By Eimer McAuley
Renowned journalist and former RTÉ London correspondent, Fiona Mitchell, gave a talk to NUI Galway students on her career, her take on current political affairs and the state of the media in the James Hardiman Library last week.
With no journalism course available to her at the time, Mitchell graduated from NUI Galway with a degree in Sociology, Politics and History in 1993 and continued on to complete a Masters in History in NUI Maynooth, as she was told that there were no jobs in journalism.
Though journalism was not necessarily a part of Mitchell’s background, coming from a small village outside of Tullamore in County Offaly, the former London correspondent said that she grew up in a household where the daily newspaper was read from “cover to cover”, and “No one spoke once the 6 o’clock news came on”.
Doing unpaid work experience at a local radio station, Mitchell admitted that she “got the journalism bug”. Despite working as a fundraiser for the Labour Party in the heyday of Blair’s New Labour, when she got a phone call offering her a full-time place in radio at home in Ireland, she jumped at the chance, though, “Friends and family thought I was mad to go home to Ireland”.
Mitchell made the transition from local radio to television in 1998 with new station TV3, and from there to the RTÉ newsroom, where she says she is still sometimes referred to as “that girl from TV3”.
Mitchell worked primarily as News Editor at the national broadcaster, but, when she happened to be in Rome on sabbatical during the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, she got caught in, what she recalls as, “the biggest eight week news rollercoaster of my life”. Mitchell had been bitten by that same bug that motivated her to join the industry nineteen years before. She applied to be RTÉ’s London correspondent in the seemingly chaotic time of the David Cameron/Nick Clegg–led coalition, and with some nostalgia and amusement she reflected on the fact that, now, those seemed like “rosy days”. Little did she know that the next four and a half years would prove to be an even bigger storm than the one she found herself caught up in in Rome all those years ago, as she took on the task of reporting the twists and turns of Brexit to Irish viewers at home.
When one student asked Fiona if the field outside of Westminster had any grass left on it, a peal of laughter went around the room and she said that, having become friends with one of the gardeners, the amount of press outside the Houses of Parliament had meant that it had become “really mucky”, and Mitchell has to wear a pair of wellies just to make sure she didn’t “slide away”.
Mitchell said that Brexit had meant that she had to learn more about the logistics and obscurities of Westminster Parliamentary procedure than would have been required of her before taking up the role as London correspondent. Some of the librarians in Westminster even became her “very good friends”, in her search for understanding the weird world of Westminster. She also commented on the role Northern Ireland played in the Brexit campaign and the on-going Stormont negotiations, opining that it was a much under-considered factor and the consequences of this were being seen now.
When asked if she ever switches off from the news, Mitchell confessed that it is hard to do so, but that she thinks the ability to do so is part of what being a good journalist is about. In terms of predictions for the future of British politics, Mitchell said that anyone who knows what is going to happen is lying, “It’s time to throw out the history book”, was her final comment of the talk.