BBC News presenter Martine Croxall expected a normal evening at work discussing the days’ newspaper headlines when the Paris terror attacks suddenly gripped the entire world. She chats to Editor-in-Chief Jessica Murray about how she deals with the pressure of being such a witness to history…
You studied in Leeds as an undergraduate, how did you go from studying at university to the world of work?
I did a geography degree from 1987- 1990 and I had a superb time as an undergraduate. The pressure on us was nothing like it is for ungrads these days, we weren’t all thinking about what we were going to do. I wrote a little bit for the student newspaper and I was president of the geographical society, I played a bit of intramural hockey. I remember Leeds being a very friendly place and I’ve made some life long friends.
I had no aspirations at all to be in front of camera or behind the microphone. I was quite shy and didn’t think I had the confidence to be on air. I just rang up Radio Leicester, said that I wanted to see what broadcasting was like and they told me to come in on Monday – it was that easy. I remember walking in this newsroom and it was bedlam and I just thought, “I have no idea how anyone knows what they’re doing in this place but it’s really exciting”.
What’s a normal day like at the BBC studios?
A normal day for me doesn’t start until late, because for the past three and half years I’ve been working permanent evening shifts. I get in to work at 5pm, and I have a chat with the Assistant Editor who tells me what live events we’re covering. While I’m in the makeup chair faffing about with curlers and lipstick, I’m reading information on the subjects that I’m probably talking about that evening. You of course get breaking news stories which come out of nowhere and you’ve not done any prep for them but when you’ve been doing the job as long as I have you build up quite a big back catalogue of stories and knowledge and an understanding of how things piece together so you draw on that.
What’s it like presenting on a 24 hour news channel as opposed to another kind of TV platform?
Some people don’t like it and find it very stressful – I work with some extremely battle hardended producers. If you stay for any length of time it’s because you really love it. It’s a bit crash, bang, whollop working on a continuous news channel, which you either love or you don’t. The great thing about live and continuous is you don’t know what’s going to happen. You can turn up for work thinking you know what you’re going to be doing and then something like the Paris attacks happens – suddenly you completely chuck your running order out the window and you just wing it.
The post-Brexit period, nobody’s seen anything like it. A story that would have kept me going for several days kept me going for an hour, and then someone else would resign and another development would happen. Apart from the fact that you’re often reporting stories which are very sad, tragic and often involving people dying, you’d much rather go to work and have an interesting evening where lots of stuff is happening. To be that witness to history is very exciting.
You became quite well known for your calm and poised handling of the Paris attacks as they broke live on TV. What’s running through your mind when that’s happening?
As a presenter, the most important thing is tone. If people are dying and there’s violence and there’s terror, you’ve got to be very mindful of the tone. If you get that wrong, people will remember that. The other thing is not to speculate. At the beginning there is very little that you know and you have to admit to that. Until you actually know your facts, attribute everything and never express your own opinion.
Sometimes people get a bit cross with news readers because they think we seem a bit dispassionate. But we’re not there to tell you how to feel, we’re there to tell you the story. I’m immensely moved by the things I report, and I go home and think about it and don’t sleep very well sometimes just processing what I’ve been witnessing and talking about.
“When something like the Paris attacks happens, you completely chuck your running order out the window and you just wing it.”
In 2016 we think that everyone’s very media literate, but actually a lot of people still aren’t. I could do an interview with a conservative MP today and give him a really hard time, and the next hour with a Labour MP and give them an equally hard time. You then get accused of being left wing and right wing in the course of an evening. But if you watch continuously, you shouldn’t be able to tell what my views are on anything.
What was the main lesson you learnt from reporting the Paris attacks?
Take your time. You’re not going to know the whole story from the first instance. Be honest about what you know and what you don’t know. Don’t pretend that it’s all perfectly clear. It was multiple acts of terror across numerous locations in a major world city, it’s not going to be immediately obvious whose behind it or what their motive is. It’s ok to repeat yourself as lots of viewers are joining you all the time so you need to take them on that journey. Don’t be afraid to just take a breathe, take a moment. The worst coverage is when it’s all too headlong. Be measured.
What people seem to want from a presenter is to know that you’re confident about what you’re doing, that you’re sure footed, that you’re going to guide them through the story, but you’re going to do it with warmth and as much certainty as you can, be extremely accurate; they trust you.
There are sometimes things you see on social media that you don’t report because you can’t substantiate it. It’s very easy to get caught up in the chaos and mayhem of social media. In the end there’s no substitute for proper journalism.