RIP Derek Watts – Remembering Carte Blanche’s authentic broadcasting superstar

After more than three decades as the face of the most potent investigative programme on South African television, Derek Watts (74) was among the most recognisable of any face in his homeland. Watts passed away from cancer yesterday morning. Judging by the spontaneous public response, the nation truly appreciated the often courageous work of this gentle giant. For almost 20 years, John Webb had been Watt’s friend, confidant and boss. He shared how the late broadcaster’s authenticity shone through his consistency: Derek was always exactly the same to everyone – either in front of or away from the camera. The Big Boss sure broke the mould after this big fellow was made. – Alec Hogg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview:

  • 00:07 – Introductions
  • 01:06 – John Webb on the outpouring of tributes for the late Derek Watts
  • 02:27 – On Carte Blanche and where Derek fits into it
  • 04:29 – On what Derek would’ve wanted in his honor in the future
  • 06:00 – On Derek passing peacefully
  • 07:04 – On when Derek was last involved with the program
  • 09:21 – The extent of Derek’s involvement with the show Carte Blanche
  • 12:04 – How long did he and Derek work together
  • 14:21 – The tough time that were had together
  • 16:02 – The Carte Blanche ethos
  • 17:39 – On how Derek would have liked to have been remembered
  • 19:13 – Conclusions

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Edited transcript of the interview with John Webb, excecutive producer of Carte Blanche

Alec Hogg: There has been an extraordinary outpouring of affection for the late Derek Watts, who passed away yesterday morning in possibly the best circumstances, surrounded by his family peacefully. Today, we’re talking to his boss, John Webb, the executive producer of Carte Blanche. Hey John, good to be talking to you. As journalists who have been in this industry for a long time, we sometimes forget the importance of our work. But the public’s reaction to Derek’s passing shows how much they care. He was one of the giants, fighting the good fight for decades, and the public seems to really appreciate it.

John Webb: You’re absolutely right, Alec. The team expected a deluge of response given Derek’s popularity, but even we’ve been taken aback by the extent of the emotion. It’s been pleasing to see it come from all quarters of South African society, cutting across boundaries. Politicians, sports stars, the general public, fellow journalists, and even those who never met him have been sharing memories. It’s been great to see, and I hope Derek knew how much he impacted people’s lives.

Alec Hogg: Carte Blanche demonstrates courage every Sunday. How does it work, where does it come together, and what role did Derek play in that?

John Webb: It takes a village, Alec. There are lots of variables to consider, from coming up with stories and concepts to the filming process and ensuring a compelling watch. It’s a challenging but rewarding job, especially in South Africa, where there are so many stories that need to be told. Derek was central to much of the behind-the-scenes work. It was hard to know where the show stopped and Derek began; he was Carte Blanche, and he had a significant impact on what the show became.

Alec Hogg: What would Derek have wanted you to do in his honour?

John Webb: Derek wanted to be authentic, and that unpolished authenticity allowed people to open up to him. The lesson to be garnered from Derek’s work is that we should be our authentic selves and tell stories as honestly and ethically as possible. If a fraction of that rubs off on the rest of us, we’ll all be better journalists, and it’s an important legacy to take forward.

Alec Hogg: We know he died of cancer. Was it peaceful at the end?

John Webb: I spoke to his wife Belinda, and she said it was his decision that he felt it was time to go. He was surrounded by his loved ones, and he went peacefully, which gives us some comfort.

Alec Hogg: When was he last involved with the programme?

John Webb: Derek’s last story with us was towards the end of last year, after he had informed us of his diagnosis. He continued working as hard as ever, but the sepsis infection was a setback. Even then, recovering at home, he would continue sending messages of support. That was true right up until the end.

Alec Hogg: It seems Derek’s purpose, in many respects, was Carte Blanche. But how does it all get put together? How intimately involved was he in the show?

John Webb: Well, there’s no question that it was very hard to determine where Derek stopped and the show began, and vice versa. He was intrinsically involved in the direction that the show took. So many people associated him with it, and I think he felt it was essential to provide as much constructive and positive input as possible. However, it takes a village, Alec, as you know, to put the stories together – deciding which stories to tell, how best to tell them, and how to turn them into a compelling watch. Derek was intricately involved in this process, very much about motivating for telling the right kinds of stories to ensure that the voices of the disenfranchised were heard. And I think that was one of his greatest strengths.

Alec Hogg: A champion for the underdog?

John Webb: Yes, and it’s a danger that we turn him into a saint. But if you ask anyone who met him, they would say they felt he was fighting for them. And that is an extraordinary attribute.

Alec Hogg: People just loved him; he was incredibly good as an MC. Authentic and loved by people from all walks of life. But how long did you guys work together?

John Webb: I began working with Derek in April of 2004. I first met him at the heavyweight boxing match between Hasim Rahman and Lennox Lewis. He took a genuine interest in what I had to say, and that was true of every interaction he had with anybody. 2004 is when we first met, and it has gone very quickly. Throughout all those years, it has always been a pleasure to be with Derek. I’m going to miss those times.

Alec Hogg: What were some of the tough times you’ve had?

John Webb: There’s no question that the stories he covered impacted him. He had an encyclopaedic memory of the people he interviewed. The story that most impacted him was when he was filming at a zoo in Angola, and a cameraman was attacked by a tiger and killed. Derek saw it happen, and he was traumatised by it.

Alec Hogg: Did you guys have an unlimited budget? Are you able to fly to hotspots?

John Webb: If that was the case, Alex, it’s changed. Budgets have been squeezed, but it was a deliberate strategy to send Derek to cover interesting stories worldwide. He did that in numerous locations, from Mount Everest base camp to covering the Bosnian conflict. Sadly, budgets are tighter now, but we still try to cover interesting stories worldwide, especially those involving South Africans.

Alec Hogg: A full passport, a full life. How do you think he’d like to be remembered?

John Webb: I was thinking about this last night, and he had many lessons to teach us. We need to take seriously the extent to which we carry his legacy forward. That means being good and authentic journalists, listening to people, taking a genuine interest in their stories, and doing everything in our power to do justice to those stories. More than that, I think he would consider his job done if he provided a lesson around what can be achieved in this life by being a decent person. This is what it is.

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