We spoke to broadcast journalist Julie Etchingham of ITV News for our first podcast of 2021 about what it's like to report on the pandemic. As Julie states: “You never forget at the heart of this every single day are grieving families.”
A very well-known and familiar face from the television, Julie Etchingham of the ITV News at Ten, spoke to us for our first podcast of 2021. She was in conversation with James Abbott.
Listen to our interview with Julie Etchingham in episode 22 of our podcast: Reporting on Death and Dying during the Pandemic.
It’s a joy to welcome a good friend of The Art of Dying Well, the journalist and newscaster Julie Etchingham. Julie, how are you?
“I’m very well, thank you. It’s lovely to hear you in my ears – in my little headphones; very familiar territory to all of us.”
The first thing you can clear up for me – and I’ve always had this slight issue myself way back from early radio days. What do you prefer? Broadcast journalist, news anchor, presenter, newscaster?
“Oh just journalist, that’s good enough for me. That’s the job, isn’t it? Whichever guise it sort of pops up in, whether you’re doing a podcast or you’re writing something, in the end you’re there to get to a decent story, get to the truth of something and communicate it. So I’m always very happy with journalist; that does me super fine.”
Yes, there’s something very credible about that. But then I always see at the end of the News at Ten on ITV, the words ‘newscaster’.
“Yes. It’s quite an old fashioned word really, isn’t it? It sort of makes you think of Alastair Burnett and all of those late greats.”
You’ve been covering all the big stories. Everyone’s fully aware of Brexit, especially now it’s come into force. The US presidential elections, how can we not have seen what’s going on on the other side of the pond? You’ve also chaired leaders debates at election time; all the big stories basically. But one story sadly, that involves too much death and dying is Covid-19. How has it been covering that?
“Well, it’s a story like no other, it won’t surprise you to hear me say that really, because the key distinction is that ordinarily, if you’re covering really tough stuff, and relaying those stories to our audience, you can at the end of the day, close the door and get a bit of head space and try to allow yourself to think through what you’ve either witnessed, or the stories that you’ve told. And, clearly with this story, you can’t do that because we’re all living it as well as telling the story. So that is the crucial distinction I suppose.”
“One of the things that I think will never leave me was on the night of the original lockdown, March the 23rd last year, I was on News at Ten that night. And, it’s funny because when you’ve got an enormous story like that, which is the announcement of a full lockdown, when you’re on air with it, you’re just focusing so hard on getting the detail right, getting the tone right, that you’re in that sort of pure concentration moment. It’s only when you step back from it, you realize the gravity and the scale of what you’ve helped communicate.”
“And at that point, because none of us were travelling on public transport because of the risks of Covid, I was driving home. And so I got in my car after the bulletin that night and drove home through almost deserted streets in London. And pretty much the only other vehicles on the road were ambulances.”
“I was driving past a couple of London’s big hospitals, and it touches you very deeply, you know. And actually in this new lockdown – with this horrendous situation we’re living through at the moment with what the hospitals are trying to deal with – that has come back in with some force.”
“So that’s the grand distinction between covering Covid and covering all of the other big stories. And, and for all journalists, the last five years have been nonstop, whether it’s been Brexit, whether it’s been snap elections, leadership contests; all the ups and downs of the politics. This now has just taken us onto a completely different level because we’re all dealing with it in our home lives, as well as we are in our work lives.”
Well, it’s interesting you saying that because obviously our subject matter here on the Art of Dying Well, does touch everyone. We will all die, of course. And that point about the only vehicles being ambulances… I was walking my dogs yesterday, and our road is not particularly long, and there were two ambulances there and I just rather somberly looked across and thought, wow, two, two ambulances on this short road. This is touching our neighbours, everyone in and around us.
One question I wanted to ask you is about the sensitivity that obviously as a journalist you have with serious subjects… but have you found it difficult, day in and day out, to keep that lin; everyone’s been impacted by this so I have to handle this in a certain way, or does the professionalism just kick in and off you go?
“I think it’s a moment actually, you know, I suppose like all journalists working on this story, you have that dreadful daily punctuation point of the statistics coming out about Covid; the statistics around the new cases; but clearly far more importantly, the statistics around those who’ve lost their lives, and it is making sure that you are never inured to that figure because it is now a daily feature of what we’re reporting.”
“And when you’re in the moment of planning news programmes; with all of the technical stuff that you have to get right for a TV news bulletin – making sure that you can get it on air, all of the pieces are there on time, that they’re scripted correctly, and factually that they’re all correct – that you never forget at the heart of this every single day are grieving families.”
