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Profile: Philippa Thomas

Philippa Thomas at the BBC

Philippa Thomas, (1984, PPE)

Philippa Thomas is a British television newsreader and journalist, both domestic and foreign, at the BBC and a chief news presenter at BBC World News, presenting evening bulletins on BBC News Channel and BBC World News. In addition to her work as a newsreader, she coaches clients developing leadership skills at the BBC and works with private clients on life goals and life balance. During the first lockdown she presented the series “Coronavirus: Your Stories”.

How do you think you changed from walking through Univ’s doors for the first time to your graduation?
I walked through the doors as an English scholar anticipating a quiet academic life and left with a first in PPE, an addiction to politics and no game plan.

In a long delicious summer before Univ, I ticked off every single book on the Eng Lit reading list from Dickens and Eliot to James Joyce and Stevie Smith. I was very optimistic about academia and astoundingly naive about life. Only months before I’d still been tucked into school uniform at a Wakefield comprehensive that celebrated getting students into any university.

The next summer holiday was spent covering the first year’s PPE syllabus. Switching degree and falling into student politics happened pretty much simultaneously and still feels pretty much of a blur — though I regret letting down the magnificent Roy Park and Helen Cooper by doing so. I didn’t see Helen again until the garden party to celebrate forty years of women at Univ. I felt terribly apologetic; she was lovely, as ever.

So life at Univ was not what I expected at all. It included a year as Education Officer at OUSU, election to the national committee of the newly formed SDP, many many late nights in the library, and an existential crisis over God or No God. Plus love affairs, much too much to drink, a summer stint of rowing, and my first and only parachute jump. It was a time to experiment — thankfully without social media.  It was in turns turbulent, lonely, and utterly joyful.

Did you always know you wanted to be a journalist?
No. I graduated in 1987 when it seemed that half of Oxford was shifting to the City and earning telephone number salaries from the get-go. I knew there was a lot I didn’t know, wanted to stretch myself, and wanted to do something different every day. I crashed and burned in my final interview for the prestigious BBC news traineeship when I told Tony Hall (then director of TV News) that I didn’t watch TV. I made up for it a year later and enjoyed 25 years as a BBC correspondent in Westminster, Belfast, Washington, and bouncing round the world with a “go bag” by the door for those 5am calls to get to the airport NOW.

What does your day to day life as a presenter look like at the moment?
Strangely confined to studio after years of travel and of course our year of pandemic. I’m a daily news presenter for BBC World TV — so I’m constantly prepping stories and guests, writing scripts, and dealing live and solo on air with whatever the news universe throws at me. I’m also involved in a lot of conversations about the BBC’s role in shaping the wider news narrative and how much we need to evolve as a corporate culture. Plus as a trained executive coach, my day often involves sessions of coaching or supervising other coaches. So one half of my professional world seems to be about talking fluently and moving fast, and the other about listening intently and creating space for the unexpected to emerge. I still have a lot to learn.

What was the experience of presenting “Coronavirus: Your Stories” like?
Really eye-opening. Confined to home during the first coronavirus lockdown, I jumped at the offer from HQ to drop off TV kit at my door, allowing my entrepreneurial husband — writer and former BBC correspondent — to build a home studio from scratch and operate the camera for a BBC series lasting eighteen weeks.

“Coronavirus Your Stories” was just what the title says. Conversations from my spare room with guests all over the world. Patients, relatives, doctors and paramedics. A family of sailors — mum, dad and baby — isolating on an uninhabited island. People whose worlds – running a restaurant, flying planes, performing in orchestras – had vanished. And a homeless man given a hostel place in pandemic which he told me had saved him from heroin and prison. It’s been strange to switch back to the world of the news bulletin after these experiences and as for so many of us, it’s a year that’s really made me reassess what matters.

What’s the greatest challenge you have faced so far?
While covering US election night from Ohio in 2004, I felt sharp pain in my chest. Two flights and two weeks later, it emerged that my lung had collapsed because of a very rare disease known as LAM. The hospital consultant gave my lungs “ten years, give or take three or four” and I went off to Papworth to learn all I could about lung transplant surgery. In the meantime, the medics told me not to fly in case the other lung collapsed, a “ban” that lasted four years while we all got a grip on what was happening. Not a good look for a foreign correspondent!

On the upside, it led to a radical reset. I didn’t want to say anything in public — I didn’t want to seem weak, especially as a female foreign correspondent. Today, I might do this differently. But suddenly the internal pressure to compete constantly just disappeared. Family mattered. Life experiences mattered. I’ve also loved training as a developmental coach, and earning my Master’s in Psychology.  Surprisingly, beautifully, living with LAM leaves me feeling happier and more purposeful.

What is your proudest achievement (personal or political)?
Completely changing the way I look at life. I love the challenge and adrenalin of a big broadcast news event — one highlight of the past year was fronting BBC Radio’s marathon US election night show — but I’ve got my career in perspective as part of a life full of many different things. I’m on the board of UK Music Masters, a fantastic charity that offers free instrumental tuition to state primary schools, and at last I’m back at university as a psychology researcher who supervises other students starting out on their academic careers. I think a lot — and coach a lot — around what feels meaningful, and why.

How do you relax?  
Family road-trips. The more remote the better. Up mountains, into deserts, anywhere you can see the night sky.

Describe Univ in three words.
Anything is possible.

You can follow Philippa on Twitter and Instagram

Published: 26 April 2021

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