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On the Record: Guardian Today in Focus presenter Anushka Asthana - 'I forgot to press record when I interviewed Obama'

Anushka Asthana

Anushka Asthana, presenter of the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast, tells Press Gazette about her thoughts on the lobby and the time she forgot to press record in an interview with Barack Obama.

Asthana, 39, (pictured) has held prominent positions at Sky News, the Times, Peston on Sunday and the Observer over her 16-year career in the media, before becoming joint Guardian political editor and now associate editor.

She trained to be a journalist at City University in London and briefly worked on a local paper before moving to the Observer as an intern.

What made you want to become a journalist?

I wanted to get into television production and someone told me to get work experience in newspapers so I did, starting with my local paper and I just loved it. People think of journalists as writers but that’s only one part of the job – I loved investigating stories, meeting people, chasing leads, coming up with ideas…and then storytelling.

What is it you enjoy most about journalism?

Getting to have a job that means spending most of my time talking to incredibly interesting people – often the best experts in their fields or people with amazing personal stories – about fascinating subjects.

What piece of work are you most proud of, and why?

Oh so hard! I’ve done so much exciting stuff – like breaking a story about the closures of hundreds of local schools that resulted in the councils changing their plans, to revelations about the treatment of women and non-white people in political parties, leaks of government Brexit plans, and then travelling around the country and world with politicians and covering major stories on the ground including the 2015 election, the rise of Corbyn and fears around immigration before Brexit.

The most exciting was probably getting to travel on Air Force One and meet Barack Obama when he was a senator.

What’s your biggest mistake/regret as a journalist?

It wasn’t really that big in the end, but I forgot to press record on the dictaphone when I’d been sent in 2006 to interview senator Barack Obama. Luckily someone came to my rescue who had also recorded it!

What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve witnessed in Westminster while based there as a journalist?

Very senior politicians brazenly lying to camera about something I know they don’t believe from what has been said behind the scenes, in an off the record setting. I think politicians work really hard and I don’t think this is standard, but I have seen it at the highest level.

What would you change about political journalism today?

More women, more non-white people, more mixed socially and fewer cases in which parties/politicians only ever speak to the publications that will agree with everything they say.

Do you think the “lobby journalism” model is effective?

Yes, I think it is a good thing to have journalists embedded in parliament because it’s busy, complex and is the only way to properly understand our parliamentary system.

Away from work, what news do you consume and why?

I try to be across the national newspapers plus websites like the Huffington Post and Politico, often through links on social media. I watch the 10 o’clock news and Channel 4 news, listen to podcasts, including from the US, as well as Radio 4 and documentaries.

What is the one thing you couldn’t do without as a journalist, and why?

My back up phone charger – because I always need charge! It’s essential as I write scripts/email/listen to podcasts etc. normally on the go.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned as presenter of the Today in Focus podcast?

Presenting Today in Focus is an amazing learning curve every day both in terms of how to best achieve storytelling in audio but also because my job is to sit and talk to journalists who are world experts in their subjects about the topics they know best.

So I learn surprising things every day – like the fact that women’s football was as massive in the 1920s with 50,000 plus crowds at grounds, and 150 English teams, and then the FA effectively banned women playing because they felt it was “unsuitable for females”.

If you could change one thing about the UK media industry today, what would it be?

Make it more open.

What are your top tips for aspiring journalists?

Just get out there and report – speak to interesting people, make contacts, develop ideas and pitch stories.

Picture: The Guardian

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