Emma Barnett is The Telegraph’s Women’s Editor – she heads up Wonder Women, a fast-paced daily section filled with irreverent and intelligent content about politics, business, family, life and sex. She writes news, comment and features across the channel and the newspaper. She’s also an award-winning radio presenter, and presents a weekly Sunday show on BBC Radio 5Live: The 5Live Hit List. Emma also guest presents Woman’s Hour, makes Radio 4 documentaries and appears on the TV. Previously she was the paper’s award-winning Digital Media Editor. Amazingly, she had time to do this interview, for which many thanks! We recorded this so any errors are probably mine, but I hope you can hear the energy and enthusiasm coming through. She is an inspiration.
Jane: Emma, how did you first get into journalism?
Emma: I did a postgrad in journalism at Cardiff. I’d had quite a bit of work experience as a student at The Sunday Times where somebody suggested this course. After I finished I got myself a job on a business magazine called Media Week where I was the media correspondent. It was a perfect job as it allowed me to meet loads of media people and ask them about their jobs. It was great networking for an aspiring journalist. I learnt loads and really enjoyed it. It was a great magazine to start my career with.
How did that first job lead onto Women’s Hour, WonderWomen etc?
Well, here’s a whistle stop tour: I spent 2 and a half years with Media Week and got some great scoops. These were picked up by the national press which led to a move to The Telegraph. They were looking for someone to write about technology and media which became my specialism, especially technology.
Did you know much about technology before you took the job?
No, not at all. But I was learning. At Media Week I talked to lots of people about tech and how to do things differently. And I got the opportunity to go out to Silicon Valley and was meeting people like the founder of Twitter. I didn’t do gadgets or ‘hardware’ though; it was more on the larger ideas about how technology can change lives. That’s what led me on to radio and broadcasting.
Not many people can talk in an entertaining and accessible way about technology, and very few of them are women. So, suddenly broadcasters were interested in having me on to talk about what was happening in that space, hacking of data, on line trends and so on.One thing I did for BBC Radio 4 was whether we had a right to be forgotten. That was my first documentary for them as the EU were changing laws about what we were able to delete from the internet. I attached a personal story to that and my broadcasting career had begun. I was immediately hooked.
What was your first broadcasting role?
I got a job at LBC after about 7 months of working for them on an ad hoc basis. I kept asking for a permanent role and eventually they gave me the graveyard shift; 1 until 5 am.
At The Telegraph I was having a good run but I wanted a new challenge. I’d been doing tech for about 4 years by then. It was actually an article that really irritated me that gave me the idea. Christina Odone (fellow journalist at The Telegraph) had written an anti abortion piece. I thought it wasn’t representative of every woman who reads the paper and that we (The Telegraph) didn’t have enough variety and also weren’t catering to the younger, on line audience. I started dreaming up the women’s section. I’d always been passionate about women’s issues so I drew up a plan, went to the commercial arm of the paper to see if it would pay, and then pitched it to the editor. That was about 3 years ago.
Where did that passion come from, do you think?
I went to an all girls’ school where the Pankhursts had gone so I’d grown up with the idea of feminism. I don’t remember ever not being a feminist. I never noticed any problems while I was at school. I was taught about equality. It’s only more recently that I’ve noticed the more deeply entrenched things. As you get older you pay more attention. Plus, as a broadcaster you have a large platform and you begin to provoke reactions. A lot of that reaction is about shutting down female voices. (Me, check out Mary Beard here in Do you listen to women?)
You mention getting unpleasant comments, which anyone who puts themselves ‘out there’ can expect. Have you had serious issues re sexism in the world of journalism?
Well, I am a born optimist; I try to turn most things to my advantage. I was with Lord Putnam at an event and he made a great point about how you should never allow yourself to become a victim. I haven’t had a horrendous time but I have been questioned about why I am in such a rush. I try to get round the barriers. Sometimes it’s difficult because ‘women don’t do certain things’. When I’m invited to do something, like go on BBC’s Question time, for example, they tell me women often say no. I’ll do things and I know that not many women will do the same. But then I think that you should always push yourself.
Do you think sometimes the adversarial nature of a programme like Question Time deters women; it’s not their preferred style?
Well, I like having an argument! I think the issue is more that women hate getting comments about how they look. I saw recently that David Cameron’s ex PA had been asked to do TV after she left Downing St but couldn’t be bothered because she knew everyone would be fixated on what she looked like, rather than what she said. Lots of women opt out for that reason.
To be honest, I think I’ve had more anti Semitism than sexists abuse. I made one comment and have written 3 articles but the abuse I get is out of all proportion to that. I’ve had sad old Hitler type ‘jokes’ on Twitter. But I’m pretty good at never reading below the line, so let’s not dwell on that.
So is that your strapline, never look below the line and block abusive people immediately?
Tell me about Woman’s Hour. (I am an addict.) Was it part of your growing up?
Yes, it was very much part of my whole life. When I first started presenting it I was the youngest ever presenter at 27. I’d actually done a one day work experience with Jenni Murray in Manchester when I was 18. 10 years on I was sitting in her seat! An amazing dream come true and I really love it. It’s a fantastically committed team and really explores issues in a way that is constantly surprising and a joy for me.
Thinking back to your childhood, is there anything you might have done differently, with hindsight?
Yes, I wish I had learned code. Even though I’m still quite young, it wasn’t something on offer. It would be good to understand the language of the internet. It’s a gap in my education. I could remedy it of course, eventually.
I’m not really into regrets. I think I did well at getting my work experiences and really doing them as well as I could; they gave me a really good hand when I was applying for jobs. Although it is hard to find work experience if you don’t know what job you might want eventually.
Do you prefer radio or TV?
Radio 100%, both as a broadcaster and as a consumer. Speech radio is wonderful.
Do you have any role models?
I have loads of family role models, especially my godmother, she’s been a huge influence. She was my mother’s best friend and my mother passed away when I was young. She had her own business from the age of 25 and is very glamorous and exciting. She also keeps my feet on the ground.
I’m also fortunate enough to have had a friendship with Helen Pankhurst the great granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst. She lives in Ethiopia. I really look up to her, she’s so wise and practical at the same time. I think she is a remarkable woman.
If you could introduce one piece of legislation to further promote women’s issues/status what would it be?
I think the next battle is cultural. I think it’s about women being educated in a certain way which will help remove barriers. The next generation coming through will have had different experiences. Deeper more structural issues will be more difficult. Parents are important; if your parents are ingraining prejudices within you you are going to have to fight hard to overcome them. There are multiple sources of advice, information and influence on the internet. There are invisible barriers out there and women will have to figure a way of going round them. I think the for all its ills, the internet and social media will play a big part in changing attitudes and behaviour.
What are you most proud of, to date?
Launching the women’s section at The Telegraph and presenting Woman’ Hour.
And your advice to any women out there is…?
Don’t lose custody of your own ambitions. No one gives you power, you just have to take it.
Emma, many thanks. I wait with huge interest to see what you do next.
Emma has given a great TEDx talk which expounds more on her views of women and power. If the video below doesn’t open for you, click here. And if you’d like to find out more about my Speak Up course, on giving yourself a voice that is heard, click here!
Posted on November 10th, 2015 by Jane