened to the Today Programme, and when the phone line went down, he rang me back.”
Journalism is never smooth or easy. The majority of the time you don’t know how long you’re going to get, or what the interviewee will be like. A lot of the time you have to think under pressure. So is there any question Justin immediately regretted asking? “Definitely,” he admits. “I once asked David Blunkett — the famous, blind, former Labour home secretary whether he could see me, because we were doing a TV thing and we had a lot of trouble with the sound. So I said ‘Mr Blunkett, can you see and hear me okay?’ and he said, ‘I can’t see you but it’d be quite a miracle if I could.’”
“But what can you do if that happens?” Justin laughs. “Just pretend nothing’s happened. As always in broadcasting. After all, that’s the great thing about broadcasting. If no-one dies, it’s not the end of the world. If you cock it up, you just live to fight another day.”
Every aspiring writer or journalist is told that you should be putting yourself out there. We’re told you should be writing, talking, and starting a blog. But with the thousands of people out there doing exactly the same as you, how do you stand out from the crowd? “Actually, we face it in the BBC,” he admits. “One of the ways is to be shouty-er than everyone else. More aggressive than everyone else. But the other way, and I think the better way, is just to be better than everyone else. To write cleverer things. It’s more difficult to be genuinely impartial and investigative in your approach to life, and go where the evidence takes you. You know, I actually think people who do that well increasingly will stand out. And the shouty brigade, we’ll get a bit sick of.”
And finally, is there one piece of advice he absolutely lives by? Justin is quick to answer. “Yes! [It would] probably be this, actually: Journalism is important, and it does matter, but don’t take yourself too seriously when you’re doing it. That was a piece of advice that I think John Humphreys gave me, actually, years ago. We tend to, sometimes as journalists, take it all too seriously, and take ourselves too seriously. I think you’ve got to accept that journalism has got to have a bit of a smile on its face as well.”