Interviews – Media – Ruth Whippman

Ruth Whippman, 26, has worked for the News and Current Affairs department at the BBC as a broadcast journalist for the last two and a half years, and is about to start a new job as an assistant producer on Back to the Floor. She talks to us about the delights of freelancing, and the long hard road into a media career

What kind of things do you do as a broadcast journalist?
I spent most of the last year working on a big programme about the history of gambling and organized crime. I also worked on a Panaroma about the diamond heist at the Millennium Dome. I occasionally do development work for the department on new programmes that they might want to commission.

What is your favourite part of the job?
I enjoy most days! It’s incredibly varied so you meet all kinds of everyone – you get put in situations and meet people that you would never under any other circumstances meet. You travel a lot, too. I’ve been to America, Germany and Poland to name a few, so it’s a great job for young people.

What is your least favourite part of the job?
It is lonely sometimes. You’re always part of a team, but when you’re researching you’re the one working on your own the most. When I went out to America to research the gambling programme I was travelling around on my own for a month and that was very lonely. It sounds really exciting but after a few days you want other people’s company. It’s also really intense – you work really long hours and you sometimes can feel like you’re giving up your whole life to it.

When did you decide you wanted to work in television?
When I was at university I had no idea that I wanted to do this job but I wanted an exciting job during the holiday. I wrote off to lots of different people, not only TV but charities and newspapers and everything, and a man from the BBC rang and offered me a job, which I did all summer. That gave me the idea that this was what I wanted to do.

Did your work experience help you get into the industry?
It didn’t actually make it any easier. I think it’s a really hard time for everyone when they first graduate and I think no-one really warns you about it. You’ve worked hard and you’ve got a degree and you think that somehow you’re going to walk into this great job, but it doesn’t happen. I got quite depressed after I left university and at one point thought I’d just have to emigrate and work on a farm!

What did you do while you were waiting for a great job to come along?
I worked for Blockbuster video. There was a guy there doing work experience who’d approached his school and said he wanted work experience in the film industry! Meanwhile I was writing hundreds of letters to anything and everything, including all the job adverts in The Guardian’s Media section. The problem is, you have no real idea of what you’re qualified to do so you apply for things that are way out of your range, you get rejected and you get more demoralized. I just kept on pursuing it. I wrote to all the TV companies and to the BBC – I would find programmes that I liked and write to the editor of each programme. It took a long time, I started writing letters in June and I didn’t start working until March, but it did work.

What was your breakthrough moment?
In the end I got a call from The Mail on Sunday saying would I like a week’s work experience. I was very swotty when I got there, always hanging around people’s desks asking for jobs. Then I was really lucky – the guy who was in the bottom-rung job in the features department was going on holiday, and I was offered the job for while he was away. It was only about £250 a week. It was really interesting and varied, running around getting cuttings and being a general dogsbody, and I loved working there.

How did you move from print to TV journalism?
There was a woman working at The Mail on Sunday who had broken her leg and I’d helped her out carrying her bags, helping her up the stairs and the rest of it. She was a really nice woman, and she said, ‘A friend of mine is working on a new TV show for Meridian and they might be looking for a junior researcher, why don’t you apply?’. I did; at first they said, ‘No, we don’t think you’re right,’ but I phoned them back and persisted and I said ‘I think I am right’, I went for an interview, and in the end they said they would take a chance and give me the job.

What does being a researcher involve?
On a factual programme you’re the one who finds all the people who appear on the programme so if it’s a documentary about absent fathers, you’re the one who has to find all the absent fathers. Sometimes it’s hard because you’ve got two days to find a one-legged Tamil desert walker who drives a Mercedes, but they always turn up in the end, I don’t know quite how.

What has been your scariest moment?
We did one story on spiritual healers and I was wearing a filming jacket with a secret camera in it. I was pretending to be a heart patient and the healer was putting her hands all over me and I was really scared that she was going to find the camera!

What is your ambition for the future?
I’d like to produce my own programmes and documentaries. I think I’ve got lots to learn before I do that but that’s what I’d like to do.

Why is it so hard to get into television?
The hardest thing is that you’re supposed to have experience as a researcher even before you can get a researcher’s job! I think my experience was unusual because it was a youth programme – I was 23 and I think that was seen as an advantage. Lots of really talented and qualified people spend years and years as a secretary or a runner trying to get a researcher job, and it is unfair.

Is there such a thing as a `safe’ job in broadcasting?
It’s not a secure job at all. If you want a secure job then do something else, because there are very few staff jobs and even at the BBC you’ll be doing contract work most of the time. The plus side of it is that you can get a lot of experience quite quickly because you’re a free agent. You can move around, work in different kinds of programmes, work in the independent sector or the BBC, and you find yourself doing a lot of exciting things in a very short time – I’ve done 17 jobs and I’m only 26.

Are there any equality issues remaining in broadcasting?
I think that men get promoted more quickly. If you start as a secretary and you’re a woman it’s very easy to get typecast as a secretary and you’ll stay there. My boyfriend started as a secretary at the BBC, and he was there for about a week before they said, `What’s a nice young man like you doing as a secretary?’ and promoted him to researcher.

What kind of characteristics do you need to make it in the industry?
Most importantly you need to be good at dealing with people – you spend most of your time making small talk with people with whom you’ve got nothing in common. You need to be very persistent, and not take rejection badly. You also need to have no sense of shame(!), so you’re prepared to do anything to get your story. I once did a story about a holiday resort where I had to try and get into the staff quarters, and I had to pretend I’d snogged a guy who worked there to get in. You also have to be accurate and careful about your information – like any journalist you need to get your stories right and make sure you can back them up or else you’re in trouble.

What is your advice to young people who are desperate to get into the industry?
There’s a lot of working for free and you have to be careful because you can get exploited. It’s worth doing for a bit because it shows you about the business, you meet different people and get a chance to impress them. But there does have to come a point where you put a value on yourself. When people are working for free for a year that’s not a good thing, either for them or for the industry – it means all the bottom-rung jobs are being done for no money and it undercuts everyone who’s working there.

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