The average viewer watches a news channel for just twelve minutes at a time. It doesn’t give you much of a chance to build a relationship with an audience, let alone to leave a lasting impression. But over the course of two decades, Maxine Mawhinney firmly established herself as one of the BBC’s most respected and authoritative news anchors.
Having interviewed presidents and prime ministers, and covered some of the biggest news stories of our time, from the death of Princess Diana to the OJ Simpson trial, the proud ‘Belfast girl’ left the Corporation earlier this year to focus on new freelance projects.
This week she will be back in Belfast as one of the speakers at TEDxStormont Women. Ahead of the event, we were delighted to chat to such a truly wonderful ambassador for Northern Ireland.
A pioneering career
Belfast is where it all began for Maxine’s international career. Encouraged by her English teacher at school, she always knew she wanted to be a journalist: “I loved writing, I loved reading from a very young age, and as I became a teenager I just thought it offered a fantastic mix of being able to write, being nosy about people, getting into their lives, all of that sort of thing. I really wanted to do it.”
In the late 1970s there was hardly a shortage of news to cover in Northern Ireland, but it was still very rare for a woman to make it into the male-dominated world of journalism. She certainly never imagined going on to become a foreign correspondent for news networks all over the world.
“I was told that I’d never go anywhere because I had a Northern Ireland accent,” Maxine revealed. “That was Day 2 in the broadcast newsroom. Now, for someone who has just come in and was all starry-eyed and enthusiastic, to be told that was a bit of a ‘Oh, hang on, I hadn’t thought of that’ moment.”
The rest, of course, is history. Rather than being discouraged, Maxine was determined that her soft Northern Ireland accent wouldn’t hold her back. “I’ve been all around the world, I’ve done all the jobs I’ve wanted to do and, in fact, particularly when I worked in America, having an accent from the island of Ireland was always very helpful!”
Her first international posting was as Reuters News Editor in Japan. Coming from Northern Ireland, the move had a big impact. “We came from a country of conflict and we went into this country of basic peace, but we were the foreigners.”
Growing up as Protestants in East Belfast, Maxine’s daughters went to the International School of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo, run by a nun from Dublin. She fondly recalls how, when given the choice of denomination for school assembly, they chose to attend the Buddhist gatherings. “They were very young when we left Northern Ireland. But for me looking at this, I was thinking, ‘This is really quite interesting’. It gave the girls a different perspective on Northern Ireland,” she reflects. “They were looking at it from the outside, and trying to figure out what all the division was.”
The changing world of news media
The broadcasting industry has changed markedly since Maxine started her career. With a rapidly shifting media environment, with social media, fake news, and alternative facts, how can broadcast journalism still be trusted?
“It’s very difficult, isn’t it? That question’s being asked almost every day at the moment.” ‘Fact-checking might be part of the answer: “I know that a lot of the companies like the BBC and Channel 4 are running these things called ‘reality checks’, so they’ve got departments now that check everything. Not that they weren’t checking them before, but they’re now checking all the really strange stuff that’s coming out.”
But ‘fact-checking’ isn’t a panacea. “It started during Brexit, or even before actually, where the claims that were being made were ‘fact-checked’ and then whether it was right or wrong they would put out what the fact-check was. But the problem with that is it’s almost like putting an apology in a paper after the event. So people hear the story but not necessarily the facts.”
“To be honest, I think the whole landscape is changing,” Maxine warns. “I was the news anchor on air during the night Princess Diana died. It took us hours to get information. To get pictures from the scene must have taken 3 hours. And if that was today, everything would be on social media in 20 seconds. So the landscape has changed. There’s much more of a challenge for journalists nowadays. I’m a very old fashioned journalist. I’ve got the gut instinct on things. I do things in quite an old fashioned way. Because of changing times, I think there are other things that have to be looked at.”
But there are other aspects of the industry that haven’t changed quickly enough. When Maxine left the BBC in April – at her own choosing – she was the oldest national female newsreader in the UK. That’s no mean feat.
“I have experienced ageism, sexism, and gender inequality, and I don’t think you would meet any woman from my field who would say anything different,” Maxine laments. “Gender inequality has always been a big issue. Always. And I’m hoping it’s going to be tackled now, especially the pay,” after it emerged earlier this year that the BBC’s highest-paid presenters are overwhelmingly male.
For Maxine, British broadcasters could learn a lot from the other side of the Atlantic. “If you look to America, because obviously having worked there I still look to there, they really appreciate older women on TV. And they go for experience. If you’re older, you’re older, but you’ve got the experience – just the way they do with men. And I think that’s really good.”
Having been Washington correspondent for GMTV during the Clinton years, Maxine has very fond memories of her time working in the United States. But in 2017, would she be so fond of the idea of covering the Trump White House? “Yes, I think I would!” she admitted. Always up for a new challenge, her response should come as no surprise.
A Belfast girl at heart
She’s lived and worked all over the world, but for Maxine, Northern Ireland holds a special place. She still gets a buzz when she touches down in Belfast; “even just on the approach, I can’t wait to get through the clouds to have a bit of a peak! It’s home. It’s always been home. It always will be home.”
