Sarah Montague - I'm All For Total Transparency
Updated: Jan 18, 2019
I talk to the BBC's Sarah Montague, about the pros and cons of journalists' unionism, about pay-equality, and private interest.
Your first job on the Channel Report, I believe, with Roger Bounds, threw you straight into an interview. How do you think the industry’s changed for young people trying to work in news media?
Oh my god, I don’t know what to advise people now. I’d been sacked twice at that point, I was 23, and I sort of had nothing to lose licking my wounds in Guernsey – not where I wanted to live but where my parents were. Anyway, I asked to make coffee - was allowed in, and on the first day drove home feeling like I was flying. It was an amazing sense, having pretty much fucked up in quite a few things. And this is where it’s different, to answer your question: just by being in there – there was a journalist who didn’t want to do an interview, so I said “I’ll do it”, and I was allowed to go out with a camera and do an interview – and I didn’t even know about the basics. I’d never done any journalism, any television, and that night it was on the programme. I doubt, even in a tiny telly station, that could happen today.
Many local stations have now been absorbed, whereas with shows like the BBC’s HARDtalk, you’ve now had a chance to reach a very large audience oversees on the BBC World Service: for example in your interview with Yazidi activist and Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad, discussing her time imprisoned by so-called Islamic state. Does the world only stand to gain from this kind of global news reporting, or have we lost something with the reduction in local papers, radio, and television stations?
Oh god, definitely lost something. Channel Report still exists – Channel Television still exists, it just sits under the umbrella of ITV… but you’re right that newspapers have been squeezed. In one sense you can reach around the world – but by the same token there’s stuff that isn’t being reported on your back doorstep. There’s got to be a way to make it work somehow, and there seems like a mad plan to have the BBC prop up commercial papers… I don’t know how it’s going to work – but we obviously need all of it.
One of the most significant segments of your career has been the seventeen years spent on the Today programme as a presenter, ever since you were spotted by the then-editor Rod Liddle (who is, as we sit in Café Nero, behind us).
It’s so weird. He hasn’t aged well, (laughs) he used to dye his hair.
Soon after your ascension to the programme Radio 4 released a ‘Dead Ringers’ skit which attracted attention to a gender imbalance on Today. What’s changed?
So the really hard thing to explain to your generation when you’re my age, is how important context is. I have younger people, even just 10-years younger, look at me and think “how could you put up with that shit?” And you have to explain about context. There are things that are normal now that people will look back on and think “you’re kidding – you did that?!” – and we’re all accepting of it; I’m talking about social mores, expectations about the way the world is. Back then, there were things that we presumed were going to change – when I was twenty-one I presumed people were like-minded about the abilities of the sexes. I joined the Today programme assuming that things would change quickly, and of course they don’t. And even until relatively recently when I was on Today, I could have been the only female voice in three hours of broadcasting – which is clearly bonkers. Now they’ve got 50/50.
Tell me about the context of the gender pay imbalance recently: when you discovered your co-presenters earned more than you?
Well this is where perception comes into the context as well. From my point of view, I knew I was underpaid – but I didn’t know the scale of the difference.
Well, I knew that. In all the coverage they always reach for John Humphrys as the comparator, and it’s true that I was the 2nd longest standing, but John and I had talked about it. John had told me some years ago, “Sarah, you should be jumping up and down” – he had given me the 4x figure. We all knew he was paid up in the very high echelons; what I didn’t know, was that everybody else was also, considerably! They weren’t assessing like with like. There were some of us doing a lot more work, a lot more programs, and frankly still getting less.
I think collective, looser arrangements – helping each other out – may be the solution
You’ve twice ignored your own journalists’ union’s announcement of a National Strike, deciding to go to work. Why?
For a number of different reasons… but those reasons, to be honest, would be dancing on the head of a pin: when you go to Today, you are in there in the morning. I mean, they are relevant, you have to get in at 3.30am - the reality is that there weren’t any protesters, there wasn’t anybody outside.
