This article originally appeared in The Guardian newspaper on September 30th. I wrote this feature about meeting ex- journalist Lucy Mathen, 33 years after writing to her at the BBC’s children’s news programme, Newsround. A programme I still cite as usually running better news coverage on difficult stories than “grownup” news; notably how it handled the death of Children’s TV presenter Mark Speight.
There is a story I tell journalism students about how I got my first break and my first award at 10, when I wrote a report for Newsround in the days when it got 7 million viewers.
The presenters John Craven (yup, him off Countryfile) and Lucy Mathen (the BBC’s first Asian woman reporter) read out my letter and sent me a Newshound badge as a prize. Two decades on, as a Channel 4 News correspondent, I even bumped into John at a Foot and Mouth crisis news conference. So far, so great an anecdote.
What I never dwelt on, over the years, though, was the detail of the “playground racism” recounted in my letter because I had buried my dissatisfaction at its handling on the programme. And then a few days ago Lucy Mathen got in touch and revealed she’d felt the same and had brooded over it all these years.
“I hadn’t realised you were the little girl who wrote that letter,” she told me. A long phone call followed, and then we met over coffee. “I always worried that we’d got it wrong.”
It goes back to the summer of 1978, when the National Front was a significant political presence. At a family party, a group of us British Asian children aged between 6 and 10 went off to the local playground on our own. Older white children arrived and started racist name calling, then pushing us around. It became more menacing. As the oldest I had an instinct that it might escalate and serious physical violence was possible. I told the others we needed to leave calmly. We started walking but as the troublemakers attempted to trip us up, we ended up running, with them in pursuit, hurling abuse. It wasn’t any more than that, but it was the only time in my life I’ve ever run away. I was furious.
So the letter I sat down to write to John and Lucy was full of a 10 year old’s righteous indignation. Even as I wrote my conclusion (“all playgrounds should have park wardens”) I knew my complaint didn’t have an easy solution.
“Has anything like this every happened to you, Lucy?” said John, after reading out the letter. My delight at watching my letter read out had passed. Now I was intrigued. It was the first time there’d been any implicit acknowledgement of Lucy’s ethnicity. She looked calm and thoughtful. They said they hoped I’d told a grownup. (Yes, but how about condemning the racism?). But they didn’t and I felt Lucy looked a little uncomfortable. 33 years later, it was a relief to hear she had been:
“I think I had said that people who are different in any way tend to get picked on, and it didn’t have to be because of race. When I got home I felt that I might have made light of the obvious distress that came over in your letter. Also..the fact was that of course, I had been a victim of prejudice many times.” With hindsight she added: “But there was I, a successful TV reporter, the first female British Asian on a high –profile programme and perhaps I didn’t want to draw attention to myself as anything else?”
I know the feeling.
I’d kept the letter which they’d sent me afterwards:
Signed by John, it’s probably the use of the phrase “English children” that jumps out at me now. Lucy yelped in horror when I quoted the phrase to her when we met.
Like a repressed memory it helps explains why I’ve never been comfortable with the phrase “English” to describe national identity. Lucy reminded me that, at the time, we tended to be described as “coloured”, too, a phrase so quaint I realise how much closer the 70s was to the 50s in some social attitudes. You wouldn’t know that from watching deliberately racism-free 70s nostalgia fests like “Life on Mars”.
So how did our lives progress?
The next time I met strong racist abuse from children in the streets I was in my twenties, and on instinct, chased them, caught one, and calmly insisted on being taken home to meet his parents. (He was horrified and apologised. I doubt I’d try such a move now.) Throughout my career the 1978 incident helped inform my journalism. As Lucy had in the 70s I reported on the sectarianism in Northern Ireland in the 90s. At Newsnight while filming a story on the abuse of Bosnian refugees re-housed on an East London estate, I felt a very strong flashback to the anger of my 10 year old self as I watched smirking children waiting for my camera crew to leave, so they could begin their torment anew while the police did nothing.
After covering all the major stories of the day, with calmness and rigour, Lucy’s experience on assignment in Afghanistan led her to quit journalism at 36 and retrain as a doctor; setting up the Second Sight charity to cure blindness in northeastern India and writing a book about it – The Runaway Goat. Doing, as she put it, rather than just reporting and walking away. We made different choices, but we remain passionate about what we do. She remains my role model.
A Runaway Goat: Curing Blindness in forgotten India by Lucy Mathen (Available here via the Second Sight website)
She’s on twitter as: @LucyMathen
Lucy Mathen profiled by India Today in 2010
The history of Newsround website (Parental Guidance suggested for John Craven’s frilly shirts)