If You Ask Me: Andrea Catherwood

Andrea Catherwood is a busy woman. She's just returned from Cyprus where she has been hired to do some consultancy work for the country's news corporation, which is re-launching its programmes.

She's up to her neck with presenting, not only as the co-anchor of ITV's politics show The Sunday Edition, which replaced the long-running Dimbleby show earlier this autumn, but as a regular host on the award circuit and, oh, did I mention that she also has three young sons, two of whom are twins?

Catherwood cuts a dashing presence with her honey-streaked hair, expertly applied make-up and is en vogue over-sized jumper over grey skinny jeans. "The whole size zero thing has kind of passed by," she says ordering a cappuccino and calorific Danish pastry. In fact, it's easy to get caught up in Catherwood's physical appearance — she is after all stunning — but that shouldn't be done at the detriment of her intellect and talent as a journalist. In Britain, a dichotomy seems to have arisen, at least as far as women are concerned, between intellect and beauty as if the two somehow cancel each other out. If Kate Adie had the looks of Sophia Loren, would we take her as seriously? I doubt it. While Catherwood's appearance may be more Paris or Milan, she's earned her stripes reporting from far-flung destinations such as Sierra Leone, Jerusalem, Burma and Iraq — and even has the shrapnel wound on her knee, gained in Afghanistan, to prove it.

Her mother, Adrienne Catherwood, presented a children's show on Northern Ireland Ulster Television, when commercial television launched in the country. "It probably made me very familiar with the idea of television as opposed to journalism," says Catherwood. "I was never one of those people who was intimidated by the idea of going on television, it seemed something quite and normal."

When I ask how she juggles motherhood with her work there is no uncertainty in her response. "Of course it has affected my career," she replies. Not that anyone forced her to make a choice, but jetting off to war-zones at the expense of having strangers bring up her children was never an option for Catherwood.

Indeed, in many ways having children seems to have enhanced her as a journalist. Catherwood tells me how deeply involved she felt when she saw the pain and anguish of Ali Ismaeel Abbas lying in a hospital bed in Baghdad, arms blown off, with a wounded torso and covered in burns after being hit by a bomb. She says it was impossible, as a mother, not to think of her own child lying there. Catherwood was involved in bringing him to London for treatment, and even now the boy often comes round to her house and plays with her own children.

As she talks of her past escapades, there is no sense of regret in her voice. Catherwood has had a good innings, and at only 38 years old, she's enjoying being at the top of her game. Those Irish eyes are smiling.

The new Sunday programme is a little bit like being at university, in that you can research and spend a lot of time.

 

It's great to do something completely new and challenging for me. I've always been that type of person who loves a challenge. I like to get my teeth into something new every now and again, and this has been really different for me. It's a different way of working because I have a long time to prepare for interviews. News is very much thinking on your feet. Suddenly you've got somebody and he's in and he's there, and you might only have 10 minutes, or hardly any time to prepare. The new show requires different skills, and I'm enjoying it.

I like the geography of a longer interview.

I've always been interested in politics, and the ability to sit down and do long-format interviews is something that I've always found intriguing. I'm one of those people who shouts at the radio and television when other people are doing this job. So now I have the chance to have people shout at me, "But why didn't you ask them about this?"

I never really made that big decision to become a journalist. I started when I was 16 or so. At school I was always interested in acting and debating, so a teacher told me that there was a competition for Northern Ireland young journalist of the year — it seemed natural for me to give it a go. The next thing I knew I was doing reports for BBC Radio Ulster and really enjoying it. So I never really made a big decision because I was so young. I never thought, right that's what I'm going to do.

It was at the BBC that I really got the bug for what we were doing. Funnily enough, I actually started off doing political interviews because the first thing that I did on television for BBC Northern Ireland — actually I'm only just realising now as I tell you what wonderful symmetry it is — was a series called Up Front, where we interviewed the leaders of the day. It was fronted by three young people, I was 17 by that stage and the youngest, the others were students at Queen's University. We interviewed Garret FitzGerald, who was then the Irish prime minister, straight after the Anglo-Irish agreement. We interviewed Gerry Adams and various Northern Ireland Secretaries, so it was really interesting.

