Jackie Ashley has been a journalist for over 30 years working for newspapers such as The Guardian and New Statesman, as well as regular appearances for the BBC and independent television. She also has a keen interest in the Labour Party, hardly surprising given that her father was the late Jack Ashley, a much loved Labour MP who worked tirelessly for people with disability.
Jackie’s latest role is to be President of Lucy Cavendish College in Cambridge, a post she takes up in October, 2015. It seemed like a good time to catch up with her and hear her reflections on those 30 years plus in journalism, among other things.
Jane: Jackie, thank you so much for giving us your time today and congratulations on your new job. That’s a real change for you, but then you are only 60 so maybe a really good time to start a new career. Why the change, and what are you hoping to do with the role?
Jackie: I’ve reached a time in my life when I wanted a change of direction. My three children are now grown up – one works in London and the other two are at university, so don’t need much help from me any more. I spent the last 10 years looking after the children, my elderly father, who died two years ago, and then my husband, Andrew, who suffered a serious stroke two years ago.
Andrew is now quite independent, so I felt it was time to take on a new challenge. I’ve loved being a political journalist for 35 years, but have been sitting on a number of boards recently, from Women in Sport to UCLH’s Biomedical Research Council and have found that work very interesting. Going to run a Cambridge college will enable me to use the skills I have in fund-raising, increasing the profile of the college and helping to manage change.
Can I take you back a bit, to the young Jackie. How was it growing up in what must have been a very political household? Did you have any idea of your Dad’s ‘fame’? (He was a much respected figure in our house.) And how about your Mum? How much of an influence was she on you?
Our house was always dominated by politics – we lived and breathed it at breakfast, lunch and dinner. From an early age my father would ask us all what we thought about the issues of the day. He lost his hearing when I was 12 years old, so my teenage years were spent helping him to use the telephone. We had an extra handset, so one of us would listen to the voice at the other end, then repeat the words so that he could lip-read. That way I inevitably became drawn in to all his campaigns. His fight to secure justice and compensation for victims of the drug thalidomide was a huge part of our lives as children. TV crews would be constantly coming and going, and I suppose we just thought that was normal.
From the time my father lost his hearing my mother became a full time support to him – his “ears” in fact and accompanied him to the House of Commons and to the constituency at the weekend. Her mother and sister helped bring us up while they were away. My mother was a huge influence on me: she was super-bright, generous and supportive. When she died (far too young, at the age of 70) so many people wrote to say that her smile always lit up a room when she came in.
Do you remember what your very first paid job was and how much you were paid? Have any of the lessons learned then stayed with you?
My first paid job (apart from part-time waitressing and serving in Woolworth’s on a Saturday while at school) was as a trainee journalist with the Mirror Group in Devon. I was seconded to the Tavistock Times and spent my time driving round small villages in Devon, chatting to people in the pub or the post office to try to find stories. I think I was paid £1200 a year. The Mirror Group knew that our salaries left us on a tight budget so lunch was often provided – inevitably it was a pint and a pasty.
What attracted you to journalism? How easy was it to get your first job?
I’d watched many journalists at close hand whilst helping my father and thought it was a great career. I was lucky in being offered a number of traineeships in my final year at University. I chose the Mirror Group scheme, but after six months decided it wasn’t for me and joined the BBC’s News Trainee scheme instead. I loved every minute of that, and stayed as a broadcast journalist for many years, working on BBC News, Newsnight, Channel 4 News, and ITN.
You’ve been in a male dominated arena for much of your career. Have you experienced overt sexism and, if so, how do/did you deal with it?
Oh yes, plenty. When I became pregnant with my first child I was a political correspondent for ITN. One of my bosses quite seriously asked if I’d like the number of an abortion clinic, because he couldn’t imagine that I would want to let something as boring as having a baby get in the way of my career. I went on to have three children and had to battle away to secure part- time work and eventually a job-share. I was also asked, via another boss, if I would not appear in the Member’s lobby in the House of Commons while pregnant, because some Conservative MPs found the sight of a pregnant tummy offensive!
Good grief, that’s appalling! I hope you flaunted your offensive bump all the more. Thirty years spent covering politics in The House has given you quite a unique perspective. What have been the most significant changes you’ve seen?
The House is now much less sexist than it was, but there is still a long way to go. Too much business is still done in the bars, the gents, the football pitch or the golf course. The new development at Portcullis House has made Westminster feel more like a modern institution – it’s a great place for bumping into people for a quick catch up and taking the temperature of the day.
What advice would you give to any women thinking of entering politics?
Don’t! No, seriously, it’s important that women do go into politics, but you have to be prepared for a lot of stick. It’s important to realise that when you are criticised for your clothes, your hair, your voice or whatever, this is nothing personal, it’s just part of the general sexism that persists. Ideally a woman going into politics needs a supportive partner who doesn’t work 24/7, but that’s not always possible.
We’re of an age so have both lived through the introduction of social media. You and I ‘met’ on Twitter so it definitely is a force for good, yet it has its darker sides. Previous interviewees like Mary Beard and Caroline Criado-Perez have both been soundly abused and chosen to deal with it in very different ways. Has it been an issue for you? If so, how do you manage it?
More of an issue for me has been the “below the line” comments that Guardian journalists have enjoyed for several years now. When it first started we were all taken aback by the degree of vitriol, which seems particularly vindictive towards women journalists. I regularly received rape and death threats, along with the usual ‘who pays you to write this rubbish’ and ‘you are the worst journalist in the world’.
Knowing everyone else gets the same helps a bit, but it’s still an unpleasant part of the job. Other women have suffered terrible abuse on Twitter and I still hope that more will be done to stop it. Threats and vile abuse should have no place in our public discussion.
In recent years your partner, broadcaster and journalist Andrew Marr, has had a much publicised stroke, leaving him with a disability. You’ve spoken openly, movingly and honestly about what it’s been like to deal with that, as has Andrew. Stroke can be devastating on family life and relationships so this may seem an unusual question, but… what have been the positives in this for you and the family?
It’s sometimes hard to think of the positives! But actually, Andrew’s stroke has made us all more aware of how fragile life is and how important it is to try to live each day to the full. It also taught us who our real friends are, and how important and wonderful real friends and relatives can be when you suffer something like this.
You and Andrew are both high achievers with careers that put you in the public eye. How do you both manage the work/home balance?
Ever since having children I have always been the one to take on most of the caring role (not my choice) and Andrew would admit that in the years before his stroke he worked too hard. Now at least we take life a little more slowly (we have to!) and try to make sure we have more time for friends.
Jackie, what has been the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Think before you hit back. I’ve quite a fiery temper and when attacked want to rush into combat. But sometimes it’s more sensible to let things lie.
My final question, if you could be the next Dr Who (Confession time: I’ve watched it since William Hartnell first played the part and I’d love to see a woman in the role) which period in time would you like to travel to, and why?
I’d like to travel to the future – about 50 years on. I think the pace of change in life is very exciting and who knows what inventions there will be by then? I imagine we will all be flying around on electric-powered broomsticks and they will finally have found a cure for the common cold. I wouldn’t want to go much further into the future because the robots will probably have taken over by then.
Jackie, thank you very much. It’s been fascinating and a genuine pleasure to talk with you. My head is still reeling over your answers to the sexism question; we’ve moved on thankfully, but not as far as we would both like.
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Posted on February 19th, 2015 by Jane