Justin Webb: 'If you are offered a job presenting 'Today' you don't turn it down'

The BBC's North America editor tells Ian Burrell why he leapt at the chance to join Radio 4's flagship programme
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The Independent Online

When the BBC's Justin Webb crossed the Atlantic to take up his new Washington-based post in 2001, he did so primarily because he and his wife, Sarah, hankered for a sunnier climate in which to raise their children.

After more than seven years, the family's Stateside adventure is coming to an end but Webb has been transformed into a tub-thumping supporter of the American values, regardless of whether Barack Obama is in the White House.

"We will ache for some aspects of America, the space, the vistas – both real and intellectual – the openness. Europe is more crowded and more rooted in the past and that's a different way of living, not a better way or a worse way, but a different one," says the BBC's North America editor. "But I'm coming back because, to be honest, if you are offered a job presenting Today you don't turn it down."

Webb, who worked as a correspondent for the Radio 4 flagship programme early in his career, will rejoin Today as a presenter in October, replacing Ed Stourton and joining up with his old friends John Humphrys and James Naughtie. Mark Mardell replaces him as North America Editor.

He is sat in a cafe in Paddington railway station, west London, fresh off a plane from Heathrow on a fleeting visit to Britain. Before he returns to this country on a permanent basis he is anxious to further propagate his message that America is a country misunderstood. "People's view of America tends to be that it's a place dominated by lazy, over-eating, ill-educated people and there are many who fit that description, but they don't drive America and they didn't drive America even before Obama," he says.

"The failing was in us, perhaps, rather than the Americans, because all we could see was George Bush or fat people in Kansas, whereas America is full of lanky mixed-race law professors. If you want to look at America, go to Northern Virginia or San Antonio, Texas, and look at the openness to immigration and who Americans are. They are likely to be mixed race, they are likely to be a Korean married to a Bosnian or someone from China married to a Croatian, there's this amazing mix of people."

Webb's exasperation at crude "Anti-Americanism" is outlined in his book Have a Nice Day, A Journey Through Obama's America in which he argues passionately that readers should consider America's success to be in all of our interests. ("Hating America damages America and damages us as well".) Having caused a storm of controversy in 2006 by suggesting that the BBC itself reported America with "scorn and derision", Webb criticises the British media, from campaigners against the Americanisation of children's television to the left-wing investigative journalist John Pilger, and says "American TV is, whisper it softly, much better than the British variety in many respects". The BBC's global news channel, he argues, would not have existed without CNN.

Some of these views could be shared within Obama's White House. "I think it's fair to say that the White House doesn't have a high opinion of the British press," says Webb, 48, over an espresso. "They have enormous respect for individual journalists and for individual British organs, I hope for the BBC and certainly for the Financial Times which I think has quite a privileged status in the Obama White House – he reads it. They understand the difference between the British government and the British media, but their view is that the British media trivialises the relationship between Britain and the US."

Webb visits the White House several times a week and should know what he's talking about. But the BBC has yet to be given an interview by the new President. "He's only done Al Arabiya and Canadian TV when he was in Canada," he says. "I'm perfectly confident that he will talk to the BBC at some stage, I think they understand the reach of the BBC and particularly the reach to areas they're interested in – Afghanistan, the Indian sub-continent."

The BBC man is frustrated that he has been unable to find an American publisher for his book, with New York publishers doubting the notion that "Anti-Americanism" exists any more. "From their point of view, from their miserably wizened perspective they think that Barack Obama has been elected so the rest of the world will love us. It's disappointing not to be on sale in America."

Webb, although he believes the BBC no longer treats America with scorn ("I think overall we are pretty fair to the place now,") is aware of the risks of becoming swept away by Obamania. He argues that no reader of his popular blog, Justin Webb's America, in which he recently took a dispassionate view of Obama's first 100 days, weighing negatives evenly with positives, could regard him as "an Obama fellow traveller".

That blog has got him into further hot water, most notably over the language he used to criticise the Republican vice-presidential candidate. "I'm rude about quite a lot of people, I was very rude about Sarah Palin which upset some people. I just thought she was a hopeless candidate at that time in American history and I said so on the blog. Is that acceptable? I think probably on balance it is but you have to be careful," he says.

"Blogging is ... a difficult area because you can get carried away. I firmly believe in impartiality – I think it's a good and decent and noble and achievable aim the BBC has. But when you're in blogs you've also got to be a little bit edgy because otherwise it will be dull beyond belief. It's a difficult balance."

Broadcasting to the Today audience will be another difficult balance. Webb, who was a BBC trainee, has loved working in radio since he started out on BBC Radio Ulster as an attempt to fast-track his career in the era before the Anglo-Irish Agreement. That the medium has thrived, in spite of predictions, he says is "partly because people cry out for something serious which isn't always provided on TV".

He has plenty of experience of early starts to his working day, having for five years presented BBC1's Breakfast News. He didn't enjoy it much. "The thing was, I wasn't very good at it. As you get older you develop, even in our profession, a self-awareness. I don't think I was cut out to be a TV personality, I couldn't be bothered with it. I don't think I ever really did breakfast TV whole-heartedly and I think it probably showed," he says. "It's so strange that it hasn't taken off here compared with America. In America, The Today Show (on NBC) ... they are huge stars, it's a money-spinner and everyone watches it."

Webb, who frequently broadcasts from America on Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent will work on a radio programme which he describes as "part of British life" and is confident the experience will be very different from his early mornings on television.

"I suppose with breakfast TV you are skating the surface with a jolly smile and that's a real skill, it's not something anyone can do and I take my hat off to people who do it really well," he says. "Whereas radio is just more about the life of the mind and to be honest that just interests me more – it's really as simple as that."

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