Dan Walker on the ‘unreality’ of social media and the remarkable people that bring him hope

Dan Walker discusses the best and worst of people in this week's Big RT Interview – from social media toxicity to remarkable stories that have shaped his own thinking.

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Dan Walker

“I was asked if I would write a book about things I’ve done that have been significant in the industry over the last 20 years and I thought ‘that sounds vile’… no-one cares how I feel!”

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Dan Walker is the face of two iconic BBC institutions, the envy of any number of aspiring news and sports journalists alike, yet genuine humility, a sense of absolute normality, anchor him in the real world.

He isn’t BBC Breakfast and Football Focus star Dan Walker, he is very ‘Dan from Crawley, via Sheffield’.

Despite his warm manner, authentic politeness and ‘good guy’ vibes, the 43-year-old often finds himself in No Man’s Land, polarised Britain entrenched either side of him, launching remorseless grenades via their keyboards through the online theatre of war: Twitter.

Walker has tallied up 670,000 followers across 11 years on the platform, frequently sparring with breakfast TV rival Piers Morgan, weighing in with important snack updates and, particularly during the early days, making many a day with his esteemed football pun XIs.

But the barbs still cut through his typically light-hearted festivities.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com, Walker said: “We all moan ‘be good’, ‘be kind’, ‘oh Caroline Flack, how sad’ and then within 24 hours you’re slinging mud, throwing stones and it’s hard.

“I try not to get involved, sometimes I don’t find the right word or say something that’s not quite what I mean but I’m on the end of it quite a bit, especially with things around Brexit and COVID and the election before that. My mindset gives me a good perspective. I know that my value doesn’t come from what people think of me.

“I don’t expect everyone to like me. I think Terry Wogan once said that ‘at best 50 per cent of people like you, the other 50 per cent don’t matter, you can’t convince them, you can’t change their mind’. Every day I get accused of being a Tory boy or a Corbynista or a Labour lad, and whoever you interview you get accused from the other side about being biased in that way.

“Every day you interview a government minister and you’re either shouting over them too much or not interrupting enough. You can’t base your mood or mental state on those assessments because I’ve never met anyone in real life who is that angry.”

He laughs; he always laughs. It’s a good trait, to be able to see through the unreality of social media, and Walker is adamant that for all the stinging criticism he receives, it’s “not a reflection of real life”.

He continued: “I do have that distance from it. Sometimes I challenge people but most of the time I just know that’s not what life is really like. I know that when people say they ‘hope you die’ or when they ‘hope your kids die’ or ‘hope your mum gets cancer’, I’m pretty sure that’s not what they really think. I don’t allow that to interrupt my thought processes. I can laugh the vast majority of it off.”

We live in a world of slogans, awareness and action, but change? Can we turn the tide or is online abuse to be expected forevermore?

Walker turns sombre. He grapples with the current climate, while also taking issue with solutions that don’t appear to be stemming the tide.

Racism and sexism have come to the forefront of conversation in society, and by extension, football and broadcasting, arenas he loves dearly.

He admits that while the abuse he receives feels unnecessary, unwarranted, unfair, others in a similar position are more frequently, more viciously scythed down based on external factors.

Dan Walker
Walker has slammed the toxicity of social media
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Former England footballer Alex Scott and ex-Man City defender Micah Richards have justifiably carved out punditry roles across multiple major TV broadcasters including BBC and Sky Sports, and Walker has spoken out about the vitriol spat in their direction.

“I’d like to be in a world where nobody has to face that sort of abuse for whatever it might be, but we’ve got to teach our kids to be really robust and to be able to accept that they can change the world they live in, but also they’ve got to learn to live with some of the vileness that is around. They can’t always be protected from that. I also think, as Dion Dublin said the last time I asked him about racism in football, he’s fed up of wearing T-shirts and fed up with slogans, he just wants to see a change.

“I’m sometimes amazed by some of the bile that comes Alex Scott’s way or Micah Richards’ way over a statement or a comment and I think people in Alex’s position, they have to be so on it and so careful as to what they say.

“They have to be so ‘on it’ and so careful about what they say because people will jump on something if I make a mistake, I once got a question wrong on Question of Sport about Emile Heskey and I had six weeks of people telling me what an idiot I was and shouldn’t be doing the job.

“But if I was in Alex’s position and I was a woman and got something wrong, the criticism is far worse because people have already got their knives out for her. There’s still a small portion of people who think she shouldn’t be doing the job because she’s a woman, she shouldn’t be sat there in a pundit’s chair.

“I think she, and many other women, are proving the neanderthals wrong because they do know their stuff and they are more than capable of holding their own in a discussion and leading a discussion and showing what they know about the game and doing all the things you’d expect a pundit or a presenter to do.

“It will take a long time to eradicate that from the game and society in general,” he sighs: “That’s sad, but I think it’s also realistic.”

Alex Scott
Alex Scott comes under intense scrutiny on social media
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Walker is speaking ahead of the launch of his new book Remarkable People, a compilation of inspirational stories from ordinary – in the best sense of the word – people he has met over the years living through extraordinary circumstances, both joyous and torturous.

In it, he opens up about the sudden passing of his late friend Gary Speed, the legendary former Newcastle, Leeds and Wales footballer.

Just hours before then-Wales manager Speed died, he had featured on the Football Focus sofa alongside Walker.

The pair chatted, as friends would, as friends do. He previously told The Mirror: “We had a really good laugh. He was on great form, cracking jokes and asking about my family and kids. He was talking passionately about the future.”