“And I suppose that I just try as hard as I can never to forget that – in the practical process of putting a news programme together – just never to forget when you’re reading out that figure – day in, day out -that you don’t lose that empathy and sympathy with the families who are dealing with that.”
“And it is a conversation that we often have in the newsroom, is to remember that means tonight there are more than a thousand families grieving, just on today’s figures. You can’t sort of let it overwhelm you because you’ve got a job to do, but equally it is so crucial that we don’t lose that absolute human understanding of the impact that it’s having on people’s lives.”
“And it’s really tricky, because I was in a conversation with somebody on a webinar the other evening and they said ‘oh goodness could you bring some good news? Can you bring us something to lift our spirits?’
“And we try so hard every day to make sure that we’ve got something on the agenda which brings hope. That might even just be the number of vaccinations that have been achieved that day. It might be some great news about a new vaccine getting its certification for use. On other days, we might have a lovely piece about these amazing heroic stories of what people are achieving in lockdown and how they’re serving others, but there is no getting away from it. This is a terrible story about an enormous loss of life. There’s no getting around that. We have to keep in human contact with that story that we’re telling.”
Not for one second would I equate what doctors, nurses, professionals, carers, are going through with perhaps what the likes of us go through in our daily lives, but do you feel somewhat drained when there have been those reminders… you’ve thought very sensitively about how this is going to be put across, and you’ve felt that need to bring a little bit of hope as well, but do you finish work and think, oh goodness, I’m so drained, I feel a bit low.?
“It does get to you, you wouldn’t be a human in this job if it didn’t. And that goes for other big stories that we cover, whether when there’s been either a natural disaster, or in recent years we’ve had to report on appalling terrorist attacks as well. It does stay with you for a bit. And it’s important that you process it.”
“Actually, I have to say sometimes that feeling isn’t just after we’ve been on air. Sometimes when I know that the death figures are truly dreadful, as they are at the moment, I go on air with a heavy heart and wish that I could bring somebody some comfort with the programme. It is hard sometimes to think about getting on air and relaying some of this because it’s as grim as it gets really.”
“But we have an enormous privilege in doing this with as much sensitivity and as much thought and care as we possibly can. And, I know that I’m hugely proud of our correspondents who are out on the frontline, covering the story and are doing it with great compassion and great sensitivity. And I think that’s what we can bring to this, I suppose, in that small service. And as you say, it’s not to put anything on any level with what our emergency services, and those in our care homes are doing – day in, day out – but in our small way we can hopefully contribute to how this country is handling it.”
And just a little aside to that, if you’re interviewing someone on the front line and you’ve got everything going on around you in the live production situation, how difficult is it to maintain that intense human link with a person, who might be getting upset or starting to get a bit distressed as they try and hold it together? Do you find with the artificiality of the broadcast situation, it’s hard to do that or do you just focus solely on the person?
“I think you’re so concentrated in that moment of making sure that you are allowing that person to relay their story as clearly as they possibly can. As a journalist, or as an anchor, my job is to just really help people get their stories out and get the truth out of situations.”
“So actually it’s really important that in moments like that, I’m not emotional. That’s not to say you don’t have empathy, and that’s not to say you don’t treat people kindly and with compassion, but my job is really as a conduit for them to get their stories out.”
“And I wouldn’t be doing my job if I allowed myself to be drawn into the emotion, because I’m there to help people get their stories told. So I deal with the emotion of it away from the microphone, and away from the office, and away from the studios, or wherever I’m recording. I think you just have to really be professional in that situation.”
Yes, absolutely. Now Julie, on a personal level, death and dying does touch us all, and it has you in recent times with your mother-in-law dying at the age of 98. I should stress that this isn’t a Covid situation, but nonetheless you’ve had that bereavement phase, the socially distanced funeral, I believe. In your personal experience, does bereavement feel in any way different or compromised at this time? Could one say that the art of grieving well is not so easy at the moment?
“Yes. That’s a really interesting question. Having listened to some of your podcasts before everyone has a different experience of it, and I should stress, this was my mother-in-law and she was at a very great age at 98, but she’d been in a care home for very many years with dementia. My husband had driven down to Canterbury every week to see her; for many years it was just a feature of our family life that he would get in the car and drive down to see her every week. And of course during 2020 for very many months, that was impossible, because the care homes were closed and they weren’t allowing visitors in. That was very, very hard for him not to be able to just go because it was part of the rhythm of the week.”
