You Don’t Need to be Ruthless to Succeed in Journalism

“Your problem is you smile too much, and you’re not ruthless enough.”

My appraisal with the Head of BBC Current Affairs Magazine Programmes (aka CAMP). I was 30, ambitious and had worked there for 6 months…producing (and reporting for, at times) ”Start the Week”, Woman’s Hour”, “You and Yours”…and had loved every minute of it.

I considered the feedback – and stopped smiling ‘Hellos’ in the Broadcasting House lifts. For a while, I tried to become more of a ‘back-stabbing’ persona, but eventually decided ‘I am who I am, and to try to be someone else would only make me unhappy’ (Mark 8.36 came to mind).

I had been about 12 when I realised that information is power, and that if you give people all the information they need, they can make wise decisions, and thus the world can be a better place.

What better place to pursue that aspiration than the BBC? The only problem was that, in those pre-internet days, the BBC appeared as unattainable as Mars: I had no clue how to apply. But an amazing gap year job opened up at the Independent Broadcasting Authority, working for a man who told me “I married a Studio Manager from Bush House”. I had no idea what a Studio Manager was, nor indeed Bush House, but after university, that’s what I became.

The other day I saw someone describe himself as a ‘serial launcher’: well, I am too. After 14 years at the BBC, including producing and presenting weekly programmes for the World Service, I was asked to co-present the first-ever Breakfast show after the launch of Premier Radio. It was all so new…I even remember going out to buy our first paperclips!

To ‘do Breakfast’ in the London radio market is special: I was also the show’s editor too. It was exhausting and I learnt why the two roles had traditionally been separate in the BBC: I would fret when I couldn’t see ‘through the glass’ that the next guest had turned up, and so would be planning a substitute item in my head while interviewing – not a great idea!

After Premier, I moved to the 24 hour BBC World, and from there to launch BBC 24hour news in the UK. I was in the gallery the night it launched on-air, and for many months after, all through the terrible ‘teething’ problems of running a 24 hour digital news operation when before it had been analogue.

But the launches I am most proud of are the ones which, I believe, have changed societies around the world. Last week I was with an Afghan and asked him if he knew ‘New Home, New Life’ (aka The Archers of Afghanistan – thus using drama to tackle all the taboos, such as domestic violence, as it does here). His face lit up: “Everyone listens to that”. I fund-raised for it from all the UN agencies during the year I lived in Pakistan, and found the first office premises.

Then a few years later, I moved to Vietnam and launched the first-ever national radio phone-in. The Vietnamese had never heard one before, so they had no idea of the concept – I even had to liaise with Japanese telecoms NTL to install phonelines into the national radio station so we could actually take calls! The Vietnamese government was really wary of letting ordinary people talk on the radio – because, it assumed, they would criticise the government and there could be chaos and anarchy in the streets the next day.

Question Time’ for Kenya (‘Sema Kenya’) followed in 2011. Again I literally took a big blank sheet of white paper and roughed out a production plan and a budget.

And then, five years ago, I co-founded World Watch Monitor. This is a niche online news agency focussing on reporting the global Church under pressure – with clarity, context and credibility. I write it ‘from my BBC DNA’, meaning that I try to apply the same news verification process to the information that we get from the countries (from our own local stringers and/or NGOs and civil society leaders) as I used to on the World Service Newsdesk. Reporting the facts is a dangerous business, and getting harder as governments use the ‘security’ argument more and more.

But I’ve no doubt that my 12-year-old self is still egging me on – to hold politicians and others to account, to be a voice for the voiceless, to speak truth to power. 

Still not sure I’m any more ruthless, but I do know (Godly) ambition can take many forms, And I do sleep pretty soundly at night. Oh, and I still smile in lifts too…

Julia Bicknell is a former BBC and Telegraph journalist, currently Executive Director at World Watch Monitor. Follow her at @juliabicknell.