ANNITA ‘It’s so hard to see your mum deteriorate in that way ...’
Co Armagh-born Annita McVeigh, a presenter on the BBC News channel, talks to Una Brankin about her career, the sorrow at leaving home and losing her mum May to dementia
She is instantly recognisable to anyone who prefers the more sedate BBC News channel to the brasher Sky for their round-the-clock news fix. And you might even remember that still youthful face from her early reporting days in BBC Northern Ireland in the mid to late 1990s, or from reading the pretend news on the BBC spy series Spooks.
But if the casual viewer happened to channel-hop onto Annita McVeigh’s morning presentation slot, they’d be hard-pressed to guess where she is from.
Co Armagh born and reared, the journalist’s speaking voice has been moulded to the received pronunciation of most BBC HQ broadcasters over the course of her 15 years working in London.
Along with her cool, assured demeanour on air, the Queen’s University graduate’s presentation skills are up there with the best of British broadcasters — her fellow Ulsterwomen Maxine Mawhinney and Kathy Clugson included.
As a contributor to the popular Slugger O’Toole online blog commented in a thread on local twangs in the London media: “Mr Colin Murray has the kinda Ulster accent which makes even the most benign statement seem like a threat. Whereas the truly wonderful Ms Annita McVeigh on the BBC News channel can make the worst news seem wonderful.”
Off-air you can hear a tinge of Dungannon when Ms McVeigh comes to the phone, straight from her morning shift. With the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, and the horrific Grenfell Tower fire, her job has been particularly crucial and challenging of late.
Annita was in Scotland to report on the SNP manifesto, when she woke up to the news of the Manchester arena bombing where American singer Ariana Grande (below) was performing. She was dispatched to report from the One Love benefit concert the following week. “The day before the bombing, I’d seen on Facebook that my friend’s 12-year-old daughter and her best friend were going to their first ever concert, to see Ariana Grande,” she says. “I phoned immediately to see if they were okay — they had been in the arena when the bomb detonated and very quickly made their way in the opposite direction. They were very shaken but were fine , thank God. “They spotted me outside the Old Trafford ground when I was reporting from the One Love concert and we had a big hug. It was so lovely to see them after what had happened.
“My 11-year-old daughter is a fan of Ariana Grande — she watched all her TV series, and that really brought it home to me.”
As a mother of two – she is married to BBC manager Martin Reid – Annita believes it helps children process what’s going on around them by talking to them about terrible events as they unfold.
“I think it is important to teach them how to understand events and the reasons,” she says.
“Newsround did a little film about Manchester. We were watching the coverage and my nine-year old son was very sweet — he just bowed his head at one point and said, ‘Mum, I’m just thinking about the people who died’, even though he didn’t know them.’
“My parents always encouraged me to watch news programmes. Obvious- ly, some coverage isn’t suitable for kids but Newsround does a good job.”
An only child, Annita grew up in the 1970 and 1980s on a farm on the outskirts of Armagh and went to school in Dungannon.
The conflict in mid-Ulster didn’t directly impact the McVeigh family, but her mother had a lucky escape one night when she was driving home and was forced to mount a grass verge to get around a van parked outside the local police station. Moments later, the van exploded.
Although she helped on the farm, Annita’s parents — Gerry and May — wanted to see her go far in the world, and enrolled her in elocution, singing and drama lessons.
“My mother was very keen for me to get out and try all sorts of activities,” she recalls. “Speech and drama definitely helped me with public speaking and gave me confidence.
I’m very thankful for how I was raised by mum and dad
We always watched the news — Sandy Gall, remember him? Fantastic man. I met him when I was at Queen’s and he was over doing a book signing, and he wished me well.
“So yes, I’m hugely thankful to my parents for the way they brought me up,” she adds.
“They taught me that it didn’t matter what religion a person was, or the colour of their skin. There was a girl in my school whose father was shot, and the same thing happened to another girl I knew — both men were killed.
“I did know from a young age that I wanted to be involved in telling those stories; the idea caught my imagination. So, I worked pretty hard and took my education very seriously, with that in mind.”
Sadly, Gerry died of a heart attack when Annita was 18, and in her first year of an English and politics degree. Away from home, she had the solace of her best friend, Tricia, from her Sisters of Mercy primary school days, who had also gone to Queen’s and stayed at the same halls of residence as the studious Annita, before sharing a house with her and other students on Belfast’s Botanic Avenue.
“As I’m an only child, Tricia has always been like a sister to all intents and purposes,” she remarks. “She’s a godmother to one of mine and vice versa. It’s nice for my kids — they don’t have any blood aunts or uncles.
“I still go to see her in Lurgan every time I’m home.”
Trips home are not as regular since Annita’s mother died two and a half years ago from dementia. As expected from a BBC news employee, she has no comment on Theresa May’s disastrous election campaign ‘dementia tax’ proposals. May passed away in a nursing home within her locality. “Mum was cared for wonderfully; there was a lot of consolation in that,” Annita recalls. “I wanted to bring her over near me, but it was hard to find somewhere to look after her so well, and I took advice on how important familiar accents are to people with dementia, and took that into consideration.
“I didn’t want to confuse her further. When she was diagnosed, I was caught in the middle of having two babies when her health deteriorated.”
At that stage, Annita was beginning to make a name for herself as a reporter in London, helped along, she says, by the hard news experience she’s gained back home.