“We had that great blessing of having a lull in this last summer and late spring, and he got down to see her. But thankfully I should say that Covid never got into that care home. And she died naturally at the grand old age of 98 at the end of August. It was a long old path to that really. And I suppose we had had a process of letting go, which will be very familiar to families who have loved ones with dementia. That’s a sort of slow gradual, heartbreaking process, but it’s sort of a feature of that. So we had to have a socially distanced funeral. We had a cremation down in Kent and we sort of maxed out the numbers that we were allowed, but actually it was really rather beautiful, the cemetery couldn’t be in a more beautiful spot.”
“And because my husband’s been in broadcasting all his life as well, he’d actually sat down with his mum about 15 years ago. And on-camera got her to tell her life story because she’d lived through the second world war as a young woman; she’d got married during the war and her husband had gone off to fight and she hadn’t seen him for a long time. And then he came back and it was this incredible World War Two story. And Nick had made sure that we got it all recorded on camera and we actually played some of it at the funeral and it brought her back in a really vivid, beautiful way and in a way that we could all remember her, I remember her being exactly like that and what a good story she could tell, and how vividly she described it all.”
“It was a really sort of sacred moment really because we got the whole sense of her as a woman just by playing some of this video at the crematorium. And it gave us a connection to her that really worked beautifully. And then we had other family members who talked of their memories of her as a grandma and as a mother. And actually despite all of it, despite our little family bubbles; we’re all sitting on separate pews, there was no hugging allowed obviously, it was actually beautiful. And it was a lovely day and there are amazing gardens overlooking Kent when you come out of the crematorium and we could actually all go for a socially distanced sort of walk in the gardens. So there was some connection and it was a glorious day, and I just thought even though it would have been lovely if we could all have gone and had a sit down bite to eat afterwards and had a proper wake, if you like, but actually in the moment it was beautiful. I don’t think we could have given her a better sendoff in a way. So it’s strange to say, but even with a socially distanced funeral, it was lovely.”
People quite often look at numbers attending funerals as a measure of the esteem in which the person was held, or with the idea of giving them a good send off. Do you think the low numbers have an effect on the feel of the funeral, or if everyone goes there with that intention of celebrating the person it doesn’t really make so much difference?
“Well I’m in the very fortunate position of not having been to too many funerals. But I do remember one in our parish actually, where a very dear friend of ours who died very suddenly had the most incredible send off. It was a classic Catholic Requiem Mass; the church was absolutely heaving because he was a real member of the community at large, not just the parish community, and the church was packed and the singing was incredible, everybody went to the cemetery afterwards; it was a heartbreaking occasion. He really was a man in his prime. But the collective, literally physical support of having a packed church I’m sure must have brought enormous comfort. It’s lovely to be able to sit and exchange stories and exchange memories, it’s very, very human isn’t it, and it works when you’re in proximity, if you’re huddled in a restaurant, or a pub or someone’s house – I suppose there’s something particularly Irish Catholic about that you connect with very deeply.”
“I can’t speak for anybody else but I just know that going through a funeral in the way that we did, at the time that we did, it was as good as it possibly could’ve been, and also we had elderly relatives who couldn’t be there but watched it on Zoom, and really got a lot out of it. We sent them copies of the memorial service that we’d had at the crematorium, and people felt very connected to it, even though they were watching it on Zoom. So I suppose it was an adaptation of what one would wish for in normal times. But I think for very many people, I mean I have a colleague at work who lost somebody very close to them, somebody quite young, during the pandemic, and it was heartbreaking only to be able to have a few people there because all her friends wanted to be there in that moment when you physically say goodbye to somebody, and that is very, very hard I think. If it’s a different generation, a younger generation, it has a very different meaning to it, and sense around it.”
Yes, that’s a very good point indeed. Thank you for sharing that personal story, I appreciate that. Julie, thank you so much, thank you for your time.
It’s an important job that you do. Very interesting to hear about it as well. And hopefully you’ll come back on the podcast. If we can bend your arm.
“I’d love to, that’d be great. Thank you. It’s been fascinating, and listening to other contributors that you’ve had as well has been a real eye-opener actually. I love it.”
Excellent. Oh, wow. Well we need a shot in the arm sometimes.
“James, we all need one of those.”
Julie. Thank you ever so much, indeed.
Read more about Catholic Funerals and Cremations during the pandemic.
Listen to our interview with Julie Etchingham in episode 22 of our podcast: Reporting on Death and Dying during the Pandemic.