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Justin Webb: oration

Read Professor Peter Lambert's oration on Justin Webb for the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in December 2015.


Chancellor, it is my pleasure to introduce Justin Webb, journalist, author, broadcaster and campaigner who has worked for the BBC in a variety of roles for over twenty years.

Justin grew up in Bath and his early education was at Sidcot School, in North Somerset, one of nine Quaker schools in the UK. Even from a young age it was clear Justin was destined for great things when he secured his position in the school’s history, winning the Dymond Speech competition a record three times - an achievement yet to be matched to this day. Justin went on to read Economics at the LSE, first honing his journalism skills as editor of the student newspaper The Beaver. Justin is married to Sarah and they have three children, twins Martha and Sam and their youngest daughter, Clara.

Justin’s distinguished career began in 1984 working in Belfast as a graduate trainee for BBC Radio Ulster on the programme Good Morning Ulster. Justin then took up a role as a reporter on the BBC Radio Four Today programme before working as a foreign affairs correspondent, covering many significant events around the world including the Gulf War, in Bosnia, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first democratic elections in South Africa.

Justin went on to become a BBC News presenter, becoming accustomed to early morning wake-up calls as the main presenter of BBC One’s Breakfast News from 1992 to 1997. He also presented the BBC’s One O’clock and Six O’clock news bulletins and BBC Radio Four’s The World Tonight. This was followed by three years as the BBC’s European correspondent based in Brussels, reporting on the workings of the European Parliament, the introduction of the single currency and the enlargement of the European Union.

However, the lure of greater things tempted Justin to move to the USA in 2001 to become the BBC’s chief Washington correspondent in a particularly tumultuous period. In December 2007, he became North American Editor for BBC News, a newly created role intended to cover the 2008 US presidential election and one which saw him named political journalist of the year for his coverage of Obama’s campaign.

Justin’s relationship with the US went much further than just journalism, and he has written no less than three widely-acclaimed books on the rich tapestry of life in the USA, taking on the mantle of Alistair Cooke for the 21st century – a kind of Bill Bryson in reverse.

Towards the end of Justin’s time in America, his son Sam, who was eight at the time, was diagnosed with type-one diabetes. In the UK, there are 300,000 sufferers and the number of children under five developing the disease has risen fivefold in the past twenty years. No one knows why. And once it appears, it never leaves. Being diagnosed was a life-changing experience for Sam and the rest of the family and Justin has campaigned to raise awareness and understanding of the disease through interviews, a BBC World Service radio documentary and by raising money for research.

In 2009, Justin returned to the UK and the lure of 3am wake up calls to become a presenter on Radio Four’s flagship Today programme. Nearly seven million people tune into the programme which not only plays an important part in the ‘national conversation’ but is one of the most listened to and loved radio shows in the UK, acclaimed for its analysis of current affairs and its in-depth, probing and sometimes combative interviews.

More locally, Justin was named as the inaugural patron of Bath Rugby Foundation in 2014 and was a panel member at this year’s Bath Literature Festival, debating the topic of the American Dream.

Chancellor, I present to you Justin Webb, who is eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

Professor Peter Lambert

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