It was one news story Fiona Bruce had dreaded having to read. In May last year her close friend, the Sky TV executive Nick Milligan, and his eight-year-old daughter Emily, had been killed in a shocking motorboat accident in Cornwall. “I was not presenting the news the day it happened,” recalls Fiona, “but the story appeared on the schedule a second day and my colleagues knew how upset I was. I was told, ‘Take a day off: we can get someone else.’”
The randomness of the tragedy – in which Mr Milligan’s wife and son were also horrifically injured – the sense that disaster can loom out of a clear sky, has affected Fiona deeply. Occurring in the year before her 50th birthday, it made her want to celebrate life in all its fragile glory rather than fret for a moment about growing old.
“Because such a very, very good friend of mine died very young, far from being sad about the fact that I’m 50, I think: ‘Hurray, I’m 50 – and I’m still here.’ There’s nothing like that to put everything else into perspective. So there was no existential angst at all. It was all just a joy.”
Fiona says that, as she approached her big birthday, she was thinking, too, about her parents. Married for more than 60 years, they died recently just 18 months apart: “Good for them that they died so close together, but obviously not so great for us. The years where my parents were ill were really grim. And when they died, I was very, very sad for a quite a long time. And so here was an excuse to have a whale of a time and that’s what I did.”
Fiona was determined to have the best party she’d ever held, inviting many people from the BBC newsroom and dancing until 3am. “I wanted to dance until I dropped,” she says. “I had the night of my life.”
Speaking about her late friend, Fiona apologises for being “sad and maudlin”. She is friendly, thoughtful with a wry sense of humour, but has a pronounced and rather glamorous coolness. She remarks, as she strides very fast up three flights of stairs, that she loves the BBC’s new Portland Place HQ: “Because if I’m doing the six o’clock and ten o’clock bulletins, I can slip out in between to the Langham hotel bar across the road and have an evening cocktail.” Wow, I say, aren’t you worried about staying sharp? “I only ever have the one,” she says louchely.
That she can relax at all on such a frenetic day says much about her serene temperament. Fiona has been presenting the six o’clock more frequently lately, filling in for George Alagiah, who is receiving treatment for bowel cancer. Like other newsreaders, she does not merely speak others’ words like an actor. She arrives five hours before the six o’clock bulletin, attends meetings to discuss the running order, helps decide a story’s angle, writes her own links.
She is aware of the weight given to the end product: “What we try to do with the ten is create a record for the day of what’s happening in the world.” She enjoys working in a team and prefers off-screen newsgathering “by a country mile” to appearing on air. Viewers who watch her calm delivery may not realise how busy she is: during film segments she’s constantly tinkering with her script.
The day before we meet, when the news agenda is jammed with relentless grimness, Fiona is pleased to have trimmed a few seconds off reports about Iraq and Syria to include a happier story about the birth of a foal to legendary racehorse Frankel.
As she sits at that circular desk in the BBC newsroom, she is all alone except for a floor manager. Cameras are now remotely operated and, she says, sometimes crash into each other. Through her ear-piece she can hear her producers’ often shouty discussions in the gallery. Are they not distracting? “No, I like to hear what’s going on so I know if a problem is coming down the pipe.”
Her most chaotic bulletin was during the “shock and awe” bombings of Baghdad. The running order had been in constant turmoil and it dawned on Fiona live on air that a forthcoming item about Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon press conference hadn’t actually been written. Yet she had no way of warning the gallery her autocue was about to go blank.
While I was reading a story over pictures, I was waving my hands, but no one in the gallery noticed,” she says. “So, sure enough, I got to, ‘And tonight, the US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld, has said…’ and there was nothing! So I just stopped, looked down and waited. There was still a lot of shouting in the gallery until eventually I could hear the editor say, ‘Why isn’t Fiona talking?’”
The horror of sitting speechless in front of five million people didn’t faze her. Indeed she finds tricky bulletins full of editorial hand-brake turns the most satisfying: “When it all goes smoothly, professionally that’s less interesting.”
Although Fiona Bruce has presented the BBC news for 15 years now, she didn’t apply to be a journalist after Oxford (where she studied Italian and French). While well-connected contemporaries “were doing work experience in Channel 4 News, I was just stacking shelves in Safeway to earn some money for a holiday. They were in a different league to me. So it never crossed my mind.”
