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First Women Interview with Angela Rippon

Angela RipponTelevision journalist, news reader and presenter, in 1975 Angela Rippon became the first woman to regularly read the national news on the BBC – preceded by two decades of male presenters. At the age of 31, Angela officially fronted the Nine O’Clock News, the Corporation’s nightly news programme. She was awarded her CBE in 2017 for services to dementia care.

Now in her 70s and a veteran of her profession, she talks to First Women about the importance of integrity and ‘giving 100%’ to your craft (as well as keeping going with confidence when you mess up and the camera’s rolling…)


If you wake up and think, ‘ugh, I have to go to the office,’ then you are already on a negative path

But I always get out of bed and think, ‘great I get to have fun today!’ Or, ‘I’m really looking forward to tacking that challenge.’ I don’t think I have ever had I job I didn’t like. On the occasions where I’ve thought, ‘I wouldn’t be any good at that’ or, ‘I don’t really fancy that’ I have said ‘no’ right from the start so that I never put myself in a position to find out how difficult it could be not to enjoy what I do.

We had one of those nuclear families

My aunts lived next door and my grandmother was still alive until I was six years old so I was looked after by all the women in the family while my mum went to work. I don’t remember her not going to work, so my work ethic came from her. Even in her 60s, when she was meant to retire she said, ‘no, I’m not going to’ and volunteered, along with her mother-in-law for the WRVS [Welfare Royal Voluntary Service]-run meals on wheels service. She got involved in all sorts of stuff because that work ethic was just there. Therefore it never occurred to me that women didn’t go to work or that I shouldn’t have the same rights and opportunities as everybody else.

My father was in the Royal Marines and I was nearly three years old when I first saw him

He always said he had missed out because of this and spent the rest of his life making up for it. The photograph he carried in his wallet until the day he died was one that my mother had sent to him of me, aged four months old. My dad was a real countryman and taught me how to identify trees and birds. To this day I can identify a bird by its flight pattern because of what he taught me. Yes, my parents wanted me to be a young lady, but my father was a Marine and very macho. Therefore he imparted a lot of the attitudes to me that he would have to a son about self-reliance and independence. That had a huge influence on me, as did his philosophy that whatever you want in life you should go and do, but do it as well as you possibly can.

It is essential to really know your craft

You cannot work as a professional without it. I wanted to be a photojournalist and so had to train to be a journalist. In those days, you were indentured to a newspaper for three years and I ended up training for five. You didn’t study journalism at university, you worked on a newspaper during the day and had day release and night school to study all the other things you needed to learn. I basically had to do a law and politics degree, understand everything about how parish councils work, how local government works, through to national government, the United Nations… It was essential that you knew what you were talking about. I had to learn shorthand, how to touch type and understand how newspapers were put together, to know what happened to my copy once it had been handed in to the subeditor and sent down to the print floor. I can still type faster than anyone in the office because that is what I had to train to do.

Learn one hundred pieces of information because you don’t know which fifty you are going to need live on air

Knowing your craft inside out is crucial – your brain will recall things just when you need them. If it’s not there in the first place, you haven’t got it at all.  [In 1991] I was getting ready for my morning radio show and I heard on the 4am World Service that there had been a putsch in Russia and Gorbachev had been overthrown. I got straight on the phone to my producer and said, ‘right, that’s the programme today.’ I rushed into work and we spent an hour and a half on the phone to every contact we had in Russia, New York and Washington. Then at 5am I called the Foreign Affairs Committee. Needless to say, I had no time for research, no time to write a script, it all had to be in my head. So it was that I was able to do a three hour live programme with only a list coming onto my screen telling me who I was interviewing or linking too next. I had to talk to US senators, simply as a broadcaster relying on my own experience and knowledge, hoping that I asked the right questions at the right time and knowing when to stop talking and listen. I relied simply on years of training: research, learning, assimilating, reading the papers every day. And hopefully your brain brings out what’s required when it’s required. And that’s what makes you a broadcaster.
When I covered [Lady] Diana’s funeral for Bloomberg – I was talking to upwards of 80 million people and you cannot write a script for live outside broadcast. You cannot go to books or notes. You have to have it in your head. You need one hundred bits of information because you don’t know which fifty bits you are going to need when you are live.

‘Honesty, accuracy, integrity’

I remember on my first day at the Sunday Independent, my editor said to me, ‘you are going to learn an awful lot during your time here, but I want you to remember three words: honesty, accuracy and integrity. As long as you remember those three words you will never go far wrong as a journalist.’ That stuck with me. They are the three most important things in journalism, not observed unfortunately, by all writers in the industry. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story became the byline for an awful lot of journalists, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. And, even occasionally, now.

I have been talking to my father for 53 years

I had been used to working quite anonymously on newspapers with only a byline photo. But when I did my first ever TV broadcast on Spotlight Southwest, I knew several thousand people were watching me live. Afterwards, I went home and asked my father how it was and he said, ‘fine, but frankly you looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights. The next time you go into the studio, the next time you look at the lens, talk to me. Tell me what the story is.’ And I have been looking into the camera and talking to my father ever since. It is important not to ‘read’ a script, or act a script; just talk to your audience. There may be thousands watching but in each individual home there are only one or two or three people. That’s why Terry Wogan always used to refer to the ‘Listener’, singular. Really in broadcasting you are talking to lots of individuals.

