Promoting a protest at Warwick propelled Dr Andrew Whitehead (MA Social History, 1979; PhD History, 2014) towards a career in journalism. Having joined as a trainee at the BBC for just three months, Andrew went on to spend 35 years with BBC News. In his last role as Editor of BBC World Service News, Andrew was responsible for programming on the BBC's most widely listened to radio network, with a global weekly reach of about 100 million listeners.
Andrew returned to campus earlier this year, where he spoke at a Careers event for History students, and was interviewed by final year History student Enoch Mukungu (pictured left).
Why did you decide to come to Warwick?
I originally came to do a one-year Master's course in Social History and stayed on to do a PhD. It took me a long time to get that finished (about 30 years!).
What are your standout memories of Warwick?
I had a great time. As ever, being a student there’s a mix of memories, but the main thing that remained with me is the lasting friendships. I enjoyed the academic side of things and there was a lot of politics happening at Warwick then, so I enjoyed getting involved in that too.
How did Warwick help prepare you for your career in journalism?
I wrote a few articles for The Boar and was involved with a big occupation of Senate House regarding overseas student fees. I became the lead of a small group that looked after public relations, drafting press releases, getting in touch with local radio and newspapers trying to get coverage.
At the end of the occupation everybody left by agreement, and we held a press conference in the occupied Senate House. We had a panel of people prominent in the occupation addressing the two journalists, and in the same room, about 200 of the occupying students as well. It was an unconventional news conference, but it gave me a taste and helped propel me in the direction of journalism.
How did you get your first role in the BBC?
I was persistent and initially got a three-month traineeship at the BBC World Service as a talks writer. To apply, I had to send in a topical piece of work, so I wrote about the clashes between squatters and police I’d witnessed in Amsterdam during Queen Beatrix’s coronation, while I was reading for my PhD! In the end my three-month traineeship progressed into a 35-year career at the BBC.
It's a long time, but at the BBC you can do all sorts. I spent seven years working in India. I've covered British politics, been a radio presenter, been a manager, worked in television, written for online, and made radio documentaries.
I covered British politics for four years during a fascinating part of political history, including interviewing politicians including Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and even Nelson Mandela. I reported on Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power in 1990.
I particularly remember reporting in India as a very exciting time. I spent a lot of time going up to Kashmir because of the conflict. It showed me the world and I realised that journalism could put me at really important turning points in history. I had reason to meet, talk to, and (to some extent) get to know all sorts of people. I met big names, but also people who are at the sharp end of what's happening. People who were suffering, people who had a particular viewpoints, or people who were advocating for change and campaigning.
Who's your favourite person you’ve interviewed?
Well, it's not Margaret Thatcher – she terrified me!
The interview that sticks in my mind most was actually with a friend's mother in India. I was doing a series of radio programmes 50 years on from the partition of India, about people’s lived experiences and a colleague said that her mother had helped refugees. During the interview, this lady told a remarkable story of how she had volunteered at a local Medical College during the partition riots and saw huge movements of refugees. She and her colleagues would go to the railway station, meet the refugee trains, and find and support unaccompanied women. She was an ordinary person caught up in an extraordinary moment who did extraordinary things. That stays with me.
How has journalism changed since the start of your long career?
Graduates were then very much in the minority. When I started in newsrooms, it was a mostly male environment with a lot of people who had come up through regional papers and were a bit hardnosed about it all. Many people smoked and drank, and thought graduates hadn’t seen enough of the world.
The whole digital revolution has changed the nature of journalism – content is more accessible to a wider audience. It’s now largely graduate entry and I think more women than men. Journalists represent and reflect the demography and are opinion formers.
What are you up to now?
A whole range of things. I left the BBC seven years ago, and since then I’ve been teaching journalism, particularly in summer schools in London. I usually spend a semester every year in Chennai in South India teaching journalism over there too. I'm also still a historian, and I'm really grateful to Warwick for teaching me how to do historical research. In some ways there are similarities between historical research and investigative journalism, but I write history books and monographs about different areas of north London. I’m a journalist and historian – I don’t know which comes first now!
What advice would you give to Warwick students or anyone considering a career in journalism?
Be resilient – don't just apply for a couple of jobs and give up if you get rejected. Keep going and be persistent. You don't need a huge pedigree in student journalism, but clearly if you have, it helps and certainly a lot of employers would want some evidence of journalistic activity. Get experience in writing articles, broadcasts, or web pieces – anything you can show a potential employer. There are training schemes, including by the BBC and with regional papers, but these can be hugely competitive.
Also, build links and network. Get in touch with a news editor at a local paper or radio station and ask to visit, or about work experience. I also recommend reporting for a local website or writing for anything you can. And get to know the specialist websites, with noticeboards for editorial vacancies.
You need to be resourceful and resilient. If you've got the energy and ability, you'll get there. Very few journalists earn big sums, but I think most feel quite good about keeping the public informed. It’s a profession where you get to meet lots of interesting people and often get to be at real turning points in history.