Clive Myrie: The power of journalism
Clive Myrie, BBC news anchor, journalist and documentary maker, has made a career delivering tumultuous news in a voice of calm. With a new memoir published and ahead of his ICAS appearance, he talks to Lysanne Currie about race, vulnerability and hope.
Clive Myrie remembers the first time he brought his personal feelings into his reporting. It was 11pm, 4 November 2008, and he was in Atlanta covering the US presidential election. Despite stints for the BBC as Los Angeles, then Washington DC correspondent, Clive had only been cleared to go a week before polling day. “There was a sense that being a black man reporting on the first African American to have a good chance of winning the White House, I might bring an added texture to the coverage,” he says.
Clive was reporting into the BBC’s America Election Special. Minutes after the result was declared, he was live on air, “happy, excited and elated that Obama had done it,” as he recalls. He relayed the emotion in the hall and the importance of the moment. Then, he says, “I decided to do something I had never done before as a reporter. I felt compelled to convey my own emotions about what had just happened.” He went on to describe his feelings, as a black man, that to be there was “astonishing and a privilege and a moment I will never forget”.
David Dimbleby thanked him and moved on – leaving Clive to go into a spiral of self-criticism: “Why did I put myself into the story. It’s not about me… over-emotional nonsense, I felt stupid, idiotic and foolish.” Then he looked up and saw a black correspondent from one of the US networks in tears. “I realised then that I had not been stupid in trying to convey how I felt about that night. In fact it was one of the best things I had ever done as a BBC journalist,” he says.
Balancing the human side with succinct, objective reporting is something the journalist, News at 10 anchor and Mastermind host excels at. Clive is supremely skilled at conveying a clear message whether that’s the death of the Queen or a war update delivered from a Ukraine rooftop. He’s no longer nervous of showing his emotions – in fact, he thinks it’s vital to being able to connect with the audience in a noisy media landscape.
“As BBC presenters we self-censor but we have the same reactions to things as everybody else,” he says. “And why shouldn’t that be the case? I’m happy the Lionesses did brilliantly. Why shouldn’t I show that on air? How can a nurse kill babies? I need to show my disgust. I have to because I am a human being like anybody else. If you’re on the right side of history, and on the right side of the debate with the rest of humanity, show it.”
Clive grew up in Bolton. A shy child, at pre-school he was mute for several weeks, and on his first day at primary school he was sick. His parents were part of the Windrush generation and he grew up living with racial injustice. He remembers his mum coming home angry from work after someone had asked her where her tail was because “all black people were monkeys”.
The first inkling of his passion for journalism came on his paper round (he would read the front page stories out loud, newsreader style), but he chose instead to study law and was expecting to be a barrister. When he was offered a Middle Temple place he swerved, following his heart to join the prestigious BBC graduate scheme and begin a career as a news journalist.
Clive’s idea for his memoir, Everything is Everything, came out of a tumultuous few years in which he reported on Covid-19, the George Floyd protests and the war in Ukraine. “There was a sense perhaps my story tied into a lot of those big events that have taken place over the last 10 to 15 years. I’m on the frontline reporting, or I’m at some press conference, and I’m thinking this is affecting me way more than people understand. My two older brothers were caught up in the Windrush scandal and then I report on the Rohingya people kicked out of a land [Myanmar] they’ve called home for decades. I liked the idea of trying to find those stories that somehow crossed over into my private life.”
Clive believes we are now in an “age of feeling and purpose” and says it is essential that news reporters bring out the human stories. We talk about the contrast between two stories that ran on the same day in June – the five who died on the Titan submersible and the 62 migrants who died off the coast of Italy. The global audience was more engaged with the fate of five millionaires on a submersible than they were with the migrants.
“In [the migrant] situation we just saw heads bobbing about in canoes. We don’t tell their individual stories or where they’re from. Why are they running? We need to show the connection to what is going on in the world – political corruption, climate change. That’s half the reason these people are on the boats. If you can’t grow crops where you’re living, you have to leave.
“Part of the job of a news journalist is to bring out the human element in order to engage with the guy in the chip shop in Burnley. We are touched by those things that connect us and that’s when change can start to happen.”
Making the link
He is brilliant – in the way that only people with truly global outlooks can be – at connecting the dots that explain the populist turn in politics. “In 2008, there was a huge financial crash and a lot of people were hurt by that – but not a single banker went to jail,” he says. “Working-class people ended up paying for that, having to live with austerity, services cut. They were angry. This was the first time it had hit white America that that could happen. So they went for this bloke [Trump] who’s promising everything. ‘He may be a jerk but and I’ve seen him on The Apprentice, and he seemed to do OK with those businesses.’
“What I’m slightly surprised about is that it’s gone on so long. And it’s not just here or in America – it’s in France and Germany with the rise of parties on the right. There’s a sense that capitalism, and the way Western democracies have operated over the last 60 years, has not benefited enough people.”
Clive cites Milton Friedman, who he sees as sparking a form of capitalism that values profits above all. “On one level, you see where he’s coming from – prioritise shareholders as they put the money into the business,” he says. “But if you’re not thinking in a holistic way about businesses, and the fact that they’re built on the shoulders of everybody, you’re going to get disparity and division and wealth being distributed just to one section of society.
“It’s a tricky one to get across, that you don’t build your business on your own. You might have come up with a brilliant idea and got it to market and now you’re a big success. But the education of your workers is paid for by everybody else, you’re only able to take your stuff to market on roads paved by some bloke or woman, you’re only able to operate freely and fairly and securely because of a police force paid by everybody else. Business can get caught up with share price and dividends and forget the people who keep things going. The disparity between the CEO and the lowest-paid worker in businesses has gone crazy in recent years. That’s simply wrong.”
Clive is pro-business, however, warning us not to sweep the good out with the bad. “The headlines can hit you with corruption but we have to remember that the vast majority of companies are trying their best, they are good and very well run,” he says. “They are critical to the lifeblood of our society.”
Clive is optimistic for the future. His book is full of warmth and hope, peppered with stories about the unsung heroes, the “quiet revolutionaries”, from Rosa Parks to his parents. He puts his faith now in a forthright generation calling out corruption and inequality.
“Gen Z aren’t worrying about pension plans. What matters to them is a company that falls in line with values: diversity, inclusion, equity. If they don’t see that they will call it out. Sure, the previous generations called things out – but over time you mellow.” He includes himself in the latter, despite the constant stream of racism he has faced: excrement in the post, a card with a gorilla. “Now I just feel pity for these people. I balance my anger with their inadequacy.”
Clive was adamant early in his career he didn’t want to be the go-to person for the “black stories” – a stance which has changed with his growing confidence. “I really kicked against it,” he says. “I just wanted to do my job, make a bit of money, be able to eat nicely and be happy. I wanted my career to be defined by my ability to cover a whole range of stories. But sometimes a role is thrust upon you. And if you are the only person who is able to get across that particular mindset, that’s really important.
“I get it that people don’t just want to be seen as the black accountant, or the person on the diversity panel. That’s fine: take your time – and listen. Suss out the parameters within which you can operate and develop your own voice. And understand the sensibilities of people around you. You want to bring people with you and have them buy into your ideas.”
A regular speaker at business events, Clive pinpoints the common thread running through those businesses he believes have healthy, diverse and inclusive cultures. “It’s because it comes from the top,” he says. “That awareness filters down to everybody. Human connection again.”
Clive Myrie will be speaking at HMS Belfast, London on 2 November, 18.30. To attend, register here.