Obituary: David Webster ; Cosmopolitan Ambassador of the BBC

By Grist, John | The Independent (London, England), August 16, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: David Webster ; Cosmopolitan Ambassador of the BBC

Grist, John, The Independent (London, England)

DAVID WEBSTER wore a pin-striped suit at a time when the BBC was rather scruffy. He was an important figure in the corporation, an editor of Panorama, a member of the Board of Management and, latterly, Director, United States. He was a large man, at times larger than life. He was barrel- chested; his neck and shoulders were used by the sculptor Oscar Nemon for his Westminster statue of Winston Churchill and he supported his size by substantial appetites, but he played a useful game of tennis. He had a youthful face with good colour and gave the impression of a cherub when young.

He was born in Taunton, Somerset, in 1931. His mother was a strong Unitarian, a feminist and a pacifist. Webster was a conscientious objector to military service and did his time as a porter in a hospital. He went after school to Ruskin College, Oxford, for a year, chosen apparently for the company of the young radicals, young Africans and others who wanted to change society. He lived for a time in Amsterdam as Secretary of the World Student Federalists.

At the age of 22 Webster joined the BBC as a news trainee and did a series of jobs in the External Service news department until 1959 when he joined Panorama in the Television Talks Department at Lime Grove and his public life took off. Starting as a production assistant, then a producer, he became Deputy Editor in 1966 and Editor a year later. It was at a time when Panorama was still unique and at 8 o'clock on a Monday evening under the comforting command of Richard Dimbleby provided reports, deep analysis and informed commentary for a very large audience. Its subtitle was "A Window on the World".

I have reason to be grateful to Webster because when Jeremy Isaacs left Panorama and the BBC I suddenly and somewhat reluctantly had to take over as Editor, because there was nobody else available at short notice. There was something of a crisis and it took time and patience and not a little energy to coax confidence back into the programme and keep the show running every week. David as my deputy was a tower of strength with his film expertise and his hard work and calm presence. He was essentially a nice man who in an atmosphere of smouldering competition and grumbling egos never put anybody down. Laid-back was his style.

Webster had already done several years' stint "on the road" as a producer literally all over the world - the reporters and crews went anywhere, often at short notice. To me, Webster and others will always be associated with those great Panorama reporters Jim Mossman and Michael Charlton, not forgetting the remarkable cameraman Erik Durschmied, who brought South- East Asia into the sitting rooms of Britain in the years before and during the Vietnam War.

A film trip with Webster would be well organised - he was a congenial companion and very efficient. All reporters remember and applauded his old-fashioned rule, "Go immediately to the top." Robin Day used to do a take-off of Webster arriving in any reasonable-to- good hotel in the world and making three phone calls. The first was to room service for something appropriate to eat and drink, the next call was to the local general in charge or president - "Good morning, Mr President or General. David J. Webster. Panorama, BBC. We will be round in an hour. You will send a car?" The third call was to the office of an American senator thousands of miles away confirming a tennis date.

He must have been born with a book of contacts of the powerful, the successful and the influential. When it was a case of who you knew, Webster was a master. Many in the world of journalism are well travelled but he had something extra; he was a cosmopolitan man from an early age, both urban and urbane. He never could be "a little Englander". In America he blossomed above all. He loved America and thirsted after it and it was where he did much of his best work - and the 1960s was the time to be there.

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