That day left a ‘stain’ on Walker, he explained to RadioTimes.com.

“There are quite a few people in Gary’s inner-circle who will probably never come to terms with what happened, never fully understand it, and we’re all wondering whether we could have made a difference.

“That is the way with a death like that, that is the stain it leaves on people. You always wonder whether you could have done something, and that’s why it’s important to talk.

“Ask. Go further than ‘are you OK?’ sometimes. I think we are, as men, getting better about talking about it. Anybody who has lost a good friend to suicide has gone through the same sort of questions that I have asked myself about Gary. Could I have helped? Should I have helped? Could I have done more?

“Talk to your mates. Have your radar on. I still don’t know if I could have spotted anything on that day or the previous days. Gary was very good at hiding what he was going through, and who knows what he was going through? If his own family and his best mates couldn’t spot it, we’ve got to look out for each other haven’t we?

“The chapter started off about Gary Speed but actually it’s all about his sons who are…” Walker takes a moment. Typically a polished speaker, he takes frequent pauses to find the apt words to convey his sincere emotion: “…truly incredible.”

“Speaking to those two boys, as I say in the book – his death probably had a bigger impact on me than I ever thought – and talking to them for such a long period of time has really sort of helped me to come to terms with it really. I’m so amazed by how ‘with it’ they are. I know it must hurt, and it must still rip them to bits but they’re incredible young men.”

We spend time chatting through some of the tales beyond that of Speed and his sons.

“All of them have had a little impact on me,” he ponders. “Ilse Steyaert-Fieldsend, her daughter died when she was three-years-old on Christmas Day. Her and her husband had to make a big decision about organ donation. They donated their daughter’s organs on the day she died and saved the lives of four kids on that night. She is the reason I’m on the donor list, basically.

“The coronavirus chapter at the end, thankfully I’ve not had a member of my family who has died from coronavirus but we’ve all been affected by it mentally this year, but the way those people have met it full in the face – whether they’ve recovered from it or saved the lives of others, or made a difference.

“We can be so self-obsessed and wrapped up in our own little worlds and own little lives that we just forget about the millions of people out there who need our help, not to be daunted by that, but just to think about the few people who we can help in our little sphere.

“I’ve tried to show why it impacts me from a faith perspective. I really can’t fathom how people can survive without faith in God, particularly some of the people who have gone through these things. Whenever I hear that song, it just really starkly hits me.”

Walker, a self-professing Christian, is referring to a song he sings at church ‘O Lord, My Rock and My Redeemer’ a verse of which is acknowledged in Remarkable People.

A strong theme from the chat, a thread stitching it together, is the importance of how we treat each other, as Dan from Crawley via Sheffield, as Michael from Sunderland via London, as the real-world person tapping on their keyboard behind the display picture.

One of Walker’s most memorable moments came following a chance encounter with Tony Foulds, a Sheffield pensioner, in a city park.

His story is below in Walker’s tweets, and resulted in a dream memorial flypast by the US Air Force and RAF, bringing Sheffield out in their droves.

The impact of a brief chat escalated far beyond Tony.

“One conversation can make such a huge difference. I still see Tony two or three times a week in the park, we’re good mates now, and that came from one conversation by me asking him: ‘Are you OK?’

“This is not in the book, but we were walking together in the park about three weeks ago and this woman came up to us and said ‘I’ve been looking to speak to you two for about 12 months. I just wanted to say that I’ve been an alcoholic for 30 years and on the morning of the fly-past, I was lying in my bed, had been drinking for hours and I switched on the television and BBC Breakfast were down here.

“‘I saw that you were doing this flypast. I’ve been drunk for most of the week so didn’t know much about it, and I just thought I’d walk down to the park’. She said ‘I came down, stood near the front, pretty sozzled, met some amazing people, the spirit of the people and the way they dealt with each other, the nice feeling and vibe of the whole event and emotion of it all hit me so hard that I thought I’ve got to give life another try’.

“She said she had not touched a drop since that day. I knew nothing about this woman, Tony had never met her, and on the back of our conversation and everything that came from it, here’s one person – and even if it’s just one person that’s amazing – whose life has been turned around by one random meeting somewhere in a park.

“Look at the people we can have an impact on rather than just worrying about our own lives, try and make a difference somewhere else.”

Another theme of the chat is Walker’s insistence after almost every anecdote, every topic: “I hope that doesn’t sound too ‘holier than thou’. I didn’t want it to be like ‘oh, look at me I’ve done this’ – I hope that doesn’t come across like that. I’m always more comfortable talking about other people rather than talk about myself.”

Dan Walker
Walker is a regular fixture on BBC’s FA Cup coverage
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On that note, it feels almost ironic to end with, well, Dan himself.

“You never know how much of yourself to put in these books and I have wrestled with how much. The publishers are always saying ‘put a bit more about how you feel in’. No-one cares how I feel! I just want to write about these people.

“I just try to be the best person I can, that’s my motivation all the time. I just try to live my life in the right way, do the right things and do the small things well. That’s all I try to do, and if you try and do that, and if you’re faithful to God in that, hopefully your faint light will shine. I try and do everything in a way that embodies that, I don’t get it right all the time, but I try my best.

“I want to do things that make me slightly uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as Strictly Come Dancing…”

He laughs, a lot.

Remarkable People by Dan Walker is published by Headline priced £20.00. Visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight, or check out our guide to new TV shows 2020 to find out what’s airing this autumn and beyond.

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