Cathy Newman

Channel 4’s first female news anchor discusses trailblazing women, internet trolls, sexual assault and her new book The Ladder
Broadcaster and author, Cathy Newman. PHOTO: PETER SEARLE

“Did you see the headlines after Nicola Sturgeon’s appearance at the covid inquiry?” asks Channel 4 News’ Cathy Newman. “There was so much ‘Emotional Sturgeon’, wasn’t there? We had a great discussion about that in the newsroom, because Boris Johnson welled up too. I thought: I bet there were no ‘Emotional Johnson’ headlines. I was keen for us [at Channel 4] to show both male and female leaders through the same prism.”

I can feel the charge of Newman’s anger at the gendered double standards crackling down the phone line from the London home she shares with her husband (writer John O’Connell) and their two teenage children.

When I check online I find there actually were some headlines about Johnson choking back tears (if only at the point when he described his own hospital admission). But nothing like so many. And certainly nothing like what Newman identifies as “the immediate backlash we saw against Sturgeon, people saying she’d cried crocodile tears.” She sighs. “I mean, who knows? I was more interested by how quickly that cynicism about her display of emotion kicked in. Perhaps it just shows how highly charged our politics are right now.”

Along with the likes of classicist Mary Beard, actor Geena Davis and scientist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Sturgeon is one of many “trailblazing women” who’ve appeared on Newman’s Times Radio show to discuss their lives and careers, in a 30-minute slot called “The Ladder”, since the station’s launch in 2020.

In her new book, The Ladder: Life Lessons from Women who Scaled the Heights and Dodged the Snakes, Newman collects and compiles the wisdom of her interviewees, including Sturgeon who, in 2021, opened up to reveal how much of her very public career had gone against the grain of her naturally introverted personality. The then-First Minister of Scotland told Newman she’d spent her entire fifth birthday party under a table reading a book. “I was bossy with my sister and probably with my parents,” she said, “but to the rest of the world I was pretty shy and still am.”

Newman reminds me that her conversation with Sturgeon occurred “before the police investigation [into SNP finances], before she quit. At a very different moment in her life and career. There were obviously things bubbling under that she knew about and I didn’t. But it’s an interesting snapshot of her life, isn’t it?”

The processes by which women overcome culturally ingrained inclinations to hide under tables is the meat of Newman’s book, as well as how to weather the relentless underestimations and snap judgements of wider society. There are chapters on “Becoming and Belonging”, “Imposter Syndrome”, “Dodging the Snakes” and “Embracing Change”.

Newman has felt all that self-doubt herself and been a victim of more than her share of vicious attacks. She opens her book by giving readers the inside track on her first big report for Channel 4, back in 2006, before she became the station’s first female news anchor. She’d been sent to dish the skinny on the day’s events in Westminster from outside Liberal Democrat HQ. She describes how the pressure to make a meaningful contribution had been weighing on her for many sleep-deprived weeks running up to the broadcast.

“It was winter, so it was dark,” she writes. “The harsh lights made my eyes water. I could feel my heart beating in great rhythmic surges as I was cued in and Jon Snow asked, ‘So Cathy, what’s been going on there?’ In a clipped, tense voice I started to answer. I was concentrating so intensely on not gabbling, not saying ‘er’ and not repeatedly looking down at my notes that I failed to notice I was standing in the middle of the road. In fact, I only comprehended this when the lights of a fast-approaching taxi flared on the damp asphalt. If it maintained its current speed it would hit me in, oh, five seconds? A single choice presented itself: move and save my life or carry on talking and save my career, assuming I still had one. I opted to carry on talking. The taxi saw me just in time and came to a halt.”

But Newman says she still felt like a failure. Watching the footage afterwards, she thought she looked like a rabbit having a panic attack. It took her back to the early days of her career as a print journalist at the Financial Times, where she was regularly asked to do the photocopying “because as the only woman for yards around I was assumed to be a PA,” she tells me. “When I became the FT’s media correspondent and went to interview a radio boss, the guy said: ‘There must be some mistake, I’m being interviewed by the FT’. I had to say: ‘Yeah, that’s me’. The fault was his and yet in the moment there was some self-doubt.” Newman caught herself worrying that she “didn’t look old enough, wise enough, serious enough… I thought: I can’t be cut out for work at the FT.”

“The vitriol online can really knock your confidence”

Criticism continued to dog her. Even after she got a foot in the Westminster door, she recalls how a Labour cabinet minister described her to his colleagues as “the Mata Hari of political correspondents”. “It contributes to a nascent imposter syndrome thing,” she points out. “If you’re a young blonde woman in the lobby you get pigeonholed as somebody who flirts their way to the stories. I didn’t flirt with men. Nothing could have been further from the truth.” She wants younger women to know it gets much easier to ignore the sexist idiots with time and experience; they should give themselves the same self-respect and space to grow that is assumed by their male colleagues. “Your confidence will grow. Yes, things will go wrong but you’ll survive. You’ll learn, you’ll adapt.”

Born in 1974, the daughter of two teachers, she owns the privilege of being raised in a “loving, supportive middle class home”. Yes, she says, “there was bullying at school, I didn’t like school – but when I talk to politicians like Angela Rayner and Nadine Dorries about their childhoods I’m astonished at what they overcame. I’m talking about two women who couldn’t be further apart politically. But Dorries told me about a childhood in which she had to break the ice on the bath to get water and feeling the rumbling stomach of her painfully hungry dog on her lap. Rayner told me about growing up with a mother whose bipolar depressions made it impossible [for her] to get out of bed. You wouldn’t guess at this if you watched either woman on her feet in Westminster. But these are the origins of their different ideologies and I get shivers down my spine when I hear them talk like that.”

