Rhona McLeod: interview with award-winning sports journalist

Can you tell me a bit about your sporting background and how that led you into journalism?

I was a junior and then senior international athlete, and I’d been competing in hurdles and long jump and I always loved being in a sporting environment. When I went to university I studied Media and French and then when I graduated I was lucky enough to go straight into the BBC as a researcher, not initially in sport, but I just naturally gravitated towards the sports department and them towards me because they knew about my interest and my enthusiasm. Then, I started to work with BBC Scotland Sport, and I stayed there for 24 years.

Do you think that the fact that you were a professional athlete helped you and incited your attitude to reporting about sports?

I think it absolutely did, if I hadn’t had the background in sport that I had I don’t’ think I would’ve felt so comfortable in that environment, especially because the majority of sports media at that time was around male professional football. I think for a lot of women that could have been quite an intimidating environment, but I had always been around guys playing sport and so I felt very comfortable.

I knew what it was like to be a competing athlete, to have success, to have disappointment, to have injury, to have rehab, the only difference was that they got paid and I didn’t. But I think it gave me credibility and a lot of confidence, and I gained respect from the people I was interviewing, because they knew that I had also achieved in sport at a high level.

What have been some of your personal highlights of your career?

‘The first Commonwealth Games that I went to was in 1998, in Kuala Lumpur, and that was my first taste of a major multi-sport games, it was in somewhere foreign, and it was just fantastic. I’ve done a total of five Commonwealth Games since, but the first one I think was just special because it was all so new.
Then latterly, now that I coach athletics, and my daughters are involved in athletics, I personally know a lot of the athletes, so its really exciting to go to major competitions and to see them do well. Its definitely taken a more personal slant, the older and the more experienced I’ve become, but in the beginning it was just the chance to be at a big event.

I was also there when Katherine Grainger won her gold at London 2012. You definitely get caught up in the emotion of the moment, when you can see clearly how much it means to these people. I have to say the majority of the athletes are such lovely people and so you just want to share in their excitement and their success.

Are there some areas of sports broadcasting that you think need to evolve in the future?

This is interesting because just this week the World Health Organisation put out a report which was saying that 75 per cent of boys, and 85 per cent of girls are not doing enough physical activity every week. I feel that we need to be putting on more young, talented athletes, and trying to cover the sports that young people are actually taking part in. Its coming away from male professional football, which actually only a tiny number of people do, and showing much more of all the sports that you, and I, and my children can realistically become involved with and be inspired by, in seeing people just like themselves.

I definitely think we need to make efforts to get a wider spectrum of sports on television, and a much wider range of ages and stages of sport, and not just on television but on social media. I was just filming with Scottish Swimming at one of their regional events, and it was great, I interviewed kids from 11 to 18, and they were far more articulate and genuine, and committed to their sports than many of the professional footballers that I’ve interviewed.

So if I in a small way, can try to engage the general public in different sports, and let them see it can be interesting, it can be entertaining, and that you can want to root for these young athletes or swimmers. People just need to open their minds to what they perceive sports broadcasting to be, it takes a change in culture, and unfortunately Scotland is very closed minded in terms of what the majority of people think sport is.

Now that you are running your own media business, how is it different working for yourself
than it was working for the BBC? Are you able to do more of what you enjoy or have more variety?

I am absolutely able do much more of what I enjoy, I’m fortunate that I’ve been invited to take part in a lot of projects and a lot of work, and I can choose to go in the direction I want to, and the things that I support. When I worked for BBC Scotland Sports news, I really just had to cover the stories that came up on a daily basis that our editors thought were newsworthy, and they weren’t really things that interested me at all. I felt so many of them were focused on negativity, the politics side of sport, or the unsavoury side of sport, rather than the celebration of sport. I am much more interested in the celebration of sport because the benefits are absolutely massive to our society, both physically and mentally.

It was just so disappointing to me that, that side of things was being ignored in favour of putting a more negative or scandalous swerve on it, so in the end I just thought I’m in the wrong movie here, this is not what I want to do.

I wouldn’t change anything, I had an amazing career in the BBC and I absolutely loved 90 per cent of what I was doing, but I was there for 24 years and I just felt I had nowhere to go and nowhere to grow.

I wouldn’t be in such a good position now if I hadn’t had so much experience, and the credibility of working in the BBC. In the day to day experiences I learnt so much, I had to think on my feet and a lot of it was high pressure, and it was good exposure. All of that put me in an excellent position to now go freelance.

The BBC has given me so much, but for me at this stage of my career it was a good time to step away, and I now have the luxury of really being able to pursue what I want to do.

In the future are there things you’d love to cover or people you’d like to interview?

I do love a good sit down interview, and I would like to be able to do more of those. Now the issue is finding somewhere to put those interviews because I’m no longer employed by the BBC. I’m still at a very early stage of my business where I’m finding my feet, but I think quite soon I might be able to do some interviews like that. I’m also very interested in documentaries, so I’ve been speaking to some people about collaborating to do some sports documentaries.

I’m going off to the Youth Winter Olympic games in January in Lausanne with OBS, and then the Olympic Games in Tokyo, again for OBS. I’m covering the athletics, which for me as a former athlete is an absolute privilege. I love the fact that I can do a variety of work. It just so lovely being my own boss, rather than someone telling me to go cover some football story that I just really don’t care about.

Is athletics your favourite thing to cover?

I do enjoy covering all sports, but I suppose athletics is the sport that I can just sink right back into, and because I have a technical awareness of that sport, much more than any of the other sports, then I can get stuck into it as a fan as well as a journalist.

Is there one piece of advice that you would give to aspiring journalists?

Everybody starting out needs a good mentor, or a good teaching environment to work in. Somewhere with many experienced journalists who can show you the trade, that’s what I did at the BBC. But your generation has an advantage, because of the online platform, there are so many places you can put your journalism out to in your own name, you don’t need to put it out under a paper.

Be active, be brave, ask people for interviews, people are normally happy to help. Use your connections, use things you have in common with the people that you want to interview. Do a lot of research about the person beforehand and know what to say to encourage them to speak to you.

 

Image: via McLeod Media

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