Breakfast, diabetes research, and the right to make bad jokes

'The Today Programme will survive John Humphrys leaving but will we all survive the death of the right to make poor jokes?'

Justin Webb

A man comes up to me in the park and asks, “How much are you being paid to write all these nice pieces about John Humphrys?” Quite a lot, I reply. He looks crestfallen. It’s odd how people think journalists work for free. The woke-est of folk are keen to get behind paywalls and steal material. They’d squeal blue murder if I nicked the Rugby Paper from the local newsagent while they were leafing through Vanity Fair. I blame journalists’ sanctimony about our trade. It’s socially useful when it’s done well, can provide entertainment and enlightenment, and is a Good Thing—but it’s a job, not a calling.


My son Sam has just started his creative writing course at the University of East Anglia. Now that is a calling. He wants to write for a living, but not reportage—proper hard stuff: novels and poetry. We drop him in Norwich, which is as lovely a city as people in the know have long told me. Apparently they invented pedestrianisation there. It’s a source of great family pride that Sam is at East Anglia; my cousin Gregory Woods, a homoerotic poet of great standing (Google him!), was there 50 years ago just after the MA course began. I hope Sam manages to publish. And to make enough money to eat.


On the subject of Sam, I was probably in a small minority of people excited by—no: thrilled by—a recent headline in a specialist paper. “Artificial Pancreas Devices System Market: Soaring Demand Assures Motivated Revenue Share During 2019-2026,” it read. Sam has type one diabetes—the ghastly auto-immune condition that Theresa May contracted late in life, but generally begins in people in their early years, often blighting lives and causing early deaths. It can be much ameliorated by inventions like the artificial pancreas, which happen because of investors’ desire to make a buck. It strikes me as simply bizarre that among some groups—environmentalists in particular—the idea of economic growth has become anathema. It’s dotty. And it hurts my son.


Who would have thought that Mishal Husain sipping coffee would make such compelling TV? But it does. When we do our outside broadcasts from universities, one of the features that hugely engages the people who come in at 5.30 am to see the programme go out is the presence of at least one giant screen on which all the comings and goings in the studio in London can be viewed. Aha, Dominic is late with his business news and looks flustered! Gary is giggling! Nick is gesticulating! At Liverpool a few days ago they loved it all. Why? Because radio is ramshackle. It ebbs and flows and people chip in and then leave. It looks like it is: structured but free-flowing. It has none of the staged formality of TV. None of its artifice. Radio is warm and people’s eyes light up when they see it.

John still texts, by the way, during the programme. On the first day after he had left he threatened to go to Radio Three. I won’t say why but something had not been asked that should have been. He has turned, in other words, into a proper Today programme listener, annoyed with it all but not quite enough to leave.

I fear we have lost the Bristol Cyclists’ Twitter writing team though: a joke I made about a racing bicycle going very fast—just like cyclists through red lights in London I said – did not pass the tight lycra test. “Hate,” is how they characterised it. Today will survive John leaving but will we all survive the death of the right to make poor jokes?


The alternative to listening, of course, is not listening. Never engaging with ideas you dislike. And plenty of people—not exclusively young but worryingly over-represented among 20 somethings—seem to think that’s the way to go. Janice Turner of The Times and I have been judging the latest entries for the Today Student Journalism awards. Entries feature strong reporting and writing on a range of subjects. But one student paper has plainly faced a backlash after publishing a piece entitled “Trump: wrongly portrayed?”

What caught my eye in the editor’s pained explanation was that the complaints were not arguing about the piece’s flawed logic, but about her right to publish it. How dare she! Burn the heretics and spike their words. Ghastly.


“See it, say it, sorted.” Passengers on the old sleeper to Scotland did indeed see that their carriages were ancient. They said it. And now it has been half sorted. The new train we went on the other day from Euston to Edinburgh was super-comfy although not sized for fatties. Which is perhaps why the breakfast—such an important part of night-train travel—was just a mess. The carriage is too cramped and they run out of food. The staff are wonderful and the views unbeatable but the whole thing is run in a kind of surprised way: “Gosh, you want breakfast?” “What, now?”

At least we didn’t get turfed out onto a replacement bus which happened to one train-load earlier in the year. But we did fly home, just to be sure.

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