The Student sat down with Carrie Gracie, former BBC China Editor and current BBC News presenter to talk about her life as a journalist and the experience of covering China’s biggest stories. Her recently published book ‘Equal: A Story of Women, Men and Money’ is partly a memoir of her battle with the BBC over gender pay discrimination, and partly a manifesto on how we can all work towards pay equality and transparency in our workplaces.
While publicising your book, how did it feel being on the other side of an interview as a trained journalist?
I found it challenging being on the other side. Partly that’s about control. The person asking the questions and writing the piece has a lot more control of the story, and because I am a control freak and a perfectionist about how certain stories are told… I found it hard to let someone else be in charge! But eventually I got used to letting go and accepting that other journalists might have a fresh perspective and a useful point of view.
Did the job of foreign correspondent turn out to be what you expected? Was there anything surprising about the job?
I think foreign correspondents are often paddling beneath the surface a lot harder than readers/viewers/listeners might imagine….particularly in broadcast journalism. It is very hard to fight for the resources (time, money, production support) to do good work. On any given day, it can be hard to convince editors to run TV or radio pieces on an overfull flagship bulletin or a front page dominated by Brexit, Trump etc.
In a country like China with very severe authoritarian information control, it can also be hard to resist censorship pressure as it operates not just in obvious ways through surveillance and police or vigilante harassment, but also through insidious forms of intimidation. I think most foreign correspondents would also say it’s often really hard to find out what is really going on… as opposed to what the government says is going on.
What was the most important story you covered in all your years as a journalist in China?
In a country like China, often the most important stories are not big dramas or choreographed set-pieces but the infinitesimal incremental changes that transform lives for hundreds of millions but which don’t punch through as a news headline on any given day.
My most important story was one I followed for ten years…the transformation of a rural community in southwest China as their village was razed to make way for a city. I shadowed three families through the ups and downs and everything that happened was a revelation to them most of all, but also to me and to BBC viewers, and then to the Emmy and Peabody judges who awarded that White Horse Village series prizes for visual journalism.
What was the most ridiculous thing you ever had to do as a journalist?
We’d be here all day if I listed all the ridiculous things I have done. One notable ridiculous thing was doing the first live BBC broadcast from the back of a racehorse at Cheltenham. At least we were racing on the flat not over the jumps, but it was hard not to swear in terror and I wish I’d remembered to pull my goggles down off the top of my helmet as I kept getting hit in the face with great clods of turf thrown up by the thundering hooves of the horses in front.
In 2009 you caused a stir when you revealed your salary to the labour peer Lord Foulkes when interviewing him about the MPs expenses scandal. Looking back, would you do the same again? How did your employer, the BBC, react?
100% I would do it again. I believe in pay transparency. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. BBC journalists shouldn’t ask questions of others in public life that they’re not prepared to answer themselves. Some senior bosses found it awkward that I declared my salary on air, though they didn’t really feel able to take me to task as pay is a personal disclosure. Also they weren’t in a strong position. When one did try to remonstrate, I pointed out that the real sensitivity was not me declaring my salary on air but their ‘can of worms’ on pay. My immediate boss found the incident funny and said that knowing me, he wouldn’t have expected me to do anything else.
How do you deal with interviewing people who get angry and avoid answering the question?
It depends. Sometimes interviewees express anger as a way of intimidating the interviewer from asking the tough question. In that case, it’s important to stay calm, stay polite, but make it clear you expect an answer. Occasionally interviewees get angry because you’ve asked a question in a blundering, tactless or even unfair way. In those circumstances it’s only right to apologise and rephrase.
In 2012, you returned to presenting BBC news after losing your hair from treatment for breast cancer, what was that experience like?
I found this easy. Hair loss from cancer treatment is something many people have to go through. Putting reality on TV is generally a good thing to break taboos. On that first day back on live TV news after cancer treatment, the thing I found hard was the messages of support and sympathy that poured in from viewers. Their kindness moved me and that made me feel quite emotional. The kindness of strangers can be overwhelming when you’re trying to hold yourself together.
‘Equal: A Story of Women, Men and Money’ is out now, and will be released in paperback in March 2020.
Image: @BBCCarrie via Twitter