Today, one of the greatest political journalists of my lifetime retires: Phil Webster, former political editor of The Times, is leaving the newspaper after 43 years. He has been overseeing its online political coverage for the last few years and (until a few days ago) getting up at the crack of dawn to write its morning political email. Now, he has finally called it a day. It’s the end of an era.
When I joined the staff of The Times in the mid-90s, as a business reporter, I used to dream of being in Phil’s team (as did most young reporters that I knew). The closest I ever came was being made Scottish political correspondent – which, admittedly, is not very close. Only when I joined The Scotsman and went to work on its Westminster desk did I get to see Phil at work at close - well, closer - quarters.
The parliamentary press gallery was, then, a strange hierarchical place where twentysomethings from the regional press were usually ignored by Fleet St political editors. Even getting a response from a ‘good morning’ was tough. But not from Phil: he was always friendly, welcoming and hugely encouraging: he always had time for young journalists.
I once went on a press trip with him, when Blair was in the habit of jetting around the world trying to drum up support for the Iraq war. During the flight I spent ages on my laptop, fretting about how to report it all, writing draft after draft, making edit after edit. I was sitting across the aisle from Phil, who was reading a novel. When the plane landed, he switched on his mobile and started to dictate a story from the top of his head, glancing at his notebook only to read out quotes, which he had written in his Pitman shorthand (his was the fastest in the lobby).
That’s the kind of professional he is: a political journalist of the old school, but one who spent his sixties leading his newspaper’s leap into digital political journalism. A complete all-rounder who kept good contacts with every faction of every political party to make sure his readers never missed a story. And an inspiration - to me, and a whole generation of young political journalists.