Interviewed by Jo Reynolds

How long have you lived in the area and where are your favourite haunts?

12 years. We love Proud Mary's – the old Humming Bird – and Laveli and Detour. And the sourdough bread from October 26. My husband and son are addicted to the scotch eggs from the Ginger Pig. And my son loves the hanger steaks at Princess Victoria. And the American Hot pizzas at the Oak.

It's terrifying because the world's attention is on you

What made you want to become a foreign correspondent?

My father worked for Cargill, a multi-national grain business, still the largest privately-owned company in the US. We were always moving and I went to school in Nigeria, Tokyo, Melbourne and Geneva. My parents had a great friend called Walter Schwarz, a correspondent for the Guardian and Observer. We would stay in his house outside Paris and I thought, what a great job.

You were Paris correspondent for The Sunday Times when Princess Diana died. With all the rumours that must circle such an event, how do you choose what to follow?

That kind of story is terrifying because the world's attention is on you. The editor said, I want to know everything she did in her last 24 hours and I don't want to read about it in another paper. You have to become a detective. Al-Fahed alleged Diana and his son had been hounded to death so I door stepped the paparazzi and checked their photos for clues. But you also have to deal with the crazies. One guy called up and said he'd been in a car behind Diana and a motorbike had cut them up. I made him drive me through the tunnel over and over but I had a gut feeling his story wasn't right. His wife looked so uncomfortable. I got a friend to run a police check and the guy turned out be a professional witness. I saw him a year later on an ITV documentary telling the same story.

Has the internet and social media improved news reporting?

The trouble is you don't know if any of it is true. The BBC has a big problem with what they call user-generated content because you can’t always tell if it’s genuine. In many ways news reporting has degenerated with the arrival of the internet because consumers want their information for free and newspapers don’t have the resources to spend on reporting.

Do you get stage fright?

Not any more. I was like a bunny in the headlights when I started news reading on Channel 4, but you get used to it. People think news reading is so glamorous but on a day when not much is happening it can be boring. It's just reading aloud.

What was your worst on-air moment?

ITN started a low budget 24-hour news channel on which presenters had to operate their own autocue with a foot pedal. On my first shift, I pressed the pedal down too hard and it shot through the headlines and the lead story before I had read a single word and I couldn’t rewind. The budget was so tight they hadn't even printed off a script. Awful. But the most terrifying was when I was reading the news on BBC World on 7/7 when bombs exploded on the tube. I knew my stepson was on a train that would have gone via Edgware Road and all I wanted to do was stop reading and check he was okay, but I had to stay calm on camera.

Of all your interviewees, did any scare you?

Marianne Faithful shouted at me when I asked her about Mick Jagger. And Israeli defence spokesmen are always very shouty.

Did anyone surprise you, being more or less charming than expected?

Not really. Tony Blair isn't called Teflon Tony for nothing. He was like wrestling with jelly. Tom Hanks was the most charming. Walking down his hotel corridor, he stopped and talked to all the chambermaids. He was like a charismatic politician.

As Front Row airs every weekday, how do you manage to see, hear and read everything you cover?

I feel guilty complaining about my job as it's the best job in the world, but presenting Front Row involves a lot of preparation. It’s the BBC's flagship arts and culture show. Two million people listen across the week so we must see or read everything we review. I'm always ploughing through a 400-page book and I go to the theatre or film screenings up to three nights a week. Sometimes I can watch a web link at home but the studios are so worried about piracy these days they’re reluctant to give out DVDs.

Do you have a favourite medium?

I love theatre. My weak spot is music and dance, but John Wilson was a music journalist. And Samira Ahmed is also brilliant.

Aside from writing, have you any artistic talent?

None at all. I wish I did. I'm quite a good cook, a real foodie.

How should the next generation break in to news or arts reporting?

I came from the generation that did quite well out of journalism, not rich, but we had a comfortable life. Now it's very tough, almost impossible. There is no local journalism any more, so no one holds local councils to account. I remember as a rookie sitting in on council meetings and making local contacts but there aren't the budgets now. My advice, if you're adventurous and want to be a foreign correspondent, is head to a part of the world where there is a story developing and support yourself by teaching English, make some contacts and start selling stories as a freelance.

Do you prefer news or art?

The arts allow you to look at current events through a different lens, to see behind the headlines. I was just in Edinburgh and saw a play by Henry Naylor, Angel, inspired by a female sniper in Kobanî, northern Syria. The way he told her story, you couldn't do that in a news item.

Some see the arts as an elitist luxury. How do you justify spending on the arts?

I'm a trustee of the British Council, which promotes British culture and the English language internationally. We have done studies on the economic impact of the creative industries and the evidence is overwhelming. Think of all the tourism the arts generate. Our theatres are the best in the world, and our museums and galleries, our designers, film crews, TV shows. Think of the cultural diplomacy. The arts are a great advertisement for UK PLC. I suspect the politicians who knock the BBC hardly watch any TV.

Where would be your remaining dream assignment?

Hard news is a job for the young. I'm still a news junkie. I read and watch the news all the time – BBC online, New York Times, FT, Guardian... But as a news correspondent you're on call 24 hours a day. And over the years you get fed up with death and disaster. I have my dream job, which is presenting Front Row.

Who would you still like to interview?

Michelle Obama. And him, I suppose.

Thank you, Kirsty. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.

Interviewed September 2016

Headshot by Teresa Walton ©

to top | home