I think my father always secretly hoped that I would be a lawyer.

I was given the opportunity to do an hour-long documentary for BBC Radio 4 and Network 1, so that was fantastic and I did that before I went to university, in that summer. Although I did law at university I always knew that I was doing it because I'd been told by mentors at the BBC that having a law degree was a good background.

I didn't say, ‘Ooh, I wish I could be a foreign correspondent.'

After university, I took 18 months off and went travelling, and that's when I decided that I would combine the two. It's quite common now, the gap year, but when I did it, it wasn't. I went through to Bangkok and travelled around Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The experience really opened my eyes. I adored travelling and enjoyed being able to see so many different parts of the world. The thought of being able to combine the two — journalism and travelling — was something that would be amazing. Again, I don't think that I was that ambitious, I don't think it was that structured, but I knew I loved both those things.

I thought, ‘Wow, I'm going to work for CNN.' But I got there and I realised that it wasn't quite what it was cracked up to be. I came back and worked for Ulster television, but I knew that I had a travel bug and when the opportunity came to go to Hong Kong, I thought right, I'm going to go for it. While I was there, I got the job at NBC. The first job I got in Hong Kong was working for a small English division of a Chinese station. It was an affiliate of CNN. Luckily when I was starting out, NBC saw me on screen and they then called me up, which was really lucky — I kind of fell on my feet there — otherwise I probably would never have stayed.

I learnt a lot from working with Americans.

Although the senior management was American, it was quite mixed — there were quite a few English people there as well as Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, so it was a bit of a melting pot. I think that my writing style was influenced a little bit by working with American journalists, in that their sentence structures are very short and very snappy, and it is quite to the point. In presentation as well, they were probably keener than we were on looking very smart on screen, and that is something that British correspondents and newscasters took on board a little bit later perhaps.

Their focus on good use of graphics was actually well ahead of the UK at that stage. Their use of promos and menus and ‘coming up'. Quite a lot of the things that happen in British television now have evolved from things that have happened in America. I think we are quite lucky in Britain, we're inclined to take the best bits.

The handover was much more emotional than we thought it would be.

A lot of journalists piled in from all over the world to cover the story — the way I did in lots of places after that. But having worked there for four years before the handover, seeing Chris Patten leave the governor's house was actually very emotional. Hard-bitten, cynical old journalists that we thought we were, we were actually almost tearful. It was quite momentous.

As the questions became more unpleasant I remember looking at my list and thinking, ‘Am I really going to ask this next question?' as the guards shuffled around with their guns behind us.

One of my abiding memories of my time in the region was interviewing Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. The whole trip was centred on this interview, but we had to do loads of other things such as interview members of the military junta that was in power there, which was terrifying. We interviewed the tourism minister, who had in fact been running the Burmese area of the Golden Triangle and was so out of control that he been brought into the capital, Rangoon. We were told that by the government and then we had to go and interview him. He was standing with his guards who had Kalashnikovs. We didn't have them in shot, so there was just me and him in the shot, but on either side there were these two guys with guns. We'd worked out our questions before and I started making my way down this list, starting with nice tourism questions and ending up talking about him pushing people into forced labour camps to create areas for tourism, clearing whole villages and trying to get the Karen [one of the largest ethnic groups in Burma] out of the country.

That interview was a cover for the big interview with Aung San Suu Kyi.

She was the most serene person that I had ever met. I've never met Nelson Mandela, but people say that it is a real experience to meet him because he has an aura. Well, she had an amazing aura of calmness and serenity, and you really felt that you were in the presence of someone particularly special.

If I was starting out, or if I didn't have kids, I would seriously think about going out to Beijing.