If you make a mistake – you deal with it

In broadcasting, when the worst possible thing happens, learn from it then get on with it and try to avoid it happening again. If does happen again, at least you know you can handle it.
The first time it happened to me was at Westward TV. I produced and presented a weekly woman’s programme, and to this day I do not what happened. I had been in telly about five years by then, but on that day’s show, my mind went a total blank for about five seconds – which of course felt like a lifetime as it was happening. I was so frightened I can’t even remember how I got out of it. But what I do know is that I learnt from it.
On another occasion I had to ride a scooter into the studio. I had done it perfectly in rehearsal but when we were live I clipped the edge of the flats [set] and they all fell down like dominoes. By that time I had enough experience and confidence to say, ‘it was about time you changed the scenery anyway, we will do something about that in the commercial break.’ If something goes wrong you just deal with it. If you say something incorrect, put it right straight away. Never let nerves get in the way of what you are doing. The worst thing you can do is be embarrassed because then the audience feel embarrassed for you. So you say, ’well, we made a complete mess of that let’s start again…’ And just keep going.

You may be the one on screen but you do not do that on your own

Learn to work as part of a team. Respect your colleagues – their skill and professionalism. You should always try your best and have good relationships with people. You’re the face and voice but you couldn’t do it without the team behind you. You have a great support system of editors, cameramen, researchers, lighting people – you are dependent on their skills to make what you do meaningful and worthwhile. Know that you don’t know it all.
I don’t think I would have had the longevity that I have had if I hadn’t learnt those lessons very quickly and they were important lessons to learn within the first few years. Of course, there will be times when you fall out with people – and I certainly have fallen out with people in the past – particularly the early days when perhaps I wasn’t quite as confident at being diplomatic as I am now I’m older! I think one of the worst things you can be is a diva – and I hope I am not – but I take a certain amount of comfort in the fact that people apparently enjoy working with me [laughs]. The only time I get cross with people is when I feel that they are not giving 100%.
Even now, I have no time for those who think it is all a game and a laugh and say, ‘oh, it doesn’t matter if I don’t do that properly, I’m only going to give that 60% because there are other things I want to be doing.’ I give 100% and I expect people that I am working with to do the same. And 99% of the people with whom I work fall into that category. It means I still get cross with the 1% who don’t, but I hope I am more diplomatic about voicing that now!

If you prove you can do the job, there is no reason for anyone to question why there is a woman in the newsroom

Funnily enough, I have only become aware retrospectively of the little niggles that there were in the newsroom. At Westward TV, I was making and directing a documentary from the Dartmouth Royal Naval college and I remember I had a crew of seven for whom I was responsible. The only other woman was the production assistant. On the first night, one of the admirals came up and said to our cameraman, Gerry Ewens, ‘well, who is in charge here then?’ Assuming it was Gerry who was very tall and self-assured. I was only about 23 at the time and Gerry pointed directly to me and said, ‘she is.’ It proved to me that if you show you can do the job, you’ll get the respect without a problem.
Similarly, when I went to BBC TV news there were a few people who thought, ‘flippin’ heck, a woman?’ and when I first reported in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, the cameraman on that report was a bit iffy about working with a woman (we soon sorted that out, I might add). But after we got back, one of my male colleagues in the newsroom came up to me and said, ‘that piece to camera you did was one of the best pieces of journalism I have seen from Northern Ireland in a very long time.’ I was absolutely glowing, and I think that is an example of if you can do the job you will be respected for that, regardless of gender.

I am a great advocate of saying we should stop pitting men against women

You should simply have broadcasters who are good at what they do. That is the bottom line. It should be the best person for the job doing the best they can, regardless of that person’s gender or ethnicity – and for the most part that is what happens. Maybe there are certain circumstances where you could assume that a woman may have more empathy with a particular situation or be more sympathetic or whatever. But then listen to some of the reports that Fergal Keane has done from South Africa. Absolutely outstanding. Man or woman, it doesn’t matter. If you are good at your job, if you are a good human being if you are riddled with humanity, as well as journalistic integrity and ability, you are going to bring the very best to that story. Going all the way back to when Michael Buerk did the famous reports on Ethiopia: would a woman have done any better? Well, we will never know…but we do not need to know because what he did was so brilliant.You may get some men who are not very empathetic, but then you simply wouldn’t send them on a difficult emotional story. And similarly there may be female reporters that you wouldn’t send either. You send the best person for the job.

Luck isn’t just being in the right place at the right time but being able to do the job once you get the opportunity

Otherwise, good fortune counts for nothing. If you’re bad at what you do it doesn’t matter how much luck you get, it’s not going to work for you. But if you are good at what you do and you sometimes have the luck to know the right person to make the introduction for you, or that you happen to be there on the night when a big story breaks, then you can make it work in your favour. Luck on its own isn’t enough. It is the combination of years of experience and hard work so that you can make the most of an unexpected opportunity.

Young pioneers; have faith in yourself

Have confidence in yourself but back it up by putting in the work. Don’t assume you can just float into job because you want to be famous – that won’t last long. And you might become famous for being a failure! So have faith in yourself, trust in yourself but also be sure that you can do the job. That doesn’t mean being cocky because that won’t get you many friends. But be able to prove to whoever employed you that they made the right decision.

Interview by Deborah Willimott


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