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

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - INTERVIEW -

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

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