Working mums can’t have it all says broadcaster Cathy newman
the broadcaster Cathy Newman talks to Charlotte Williamson about her new book Bloody Brilliant Women, fighting inequality, and being a bit of an oddball
Not that long ago, Cathy Newman, presenter of Channel 4 News – one of network television’s most highbrow news bulletins – got cross about the lack of recognition for working women in British history. So cross, in fact, she decided to write a book about it. Available now, Bloody Brilliant Women features a host of pioneering women from 1918 onwards.
“I set about investigating, and found there were amazing women in history with incredible stories to tell,” she tells me when we meet at The All-Bright Club, a networking venue for women in Central London – her choice, and a fitting one.
A talented violinist, Cathy, 44, grew up in Surrey and was considering a career in music until Kate Adie’s dispatches made her want to become a journalist. She started her career at the Financial Times before moving into TV in 2000, joining Channel 4 News six years later. Her numerous scoops include exposing allegations of abuse made against the British barrister John Smyth, and allegations of inappropriate behaviour made against Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrat peer. Cathy lives in London with her husband, John O’Connell, a writer and arts journalist, and their daughters Scarlett, 14, and Molly, nine.
Growing up, I would never have thought of myself as a feminist. Even when I started working, I still wouldn’t have called myself one because for me, feminism was about equality – and I thought that would all be sorted in a couple of years. How wrong I was! there’s still an 18% gender pay gap across the UK and, despite the Equal Pay act of 1970, there are still allegations of women being paid less than men to do the same jobs. We’ve never had a female Chancellor of the Exchequer, and what strikes me as the biggest injustice of all is that every week, two women in England and Wales are killed by their partners or former partners. My two daughters, on the other hand, have no doubt in their minds that they’re feminists.
Writing Bloody Brilliant Women was an eye-opening experience. I thought I’d find loads of women in the arts who did amazing things, but what really surprised me was how many there >>
were in the more traditionally maledominated fields such as science, engineering and computer technology.
I was a bit of an oddball growing up
– a girly swot with thick NHS glasses. We didn’t have a tv for the majority of my childhood so I practised music and read a lot. now when I go into schools to do talks, kids all want to conform, but I always tell them to be proud of being different. at the time
I did feel a bit of an oddball – I probably am a bit of an oddball. but that’s okay.
My parents were quite progressive, always encouraging my sister and me to pursue our interests. my mum gave us each a little patch of garden to grow our own things. I really wanted a pet but my dad and sister had allergies, so one day I dug up my bit of the garden, lined the hole with a shower curtain and made a pond. I ended up with pet frogs and a stickleback that I caught in the river across the road. I can’t imagine tolerating my own kids doing that! but my mum was fine.
Now when I go into schools to do talks, I always say, “Be proud of being different”
Channel 4 News doesn't put pressure on women to look a certain way. but when I was working on newspapers, I had lunch with a very senior tv boss and he said, “oh, you’d be great on telly – just fix your teeth and your hair.” I had buck teeth so I did fix them, but there’s no way I’d change my hair!
My aim in all my work is to give a voice to the voiceless. I’m most proud of the work the Channel 4 news investigations team has done, such as exposing a british paedophile in Kenya – he ended up getting 17 years in jail as a result of our reporting. I carry my passport with me at all times as I never know if I’m going to be sent somewhere.
My old news editor once said to me, “When you lose the power to be moved by the story you’re telling, you shouldn’t be a journalist any more.” I will always remember interviewing tony nicklinson, a man with locked-in syndrome who wanted the right to die. He couldn’t speak and had to blink every letter on a board held up by his wife. It was so emotional – every so often he would erupt in heaving sobs.
I received death threats after my interview with Jordan Peterson [a right-wing Canadian psychologist] earlier this year, but it didn’t make me question what I’m doing. the more trolls do that, the less likely they are to silence me. It’s not just me – there are lots of women in the public eye who get abuse. they want to drive women out of the conversation.
Luckily, I can switch off quite easily. When I come home and put the key in the door, a totally different life begins and I forget about everything else. but my work/life balance isn’t always perfect. I was on maternity leave when the MPS’ expenses scandal broke but, as I was the political correspondent at the time, I called the office to see if they wanted me back in. I was in such a fluster that although
I put the baby in the car, I drove off with the buggy left abandoned on the pavement!
I honestly couldn’t do what I do without my husband. He helped me a lot with the research for this book; I think he’s probably a bloody brilliant man! Women can’t have it all – I make sacrifices because I can’t see my kids as much as I’d like to. my husband also makes sacrifices – he’s a freelance writer, which fits in perfectly with picking the kids up from school, and he’s a great cook, but he misses out on things career-wise. When you’re a working parent, you can’t have it all – you have to accept that and do the best you can.
bloody brilliant Women by Cathy Newman is out now (William Collins)