Living in London, she’s still “in and out like a yo-yo” to visit friends and family. Over the summer she decided to be a tourist at home. “It rained a lot, but that was fine. We went up to the Giant’s Causeway, and I hadn’t been in ages. And then we also went to the Bushmills Distillery, which I’d never actually done. It was brilliant.”
One of her favourite things to do when she’s back in Northern Ireland is to try out some of its top class restaurants. As all Northern Roots readers will know, we always ask our interviewees which Northern Ireland politicians – past or present – they would like to invite to dinner.
So, who would Maxine choose? “Well I think I would definitely have John Hume, mainly because you’d like to know all the things he got up to behind the scenes for peace.” Mo Mowlam – as an honorary Northern Ireland politician – would be next. “I thought she was fantastic, especially that time she pulled the wig off. It was amazing. Bearing in mind she was coming in and she was taking on politicians who had been there for a very, very long time, and with all that history, as a woman coming in I thought she was fantastic.”
Her final pick would be Lady Sylvia Herman. “She represents the area where my family lives and she’s very hard working – again – a very good role model for women coming through, so I think that would make a good mix actually.”
“And note that I’ve got two women!” she proudly adds. “It could have been three!”
Optimistic about Northern Ireland’s future
For the last four decades Maxine has been used to reporting on politics rather than being involved in it, but she’s been a longstanding champion of integrated education. Now that she has moved on from the BBC, she has taken on a more active role in promoting the work of the Integrated Education Fund.
Her passion for integrated education is unquestionable. “I think it’s more than important,” Maxine insists. “I think it’s absolutely essential. I think people should have a choice, don’t get me wrong. I’m not pushing it down people’s throats at all, but I think it’s essential to have the choice in the first place.”
She reflects on her own time at school and her awareness of educational segregation. “The only time we saw people from other faith schools was when we played hockey with each other, or football with each other, or rugby, or whatever. And there was always that feeling of, ‘We’re going over to ‘their side’ of the city. Or they would say the same thing, that they were coming to ‘our side’ of the city.”
“Children don’t know about division, especially if you get them young. And if they can be educated together, it means that in the future Northern Ireland can be a much more integrated place. It doesn’t change people’s identities at all. It doesn’t indoctrinate them in anything. It just makes everybody see that we’re all the same. And I think that’s really important.”
On Thursday Maxine will be back in Belfast for her TEDx talk in the grand surroundings of Stormont – a building that isn’t being used for much else at the moment. In her freelance role she does motivational speaking, debate facilitation and panel moderation. What if Northern Ireland’s political parties were sensible enough to call on her expert skill?
“I think I would say to them, ‘You know what, there’s no harm in talking’. Talking doesn’t hurt,” Maxine gently points out. “People have lots of assumptions, misconceptions, preconceptions, all of that. Talking is the only way to actually get over this. And sometimes I think talking has to come with compromise as well – from both sides.”
“Every time I go home, you get the taxi driver, you get my family, you get my friends, and people are frustrated. Because the only people who are actually being hurt by this are the normal people of Northern Ireland. And it’s just awful to see. I think if we can all talk – us women on the 2nd November – why can’t the politicians do it? We all do it every day.”
But beyond Maxine’s frustration with Northern Ireland politics, she is firmly optimistic about the future.
“The Belfast of today is completely different from the Belfast of my youth. We had the ring of steel and the big gates, and you put your arms up every time you went into a shop to get searched. You go into Belfast now and it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s really coming into its own.”
She thinks about her niece in her early 20s. “She just wants to have that life of any 23-24 year-old and doesn’t understand, nor really does she care, about all the rest of it. She just wants the country to run properly and when you see it through the eyes of someone in that generation, it’s really interesting, because they’re not bogged down with the past.”
When Maxine delivers her TEDxStormont talk this week, let’s hope that some of our politicians are in the audience to take note of her energy and enthusiasm. “I’ve always been a great supporter of Northern Ireland, because I’m from there and it’s close to my heart. I’ve seen a huge change over the last 20 years or so, and I’m hoping that will continue. If we could just get the politicians talking it just might!”
TEDxStormont Women will be taking place on Thursday 2 November at Parliament Buildings.
Tina McKenzie: Award-winning business leader, having worked across Europe over the last 20 years to connect people with the right skills with the right jobs.
The Women in Business Choir: The WIB choir is led by choirmaster Katie Richardson.
Goldie Fawn: Goldie Fawn is the musical project of musician, MD, facilitator and activist, Katie Richardson
Maxine Mawhinney: Award-winning international journalist and broadcaster.
Elizabeth Flilippouli: Serial entrepreneur, founder and CEO of Global Thinkers Forum.
Ana Matronic: Artist, musician, author, DJ, radio and television presenter, and public speaker.
Jayne Gallagher: People manager, networker and Chartered Marketer.
Lyra McKee: Freelance journalist. Publications include Buzzfeed, The Atlantic, Private Eye.
Rosemary Jenkinson: Writer, artist-in-residence at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.
Vanessa Woolf: Specialises in stories for adults in urban environments.
June Burgess: Property developer, leadership coach and international equestrian.
Naomh McElhatton: Director of Digital Education at SMART NI and House of Comms (UAE).
Clare Mulley: Award-winning author, historian of women and war.
Also published on Medium.