Fiona’s father, a Scotsman of limited education – “very quick mind and quite a quick temper” – who fought his way up from postboy to manage a division of Unilever, moved the family several times. Born in Singapore, Fiona lived in the Wirral then Milan before moving to Blackheath, south London. She considered doing her A-levels at a glamorous international school in Italy but her headmistress at Haberdashers’ Aske’s in New Cross dissuaded her.
She said, ‘Do you really want to do that? Because the friends you make here will be the friends that come to your wedding.’ And she was right. My best friends are my friends from school.
With two older brothers, Fiona was a tomboy, but also, she says, a little indulged by her father: “If ever I wanted, say, a new skirt, he was the one to go to. He was absolutely wrapped around my little finger.”
After university, Fiona worked for a management consultant then an advertising agency where she met her husband of almost 20 years, Nigel Sharrocks. They have two children – Sam, 16, and Mia, 12 – who are nonchalant about their mother’s TV fame. The only time their friends became excited, she says, was when she appeared on Top Gear: “That’s the zenith of my career as far as they’re concerned.”
It was not until 1989, when Fiona met the head of Panorama at a wedding, pestering him into employing her as a researcher, that she entered journalism. After working her way up to producer, she moved to Newsnight, where she was a reporter for two years.
Would she not like to be the new Jeremy Paxman? “It’s not on my radar, no,” she says. “I haven’t even thought about it. Because I love doing the six and the ten; it has a huge audience, so that’s quite a big thing to give up, that big an audience.” This is a polite way of saying that although Newsnight obsesses the media and politicians, fewer than 600,000 people watch it.
Yet Fiona, for all her peak-time following as presenter of Antiques Roadshow, isn’t one to milk fame. She’s turned down every celebrity TV how including Strictly, at which one feels with her willowy build – she’s 5ft 11 – and lithe way of moving, she might rather excel. Neither does she broadcast her life on social media, partly because she’s alarmed by the vitriol that female celebrities endure.
“I’m astonished at the freedom with which a depressingly large number of men feel they can just say what they want and write the most hideously misogynistic stuff about women,” she says. “And I look at my daughter and think, ‘God, I didn’t think this was coming your way.’ I really didn’t. The misogyny on the internet is a whole area that you and I would never have thought was coming.”
She is constantly amazed about interest in her appearance. When she told a journalist that she dyes her grey hair, John Humphrys asked the then BBC director-general George Entwistle about it on Radio 4’s Today programme: “I couldn’t believe it!” she says.
In the course of her career, attitudes have changed about women in news, driven, she says, by reporters such as Lyse Doucet: “Because when you listen to Lyse, you don’t think, ‘What is she wearing?’ Most of the time it’s a flak jacket. What you think is, ‘God – she’s in the middle of Aleppo risking her life.’”
Fiona is sanguine about the greater scrutiny her appearance receives as a prominent face of BBC news. She was amused when, aged 45, she came 98th in FHM’s Sexiest Women: “I’d like to point out I was the only one who was fully clothed.” But she still finds it odd when people stop her in the street to say they don’t like a particular jacket: “You think, ‘I really don’t like what you’re wearing either!”
There is no question, she says, that female presenters are valued differently from male counterparts. “Having said that, they’re all good-looking men – I can’t think of a male presenter who isn’t a good-looking bloke – but, you know, they’re not judged by their suits and ties.”
I wonder if the outcry about ageism against prominent older women (Miriam O’Reilly being dropped from Countryfile), plus the hasty commitment by new DG Tony Hall to putting more women on screen, has made Fiona feel more secure.
“I don’t mean to sound self-important or conceited,” she says. “I just wasn’t feeling insecure before then, and no one in anything I do had given me any reason to feel like that. I mean, when the axe falls, it will be swift, and I will read about it in a newspaper before I will get told by the BBC – that’s just life.”
What will she do when that finally happens? “I’d very much like to become a magistrate,” she says. “I’ve thought about doing it part-time while I’m working here, but I don’t have time.” It was her eight years on Crimewatch that made her think she’d like to see the justice system from a different side.
But wouldn’t it be weird for a defendant to see the face of BBC news across the judicial bench? “Yes,” says Fiona wryly. “Possibly it would.”