When I watch Newman on screen I admit I often think of the TED talk by another female news anchor, who spent her entire stage time deconstructing her hair and make-up, biting back at the hours women are expected to put into looking presentable, compared to men’s few minutes of brush and dust. But Newman doesn’t have a problem with this.

“I have to say I LOVE my twenty minutes in hair and make-up before I go on air,” she tells me. “I get to close my eyes and talk to the lovely women who do my face. That’s therapy, really, I don’t resent it.” That said, she recently had eye surgery to implant lenses and make her vision better than it has been since before she was ten. “But I was nervous and not sleeping. My grandfather was blind so I’m aware of the risks of messing with your eyes. During that stress I was aware of looking a bit baggy and saggy and … well… do the guys worry about that? Maybe they do now. But George Clooney is allowed to be a sexy silver fox and I think it would be nice if women were allowed to look their age and be valued for [that] appearance as well as for their wisdom and experience. That’s my goal!”

Newman has been watching former Love Island contestant Olivia Attwood’s refreshingly frank documentary series about cosmetic surgery and notes it’s a reminder for Gen X women to be “less judgy”, though for herself she says: “Injecting this or that? I don’t have time for it. I’d rather save the money for a holiday!”

I’m with Newman on choosing breaks over Botox. I imagine she needs the R&R after run-ins with the likes of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson that went viral. Her 2018 tussle with him over the gender pay gap (viewed over five million times) led to her home address being published online. Death threats followed. Newman’s then-fourteen-year-old daughter stumbled on a photo of her mother’s head photoshopped onto a pornographic image. Peterson had to ask his many misogynist fans to back off. “I’m still proud about what I told [Peterson] about the gender pay gap. But I am still getting trolled about that interview today,” Newman says. Did the event cause her confidence to wobble? “No because I did the Max Mosley interview [in which she pushed Oswald Mosley’s son into conceding a pamphlet was racist] a few weeks later and I was really proud of that.” But the trolls doubled down on their campaign against her.

So while she “admires the chutzpah, the confidence” of women following her into journalism, Newman worries “about the malign impact of social media on that generation. The vitriol online can really knock your confidence. I spend so much less time online than I ever did. Mainly because Twitter has become such a cesspit. I use it mainly as a shop window and I don’t have the conversations on there that I once did.”

I speak to Newman in the week that Piers Morgan asked Rishi Sunak if he had the “balls” to enforce his policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda, and then pushed the prime minister into a £1000 bet on the subject. This encounter struck me as the kind of macho media/politics showboating that she’d dismiss but Newman tells me she’s “loath to criticise the conduct of an interviewer, just because I know how difficult it is.” But I can’t imagine her placing a bet with an interviewee? She stalls. “No… well… mmm… That’s an interesting question. Was Piers Morgan wrong to do that? I can see why people have reacted very badly to that interview because we’re talking about people’s lives here. And to be casually tossing away a thousand pounds is a display of privilege, isn’t it?”

Newman is most proud of her interviews on the topic of rape and sexual assault

She suspects the days of the “heckling interviewer, the gotcha interview” are over for now. “There’s an appetite now for a much more discursive format.” Having modified her approach over the past two decades she tells me the best interviews take the form of “a relaxed conversation where you’re not afraid to go for the jugular in a terribly polite way. Jon Snow always advised me to ask the filthiest possible question in the nicest possible way. David Frost did that too in his heyday. He made people feel incredibly comfortable and then he’d just slip the knife in. But no one would really notice that blood had been drawn.”

Newman is most proud of her interviews on the topic of rape and sexual assault. Particularly her encounter with Emily Hunt, who woke up naked in a hotel room with a stranger, and no memory of how she got there, then found he’d filmed her while she was unconscious – yet she faced a five-year battle to see him convicted of voyeurism. Hunt used her screen time with Newman to announce her decision to walk away from her role as an independent adviser to the government on rape in 2020, saying victims of crime were still being failed.

Also highly rated was her interview with criminology professor Elizabeth Stanko, who used her time on Channel 4 News to allege that the Met’s former deputy commissioner, Sir Stephen House, had demeaned the bulk of London’s rape complaints as “regretful sex”. In 2018 Newman herself spoke out about how, after being one of a very few girls admitted into the sixth form at Charterhouse boarding school in Surrey, a boy unzipped his flies and made her touch his penis. She was just sixteen and told the Guardian, “I didn’t think about it for years. Now we’ve got online abuse and the [concern] about someone taking a naked photo, I think back to that incident. How much worse would it have been if it had been being filmed and put out [online]?”

Today, she tells me: “At the time I saw it as an unpleasant incident but would never in a million years thought of reporting it. Whereas now that would be considered a sexual assault. I don’t think our generation even knew what the definition was.” She’s glad Gen X women have formed the support networks we needed. And that we – and a generation of good male allies – had each other’s backs through the challenges. “Gen Z don’t even know that support once wasn’t there,” she laughs. “But we’re forging ahead. Our mothers were getting tired, dressing older in their late 40s and early 50s. We’re talking openly about menopause and we’ve got loads more energy.”

I have to pause our conversation for a second as I shunt my own teenage son out of the door but Newman is understanding. “Now our kids are teens, we’re getting time back. Don’t you feel vistas opening up? Sure, things might change but…”. Newman reminds me she grew up wanting to be a violinist, but landed in print journalism before moving into TV and onto books “and who knows what next?” She notes that “Mary Beard says it’s important to know when to embrace change. I know my book is called The Ladder, but careers don’t have to be linear.” I agree: we can move sideways, step back, take breaks. “Absolutely!” enthuses Newman. “And honestly, we’ve got DECADES left in us!”

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

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