Within a few minutes of speaking to Naga Munchetty, it becomes pretty apparent why she is at the top of her field. Straight talking and no-nonsense but also very humble, it is clear that the lofty heights of the BBC Breakfast sofa have anything but gone to her head.
Before becoming a staple of the nation’s morning routines, Naga studied English at the University of Leeds, where writing for a previous-incarnation of The Gryphon first sparked her interest in the field of journalism. “I just realised I was really curious, loved finding things out and could write OK,” she says, understating in true Naga fashion.
After Leeds, Naga pursued a post-grad diploma in journalism at City University in London, taking out a loan and working two jobs in order to do so. She concedes that “money is of course a barrier” but argues that this is the case for many industries, not just media. “If you’re going to look at barriers, there are barriers everywhere”, she says.
“I came from a different background, I looked different and I think that would be difficult for anyone. Those are issues that don’t change”
Postgraduate funding was not the only hurdle Naga had to jump. Starting out as an Indian-Mauritian woman in what was at the time a “very traditionally male environment” unsurprisingly came with its difficulties.
“One of the biggest barriers I faced was class”, she tells me. Born to immigrant parents in South London, Naga says she lacked a lot of the experiences of her colleagues: “I was very different, I came from a different background, I looked different and I think that would be difficult for anyone. Those are issues that don’t change”.
Although she is living-proof that diversity in media has improved in the years since she started out, Naga admits that progress is still ‘frustratingly slow’ and agrees that more can always be done to make the industry more inclusive, both in the newsroom and in management roles.
“Diversity obviously is important because we’re broadcasting or writing for everyone in the UK…which is half women, all different creeds and colours. If you don’t have that diversity in the newsroom, how can you reflect it in what you’re writing and what you’re broadcasting?”
Despite overcoming the aforementioned barriers and landing herself in one of the most-coveted roles in the industry, Naga’s fame (a word she admits she is still uncomfortable with) has come with a price, and one that, arguably, her white male co-presenters haven’t paid quite so heavily.
“People think that because you’re on the telly – particularly if you’re on the BBC and they’re paying a license fee – there’s some sense of ownership”
Naga is the target of regular Twitter trolling, and faced fierce backlash last year, after she suggested that Trump’s infamous “go back to where they came from” comments might be rooted in racism. (The initial ruling that found her guilty of breaching BBC impartiality guidelines was later overturned).
“People think that because you’re on the telly – particularly if you’re on the BBC and they’re paying a license fee – there’s some sense of ownership… which is lovely, but at the same time can be very intimidating.”
“You develop a thick skin over time. You learn to accept that you’re marmite…you’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but some people really like what you’re doing”.
It’s an admirable philosophy. Not everyone could be this rational in the face of criticism from total strangers – but it is clear that Naga’s passion for her job compensates for any frustration she feels from constant public scrutiny. When I ask if she ever finds being unable to switch off from the news draining, she seems baffled by the mere thought:
“We’ve realised more than ever that people need joy as well from the news”
“I find it invigorating. There’s so much to be on top of at the moment, the job is not to come in and sit on the sofa and then go home…but I enjoy it, I’m naturally curious and I can’t see it as work”.
Delivering the news is rarely a cheerful task in the current climate, but Naga thinks that broadcasters have done their best to continue being a point of reassurance for their audiences. “If there’s bad stuff happening, we have to report it’, she says, ‘But we’ve realised more than ever that people need joy as well from the news”.
For many people at the moment, newsreaders represent a “constant in uncertain times” and this is clearly a responsibility that Naga takes very seriously. “It’s never about you”, she says. Her job is to be a facilitator; “to ask the questions that people want to ask and get the answers they need to have”.
“You don’t need to say ‘this is just me for the rest of my life, this is my path’, things change, life changes and you change.”
The overriding feeling I come away with is one of gratitude. “I cannot stress to you enough how much I love my job and how privileged I am to be in it”, she tells me. “If you take away anything, take away someone that is ridiculously chuffed to be doing what they’re doing”.
Career-wise, it seems like Naga has pretty much all of the boxes ticked. An impressive feat for someone who claims she “fell into journalism”, but Naga argues that her lack of a concrete plan was a help rather than a hindrance:
“If you have this thing all mapped out, life isn’t like that, life itself doesn’t go to plan…There are so many things to do and there will be so many things you’re interested in. You don’t need to say ‘this is just me for the rest of my life, this is my path’, things change, life changes and you change. I’m completely different to who I was 25 years ago”.
“We had a jaguar on the sofa! I mean, who gets to sit with a baby jaguar on their lap?!”
Her words are a refreshing break from the pressure often put on young graduates to have a 10-step plan in place before they’ve even brushed down their graduation gowns. “There’s nothing wrong with having ambition”, she adds, but recommends working towards small steps rather than being hung up on figuring out a final destination.
Above all, her advice is to work hard and focus on the things you love. “Things you enjoy tend to be the things you’re good at”, she says, and this is certainly true in her case.
Having reported on nearly every major news story of the last 10 years, I wonder if Naga could pick one stand-out moment from her impressive career. For the first time in our 30 minute chat, she is stumped by my question. After some umming and ahhing, she eventually manages to settle on one:
“The most memorable moment in my career? When Maya the jaguar came on the sofa as a kitten. We had a jaguar on the sofa! I mean, who gets to sit with a baby jaguar on their lap?!”
Naga Munchetty co-hosts BBC Breakfast, and will be the new presenter of the 10-1pm programme, Monday-Wednesday on BBC Radio 5 Live.