Anna Thorne talks to Anushka Asthana, Sky News’ Chief Political Correspondent, about her career
‘Journalism is probably the most exciting thing you can do’ begins Asthana, ‘you’ll get to do so much more than your friends who go into banking or law[…]I’ve interviewed Nick Clegg and gone to Perth on an overnight trip with David Cameron (no, nothing dodgy)’. During a short time working at The Washington Post, ‘I even got asked to interview an up and coming senator: Barack Obama’.
But Asthana’s job is more diverse than simply interviewing politicians and ‘there are highs and lows’. Early on in her career she was asked to cover two honour killings in Yorkshire – one case of a girl having been shot by her father on holiday and one of a bride stabbed while still in her wedding dress – knocking on the families’ doors; ‘you have to justify it to yourself and that can be difficult’. Later on, she spent hours in the cold and rain outside the house of Kenneth Bigley, a British hostage beheaded in Iraq in 2004, getting nowhere. ‘It was definitely a low’. But she was then saved by the music editor asking her to fly to Peurter Rico to report on a hip-hop festival out there. This was one of the highs. In a similar vein, Asthama has worked as an undercover drinker, speed dater and waitress among other things; things like this ‘move you onto much bigger, more exciting things’. And then ‘when you get splashes, it really is the biggest buzz you get’.
Making breaks can be a struggle though. ‘In my twenties I travelled to the Congo and Afghanistan. The first time I went to Afghanistan I couldn’t cope with the heat; watching a parade I was meant to be reporting on, the next thing I know I was in the arms of a soldier having collapsed. It was so embarrassing. Here were soldiers in a warzone and I couldn’t even cope with heat’.
Asthana also describes a recent incident this winter when reporting live she’d grabbed a pair of gloves, only to find she had lost one of them. ‘I did the story live, forgetting I only had one on. I went back to the office and everyone burst out laughing. Apparently at one point, I’d even said “on the one hand…and on the other” using my hands to gesture. That incident was so bad that one viewer anonymously sent me a pair of gloves.’
Often being a journalist is more glamorous than this; ‘you get experiences you couldn’t have dreamt of…sometimes you can’t believe how important it is, what’s being said in the room you’re in. During the Ukraine crisis I had daily meetings with David Cameron’ and what he was saying in those meetings were crucial. Entering this world of the political lobby wasn’t without its challenges though; ‘The Lobby seemed like a weird old boys club to me. David Cameron was all chummy with his mates at The DailyMail and The Sun. In many ways you’re outside of this boy’s club but you can break through’. Is House of Cards at all accurate in its representations of the relationships between politicians and journalists then? ‘Well, I’m definitely not sleeping with any politicians. And I definitely can’t see Nick Clegg pushing me under a train….but the relationship between politicians and journalists is an important one. It’s very difficult – you build a relationship with them and sometimes you find yourself getting quite matey and then you both have to act professionally when you screw each other over’.
And for all its excitement and laughs, journalism is a very tough world. For a start, ‘it’s absolutely male dominated’. In the House of Commons ‘my friend sat down in a corridor in the hall and guys opposite started shouting “knickers” at her. In what other place does that happen?! But it happens in the House of Commons.’ ‘A hell of a lot still needs to be done’ about the gender imbalance.
Journalism is also excessively high pressured. ‘In newspapers there is huge pressure to get exclusives. If you don’t get exclusives, get stories in the paper, your boss thinks you haven’t done any work’. It is for this reason, perhaps, that it is such a cut-throat industry. ‘Everybody acts differently as a journalist. Maybe I’m too nice, but I try and establish trust with my sources. Personally, I think its all about trust and building relationships. Sometimes this means you lose a story but I’d rather do that than be a nasty piece of work’. After examples like Rebecca Brookes this isn’t particularly surprising. Phone hacking though is ‘more of a tabloid issue. I think it’s good that it’s happened though – it stops people writing stories through these means and makes us question whether we’re too close to our sources.’
How to stop things like phone hacking occurring has been the source of much debate. ‘The problem with the Leveson Inquiry though is that if you’re going to clamp down hard on print journalism but leave blogs to carry on as before then it does make it virtually impossible for newspapers to keep going’. ‘I find it a hard thing to square. These blogs are being written outside the law – once it’s out there, it’s out there. We believe things need to be checked’.
And questions of bias need to be raised too. How hard is it, for example, to keep personal bias out of reporting? ‘Every newspaper has its bias and you have to work within that framework. The Washington Post is obsessed with being unbiased. I think you have to be realistic. You have to try your hardest to be unbiased. But The Washington Post’s ideal is unrealistic.’ And indeed often they cannot live up to their own standards; ‘they claim they’re unbiased but they have failed to hold the American government responsible for the Iraq war. There’s a deference for the White House that we just don’t have. I think it’s a good thing that the British lobby doesn’t behave itself though. We’re free to ask the Prime Minister whatever we like…I recently had to stick my hand up in an internal press conference and ask about Nigella Lawson. It was very embarrassing. But I do think it’s a good thing that we can ask the Prime Minister about issues that the nation actually think and care about’.