In a way a bit like the pay thing I suppose. I had taken a view that I was... not a hired gun, but I was on a yearly contract. I’d been paid a certain amount to do a job, so I sort of believe I should do that job. It was a principle thing, and in each case I’d established how widespread the support was for the strike. I asked those who were on the staff, in the union or not, those who I worked alongside, and if there had been feeling amongst my colleagues then I wouldn’t have come in I don’t think. I was on so much less, but I was still on a really good wage. To be fair, I think I’m now much more unionised than I was.
Is there a chance a cohesive journalists’ union could stick up for its members, say, its female members over equality of pay?
That’s a very, very good question. So I think in the BBC we’re probably more unionised, but we’re also just more collectively organised. We may not rely upon the union, I have high regard for some people in the union and they have a huge job on their hands, so sometimes I think collective, looser arrangements – helping each other out – may be the solution. And I think that probably should apply to a lot of industries, a lot of companies. I also think technology, things like WhatsApp, are creating effective unions. They’re not formalised, they’re not under any banner or with any rules, but they’re groups of people saying they’ll support each other.
On your final broadcast for Today, John Humphrys praised you for being able to be “Very, very tough, and smile at the same time”. Although you accepted the remarks very modestly; do you agree with him that these are an important combination of traits for a journalist?
It depends. Depends on your journalism or what you’re doing it for. An issue that I’ve wrestled with in all of my journalistic career, is the question of respect. Respect for politicians and people that you interview. I think there’s been a loss of respect, which in some instances can be good, and I’m talking about since the mid-nineties more rapidly, which is a flattening of a structure so that we’re no longer automatically deferential. But I think in some ways, for example the dismissal of experts, that we might have gone too far. One of the things that I often wrestle with is the interrupting, which I am guilty of, and the way it’s done. If you listen to a politician being interviewed, you shouldn’t think less of them because they’re ridiculed, you should think less of them if it’s appropriate because of what they say, and the judgements they make.
Do you think female journalists are picked up on their manner more often than male ones? Back when you first joined Today you mentioned to the Telegraph about how you kept “getting picked up on [your] laugh” – the way you present yourself as a female journalist seems to be more important to the commentators.
So I think the laughing was slightly different, I probably laughed too much and it was probably nerves. But there definitely was a very narrow framework for female journalists. I remember bosses saying “Who? What other women are there?”, and I would think we’re surrounded by women, for some reason you’re looking over their heads. And I’ve got quite a deep voice, so I think they thought, “Ok, that’s acceptable”, but the window of possibilities for a male presenter was quite wide – as a female presenter you needed to tick a certain number of boxes.
"You can’t do the job without coming to some sort of idea about how you see the world"
You’ve now swapped jobs with Martha Kearney, and are the lead anchor at The World At One. Today, you were again speaking about Brexit. Although many now seem sick to their back teeth of it dominating the airwaves, do you think it’s important that journalists keep it on the agenda?
Yes – but it depends how we do it. There’s obviously no point talking if nobody’s listening, or at least you’ve got to change the way you talk. A very senior MP said, “everybody tells me people are bored of Brexit, but the first question people ask me is "oh my god, what’s going on?’” So I think people are interested, and we as journalists need to find the way to make sense of what’s going on in an interesting way.
Part of the problem for many ordinary people is that the news media often seems to be in the same bag of ‘elites’ alongside politicians. How do you think journalists should best approach the issue of seeming out of touch?
Well it’s tempting to say we all shouldn’t be paid as much – but probably not an answer for now. I am not a clubbable person. I have never been one of those people; I go home and look after my children, that is a choice I have made. Partly because there’s only so many hours in the day, but it also seems to work that you have a distance. Because of the way life works you’ll discover people you’ve been at university with suddenly crop up in certain positions; but I think broadly there are some people who are a little more clubbable, and I’m not one of those. I don’t think of myself as the elite, but I recognise that I’m not struggling on the breadline… I don’t know the answer.
Did you find it difficult in 2016 when David Cameron appeared on the Today Programme to ‘hold his feet to the fire’ of a full interrogation? I know that your husband Lord Christopher Brooke went to school with the then-Prime Minister, and you both attended Samantha Cameron’s 40th Birthday party.