Having written for the university paper while at Queens, she’d worked at The Ulster Gazette and for the Tyrone Courier in Dungannon after her graduation.
Freelance shifts at the BBC in Belfast followed and she eventually landed a job with Newsline, working alongside the likes of Dennis Murray, Tom Coulter and Seamus Kelters, before landing the plum role of the BBC’s Ireland correspondent.
In 2002, she left for London to step in for another reporter’s maternity leave, and has been there since.
Being an only child, Tricia has always been like a sister
Asked about the difficulty, as an only child, in moving away from her mother, she suddenly dissolves into tears.
“It was massively exciting to have that job but then I had to make the decision to stay in London,” she says, becoming emotional.
“It was really hard. I’m sorry. It hits me at times. I’m still processing what happened to her. It’s so hard to see someone you love deteriorate in that way.”
It’s disconcerting to make a complete stranger cry in an interview, especially over the phone.
I tend to blether on to compensate and to give the interviewee time to compose themselves, and Annita does so quickly, declining the listening-in BBC PR’s suggestion to reconvene later on.
On air, Annita is always fully in command of her emotions, as well as the facts.
It’s a quality she attributes, in part, to that hard news experience back home, reporting on the ceasefires and the endless talks about talks, and spending long days outside Stormont.
Given her background, she is sent back to report from Northern Ireland two or three times a year.
“I’ve interviewed some of my former tutors for work, such as Lord Paul Bew, quite a few times. It was lovely to see him,” she says.
“And I remember going over to cover the Queen visiting the Crumlin Road Gaol — I hope I conveyed how amazing it was to see her walking down the prison corridor with Martin McGuinness on one side and Peter Robinson on the other.
“I can be very cool and calm but it’s not my natural demeanour.
“People who know me would say I’m a very warm and bubbly person but in the studio or on location, it’s usually very serious and a cool, calm demeanour helps.
“There is a level of detachment involved. You’re really feeling it, but if you take in the awfulness of it all...” she trails off.
“I remember times in Northern Ireland, I felt, as a human being; as a parent, it was difficult.
“But Northern Ireland has been an absolute positive in my career. BBC NI
‘The kids are fascinated by my roots ... I’m always talking up NI in London’ I find it easy to stay calm when I’m under pressure
and the team there were wonderful. Having that experience, it helps you achieve the right tone.
“You’re dealing with difficult, controversial subjects and opinions.
“When I made the move to London, people recognised that. I never experienced any anti-Irish bias. If I did, I could handle it.”
In London, back in April 2013, she was presenting the news alone when the first sketchy reports of the Boston Marathon bombing started to filter through.
Three people died in the attack and several hundred were seriously injured.
As she recalls: “I knew something significant was happening. The producer was talking through my earpiece, saying, ‘Just tell what we know and explain’.
“It’s a matter of very carefully and slowly taking the audience through the details and serious injuries, as it was becoming obvious it was a terrorist attack.
“It’s a learned skill; it comes with experience. Getting frazzled on air doesn’t help anyone.
“I find it very easy to stay calm under pressure. You have to take time to deliver the message when you’re just hearing it yourself for the first time.
“But it depends on the story,” she adds. “I do a broad range of stories — the world of sport and entertainment, alongside foreign affairs and domestic news, so I’m always picking up bits here and there. For instance, I was interviewing the man who rescued the dog from the Gobi Desert and I’m a dog lover too, so that was very warm.
“You can tell a lot about a person if they love animals, can’t you? We have a wonderful old English setter called Hudson; we’re crazy about him,” Annita says. She lives in a close-knit community in upmarket Hertfordshire, where she acts as a governor, with a special interest in literacy, at her children’s school. At the end of a day in the newsroom, she unwinds with her husband by watching television shows like The Apprentice. “I shout at the screen, at those contestants!”
The couple clicked immediately when they met in work, at a fifth anniversary party for BBC News 24, and got married in 2004.
“I was at an age where I knew this was the right person — no, I don’t want to say what age,” she laughs. “Men aren’t asked about their age. But I’m happy to say most people think I’m younger than I am.
“I’ve pale Celtic skin and I look after it, and I use a good SPF quite religiously. And I don’t smoke; never have.”
Like many ex-pats overseas, she finds her English-born children’s accents alien to her Northern Iron ear, at times.
“The kids are very fascinated by my Northern Ireland roots,” she concludes.
“They talk quite a lot about it but they don’t have any hint of the accent or Martin’s north east accent.
“He’s from Hartlepool — people there are incredibly friendly, like they are at home, and he loves Northern Ireland, too.
“I’m always talking up Northern Ireland in London. I do a great job for the tourism industry! I tell people they must go here and they must go there.
“I’m immensely proud of where I’m from.”
HOME PRIDE: Annita McVeigh at the BBC newsdesk in London and (above) the Queen visits the Crumlin Road Gaol with Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson in 2014
HARD AT WORK: Annita during a live recording for the BBC
ANCHOR JOB: Journalist Annita McVeigh in the BBC news room in London and (top right) on her wedding day with her late mum May. Right, a picture of a young Annita during her school days
GOOD AND BAD NEWS: Annita interviewing the man who rescued the dog from the Gobi Desert and (below) the aftermath of the bomb at the Boston Marathon