I think China will continue to be an increasingly important news story. As it becomes more economically successful, I think people will look again at their human rights as well. I saw a story recently about an execution bus that was driving around China. Maybe 10 years ago that would have been seen as a story that wouldn't bear that much relevance to people here, but as China plays an increasing role in our economic lives I think people will view their human rights record in a more immediate way. Channel 4 and ITV are absolutely right to bolster up their presence in that region. To be based in Beijing is exactly the right place to be now, whereas before those stories were covered from Hong Kong, and people didn't go to China often.

I don't come from Omagh, but it's not a very big community. It didn't take long before I was able to work out that I would actually know friends of friends who'd been involved — Northern Ireland is a bit like that. I was in the newsroom and I read the lunchtime news, and I got the plane on the Sunday to go. The first thing I was told was that I would have to go and talk to the victims' families. I had a real knot in my stomach about doing that. I'd done that kind of thing elsewhere in the world, but this was close to home.

Because news changes so quickly in that sort of situation, I then got a call to say that they wanted me to go and look at what was behind the bombing instead. At that point they didn't know for sure who had done it.

If we didn't care and people were just statistics then we wouldn't be very good, and I don't know why you would ever become a journalist if you thought that way. I felt a bit of relief about not having to go straight into the hospitals in the town. Later I went back, around six months on, and I did meet friends who lost family or friends in Omagh. You definitely do feel more emotional about something that is more close to home. It is difficult. We talk about remaining objective, but of course we are all humans and that's why we do this job. We do this job because we do care. You become a journalist because you do care about these issues, and of course it makes you angry and sometimes it's right to be angry, although there are times when you need to temper that.

There are some things that just make me angry — like cluster bombs. I have yet to hear of a reasonable excuse for using them in built-up areas. I've seen them in Kosovo, I've seen them in Afghanistan, I saw them last in Baghdad. The circumstances of the war were that there was hardly anybody to fight, and yet kids are still losing their hands and feet in cluster bombs now. That makes me angry. Anything else just would not be a natural response, and the more you see it, the angrier it makes you. The first time you see these things, you think that's amazing and it's a story, so you report it and maybe you are a little bit outraged. But then you see those bloody yellow packages landing somewhere else in another conflict, and then another, and you know what is going to happen. You know that in a month's time and a year's time these people are still going to be affected by this.

Jeremy Bowen's book on the Middle East should be required reading for people who want to comment on the region. I think he is a wonderful journalist, and maybe if everybody — the politicians and everybody in Britain, America — understood a little bit more about what was going on there it would help.

We should always be aware of what we are doing — making our product the first and best way that people want to get their news.

Newspapers have political slants, but television doesn't — and I'm glad about that. But in an age of the internet and mobile phones, where news is consumable in so many different ways, we do have to add value. The in-depth comment and analysis that we are able to do provides value that you just can't get on the internet.

I'd like to revisit all of the stories that I've done. I do think that we parachute in there, do the story very intensely, get to know people and often play a part in their lives in a time of crisis, and then we just disappear. There are some people that I do still stay in touch with — some people from Kosovo who I send the odd email to. But it's also the nature of many of the places that you go to — say the floods in Mozambique — there is no way of contacting them again. Some of the people I came across on 9/11 I think of quite a lot — the families in America who I met because I was working in New York with the victims' families. But in terms of news values, people aren't interested in you going back and re-covering every minor news story. We do move on.

I didn't actually want to look down at my leg, because I was worried about what I would see.

It's something that I hope I never experience again, but the instinct that kicks in is a huge adrenaline rush and it does give you an amazing sense of clarity and time. I've spoken to a colleague of mine who was also injured while covering a story, and he said exactly the same thing, that suddenly you've got your brain just kicking in and you have quite a lot of time. You think very clearly and concisely, and everything almost seems to be happening in slow motion. When I did look down, there wasn't very much there because the shrapnel had gone in, it had just left these little burns where it had entered my knee. It wasn't as gross as you might imagine.

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