From the most easterly point of Britain to Westminster - Philip Webster retires after esteemed political journalism career
PUBLISHED: 08:32 16 January 2016 | UPDATED: 08:53 16 January 2016
David Bebber - The Times
Former EDP journalist Philip Webster - described by peers as one of the most well-regarded political journalists of his generation - retired this week after a 43 year career at The Times. Political editor ANNABELLE DICKSON looks back on a career which begun in East Anglia
A phone call from the EDP while backpacking as a teenager in Europe marked the start of Norfolk farmer’s son Philip Webster’s career.
From the highs and lows of district reporting in Suffolk and Norfolk, he has gone on to become a name synonymous with breaking news of some of the most significant political stories of the last few decades.
It was then editor-in-chief Alfred Jenner who he credits with sending him on what was a pioneering full-year journalism course in Harlow, where he met friend Mark Knopfler.
“One of course penned some of the most memorable words of eighties and nineties and became a legend – the other founded Dire Straits,” former Times executive editor Roger Alton joked this week.
After learning the tools of the trades, his career began in Lowestoft. He describes how the agenda was dominated by the early days of North Sea oil exploration, but it was a terrible story of a fisherman who could not be saved after getting stuck on the groynes which lives long in the memory.
More trivially, as Diss reporter he later recalls being chased away with a pitch fork while in search of a potential scoop.
He had read of someone locally who had volunteered to be a midwife for controversial Ulster MP Bernadette Devlin – a catholic – who became pregnant with an illegitimate child.
“The EDP gave me the most terrific grounding in journalism, they gave me the opportunity of one of the very first pioneering full-year journalism courses and three years of proper reporting and a bit of subbing as well. The career that followed I owe it all to the start I got on the EDP,” he said.
But his ambition took him on a path trodden by many from the East to Westminster.
Despite a broken left arm, his audition covering then prime minister Ted Heath against Harold Wilson at Prime Minister’s Question Time secured him a job at The Times.
He joined the gallery team in 1973, reporting proceedings in the House of Commons, House of Lords and with his A-Level French from Wymondham College he was also sent to Luxemburg and Strasbourg to cover the European Parliament.
In 1981 he joined the main lobby press corps for The Times, working his way up to become political editor in 1993 – where he remained in post until 2010.
It was his coverage of the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years that made his name, He had impeccable contacts on both sides of the long-running feud.
“They trusted me. It was a way of handling it. I would never ever breach confidences. I would never tell one what the other side were doing. They would have to find out in the paper. Somehow I trod this delicate tightrope in this long-running war,” he said.
But it was breaking the news that Britain was not going to join the European single currency in 1997 that he was most proud of.
“It was a risky story. It was all down to my interpretation, my reading of what people were saying to me. After I had written it I had to stick to it. I was either going to be very right or very wrong.”
He admits that despite being a “pretty stress-free character”, there were sleepless nights. “As a journalist for The Times you do stick your neck out.”
He also recalls breaking news that the 2001 election was going to be called off amid the foot-and-mouth crisis, having sensed something was going on at the funeral of a colleague attended by New Labour leading lights.
“Rather than going home I drove back to Westminster and I kept making calls and couldn’t get anywhere. But I sensed it. I made one more call. It was very vague but I had to write it.”
His story was confirmed the following day.
This week, after 43 years at the organisation, he was banged out in one of the fine Fleet Street traditions – a throwback to the years when printers whacked the metal benches with their hammers, beating out a ceremonial march to mark the departure of a stalwart.
It was appropriate for someone who started his job in the days of typewriters and ended his career end with a pioneering digital project for The Times.
After leaving the political editor post in 2010, he edited The Times website and his last 18 months on the staff saw him pioneer the Red Box project – a new website and daily briefing with podcasts and analysis which has already attracted 40,000 subscribers in its short life.
But at the age of 66, he decided to go out on a high. He will continue to write for The Times on a casual basis, and play a bit more golf. And of course to support his beloved Norwich City.
Politics will continue to be a big part of his life. He has a seat next to North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb at Carrow Road and former shadow chancellor Ed Balls, now the chairman of the club, is an old friend. Unable to make the leaving party when the Canaries were playing on Wednesday, he sent a shirt signed by the directors, including Delia Smith, and manager Alex Neil.
But with a book chronicling his political reporting career in the pipelines, a quiet retirement is not necessarily on the cards.
There is more to come from the Rockland St Mary boy who has had a front row seat reporting politics for so many decades.