(Laughs), I didn’t, and I don’t think it is at all. I didn’t hear this from him, but he told somebody else that he thinks I overcompensate when I interview him. I don’t know that I do, I think you just do your job. If you were a surgeon, you wouldn’t do a better job on one person than you’d do on another. I’m not saying we don’t have views or opinions… you can’t do the job without coming to some sort of idea about how you see the world – it’d be weird if you didn’t.
If it was somebody incredibly close, obviously I wouldn’t interview my husband, but with most people you kind of think: no, I’m not going to give you an easy time. My husband, Lord Christopher Brooke as you call him, (laughs) it’s not a title we use. Strictly speaking you could call me Lady Brooke.
I wasn’t going to: you just married the guy.
So here’s the thing. I think life is always so much more complex, and therefore so much more interesting than we often portray. Than is portrayed. It’s so interesting because it’d be daft of me to say I’m not an elite, but it’s not because I’m Lady Brooke – it’s because I’m Sarah Montague who presents things. If I’m an elite it’s nothing to do with the marriage, it’s complex, and very interesting.
Well, you were a stockbroker, a bonds trader, you helped set up the luxury brand Charles Tyrwhitt –
It was my final-year flatmate at university, Nick Wheeler, who set up Charles Tyrwhitt.
But you helped him?
I’d say that, he probably wouldn’t say that, he sacked me.
Well, you’re also currently represented on several corporate speakers’ agencies that market your services as a “conference facilitator” or compere. Have you never found it difficult to separate your personal brand from your journalistic responsibilities?
I’ve not put myself on an agency – I do have an agent, but other people have said “your name’s on this” which is quite weird. But first of all, I’m quite tight on what I say yes to. It’s one of the reasons I accept chairing roles rather than other things – if they fit with work. But it’s the same process, and as long as they understand that I’m entirely independent… but I’ve thought about this a lot. In the United States they have a slightly different take on things, and I was thinking: surely we at the BBC should be the best in the world – the most scrupulous in our independence. So I thought, irrespective of what the rules are and what others are doing, should I do it? And I came to the conclusion that actually I should, and that it should all be public.
It pretty much is because you can use Google, but I think that we should have a webpage, possibly hosted by the BBC, where we all say any outside stuff we do. Or for it to be banned by the BBC. But there are advantages; I’ve done stuff for the NHS, and I’ve been paid for it – and I’ve not been paid for it. But I’ve done three-day conferences where you come out so well informed – it’s like a brain injection about the issues affecting the NHS, or like having done a research job. You come out saying “we should be doing this – we should be doing that”, and it makes you think, “we’re not doing anything on this particular story”.
"Sunshine is just the best disinfectant"
So you’re recommending that journalists should declare all their interests?
It slightly depends: if there is doubt, then yes. To be honest if there’s public doubt then the BBC should probably ban it to reassure people. But the difficulty with that is although I’m fairly full time, there are BBC presenters who only do something once a week, and can they therefore not work…? I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’m confident about the way I do it. But I would say that – people may not trust it.
A popular comparison might be George Osborne –
Hold on a second, the argument against George Osborne was that when he was an MP he took on the editorship.
Or you could have Nick Clegg at Facebook, public servants are taking on their own personal pocket: it’s interesting to see where journalists fit in here.
Yes. You can’t expect somebody to have one job for life – David Cameron will someday probably earn lots of money because of what his last job was.
Is public criticism valuable on this issue?
There are separate things here, one is that somebody doesn’t like it when people earn lots of money. But the separate thing is the conflict of interest. George Osborne currently being editor of The Evening Standard – there’s no conflict of interest, but that’s because he stood down (as MP). When he was doing both – you can make an argument. Now, you can make an argument there was a conflict of interest if I choose to chair a conference and also work at the BBC. I suspect if you had a camera on that conference you probably wouldn’t make that argument because of the way you saw me doing it. Sunshine is just the best disinfectant. How do you reassure people? I don’t know; how do you think? I’m all for total transparency, and if I do a conference I’d rather it was streamed.