Interviews – Media – Philippa Thomas

Philippa Thomas, 34, works as Washington correspondent for the BBC. She is married to State Department reporter Richard Lister. In her spare time the pair can be found ‘kayaking in Alaska, driving sled dogs over frozen lakes on the Canadian border, and falling down quite a lot of ski slopes.’ She says life as a foreign correspondent is hectic, but she loves every minute. We asked her about getting in, and getting on

How did you break into journalism?
I initially got work experience as a volunteer at local radio stations and then won a place on a graduate journalism training scheme at the London College of Printing. I was sent on attachment to radio stations in Leeds, Bristol and Belfast and built up a solid ‘portfolio’ of on—air news reports. They were the key to my subsequent success.

How difficult is it to get into the BBC?
It is almost impossible to walk straight into a national job with the BBC as the competition is intense. My advice would be if you’re sure what you want to do, just keep trying. In the UK you can do this through a BBC training scheme, or working at a local radio station, or through programme makers who value specialist knowledge and skills. I failed on my first go, but eventually talked my way onto the two—year BBC News Trainee scheme. I was one of 16 people taken on in 1988.

What does your job involve?
I’m based in the BBC’s largest news bureau in Washington DC covering everything from White House politics to hurricanes in Central America. I report for TV, radio and BBC Online. I’m on call for breaking news 24 hours a day seven days a week. I could be sent anywhere in North or South America with half—an—hour to pick up the laptop and get to the airport.

What is it like working for the BBC in the US?
We always get a warm welcome. There’s great name recognition for BBC news — especially now the dedicated BBC America channel reaches more than 10 million viewers in the States. For instance when I was covering the mudslides in Venezuela last year, I would race back to the BBC base to feed a report by satellite and within the hour be getting feedback from viewers in Caracas.

What major stories have you covered?
I reported on the mudslides in Venezuela, the earthquakes in Turkey and Hurricane Mitch in Honduras. It’s appalling to witness the way in which the countries were torn apart. However, you do get to witness some incredible survivors’ stories. I often wonder if I would have the same ability to live through such tragedy and endure such a state of chaos. On a lighter note, I have shared night vigils with Elvis fans in Graceland, joined a re-enactment trek on a horse-drawn wagon through Wyoming, and met Welsh singing legend Tom Jones on Millennium Eve.

What are your ambitions for the future?
I still feel hungry for experience as a foreign correspondent and as a presenter. I want to look back in 10 years time and be pleased and surprised at the breadth of my achievement.

What advice would you give would-be foreign correspondents?
Work out why you want to do the job. Ask yourself whether it is for the love of a country or the joy of getting on air; how much you want it and how much hassle, difficulty and frustration you can take. Then think strategy. Decide whether to build your skills as a general reporter, or make a name as a specialist in your region. Think about whether you should take the plunge and set up as a freelance, or work your way up through an organisation like the BBC. Best of all, talk to the people who are already doing it.

How will your job change in the new media age?
It has already changed. The job of a BBC correspondent now embraces radio, television and BBC Online. We’re moving into an era of constant news with the notion of set deadlines starting to disappear. The old divide between the broadcaster and the viewer is disintegrating with people able to feed back their views to us through programme participation and online chat. The downside of this for the reporter is that we’re pulled all ways, and have to work harder and harder to find time to think and to dig out original stories. The upside is we’re really in touch with our audiences — reacting to what they want, and proving to them it’s still worth tuning in.

Thoughts on the forthcoming American election?
This one is going to be fascinating. It will be a more of an equal fight between Democrat and Republican compared to Bill Clinton’s walkover last time. It will prove a great spectator sport. The first fight for the White House that hasn’t involved a sitting president since 1988.

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