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October 22, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:42am

Dorothy Byrne on how to move from newsroom to boardroom: ‘Never forget you are a journalist’

By Dorothy Byrne

Dorothy Byrne was head of news and current affairs at Channel 4 and is now the station’s editor at large. She reveals her leadership lessons and how she dealt with sexism and elitism in the newsroom.

When the editor of Press Gazette asked me to write about being a senior news manager, I had to admit the truth: if you’re a good journalist, there are two routes open to you.

You can just carry on being a good journalist or you can climb the greasy pole into management. I was for years a producer/director on World in Action which must have been the best job in television journalism. I would have been happy to continue working at it all my life but I wanted to have a baby.

In current affairs, if you want to go home at night instead of wandering the globe, more often Accrington than Accra in reality, you have to become a boss. So I became a boss to have a baby; that’s my confession. I had no management experience or training and I had the added challenge of being a woman manager in the world of investigative journalism, an occupation dominated by posh men.

While the investigative journalist in feature films is generally portrayed as a bit of rough, when I won the coveted role of commissioning editor of Dispatches at Channel Four I found that a high number of those I was now working with had not only been to Oxbridge and public schools, but had attended one specific school; Westminster. The same was true of my rivals at the BBC.

The BBC once accidentally invited me to one of their awaydays. It’s the sort of ludicrous mistake only the BBC could make. Over lunch, one of their top journalists asked me: “What college did you attend?” It took me a moment to realise he was just assuming I had been to Oxford or Cambridge and that he thought this mattered.

“Manchester University,” I replied. I wanted to say, “And because I received a really good education there, I wouldn’t have been so stupid as to invite my rival to an internal awayday and, had she had the gall to turn up, I wouldn’t have let her in.”

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Some of the sexism I suffered at the start was shocking. But the person shocked by it wasn’t me, it was my deputy Julian Bellamy, now head honcho at ITV Studios.

There was one particular man we worked with regularly who, whenever I spoke to him, addressed his replies to Julian. It was Julian who pointed this out to me. One time in a cutting room, a producer treated me with utter contempt, dismissing my comments with open misogyny. When we emerged, Julian exclaimed, “Well, we don’t ever need to work with him again!” It was a beautiful moment in my working life. I realised that I had got so used to sexism that I just put up with a lot of it. It took a young man to show me it was always absolutely unacceptable.

I had to demonstrate I could handle the job and the hours

I had a live-in nanny so that I would have guaranteed childcare if I had to work late. Nowadays, both men and women will regularly leave work because the nursery says their child feels a bit ill or they have to take them to the GP. I would never have dared to say that. It wasn’t that anyone told me I couldn’t go home, I myself felt that I had to demonstrate I could handle the job and the hours. I felt I had to work harder than men. My biggest piece of advice to my own daughter is that she shouldn’t work as hard as I have in my life.

Now Channel Four and other broadcasters give new commissioning editors some training but twenty years ago, while kind colleagues gave me good advice, essentially I had to work out for myself how to be a manager.
At first, I found it hard not to be the journalist investigating the story myself. Early on, someone said they urgently needed an experienced producer/director who knew West Africa and had a yellow fever vaccination certificate. I said at once, “That’s me. I can do it”, before remembering I was now one of the boss class.

It took me time to realise that the great thing about being a manager was that you could employ people who were better than you were. You went home every night to the safety of your bed while they went to Sierra Leone or Solihull but when they won awards, you gained reflected glory and got to drink champagne.

I had one particular moment in those early days when I went to view a film, based on an idea I’d had myself, ‘100% English’. We had advertised for people who were sure they were pure English and then given them DNA tests with predictable results. When the film ended, I turned to the team and said, “That film was better than the film I would have made myself.” It was a wonderful revelation; that I could achieve more as a manager of journalists than I would have been able to achieve if I had carried on as a producer/director. I could never myself have won all the amazing awards Channel Four News and Current Affairs has won over the years.

Now there are far more women in senior positions in journalism and some of the old sexists have passed on to the great newsroom in the sky. I was going to say ‘God rest their souls’ but I’m not sure they all had souls. Because I have spoken out about dirty bastards of the past, young women now talk to me from time to time of their experiences.

There is a particular scenario they describe. Their short-term contract is coming to an end, the boss suggests they go to dinner or chat over a drink about the future. Something awful doesn’t necessarily result but the young woman feels uncomfortable and under pressure.

Maybe the boss was just being nice but he should think through how it’s likely to come across. But other young women have told me about open suggestions from their male managers that having sex with them would help their careers. That’s another reason why it’s important to have more senior women managers in an organisation. It changes the culture. And potentially cuts down on the expenses bill.

I have one tip for newsroom managers. In your heart, you need to stay a journalist. Never think of yourself as a manager. That way, when there are difficult decisions, you will always put the journalism first. So your newsroom will do great things because, deep inside you, you’re not a manager at all.

(And if you wonder how I was ever invited to a BBC internal awayday, at which each department revealed many of their programme plans for the coming year, I met a man at a dinner party, to whom I revealed the name of my employer and who told me that he thought I was fascinating. He said he had been asked to organise a BBC awayday on the environment and to invite a few external people to inspire discussion. Would I come? He was definitely right about my presence inspiring discussion.)

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