Me by Sarah Smith
BBC North America Editor Sarah Smith (MA 1989) has reported for Channels 4 and 5, Radio 4 and was the BBC’s Scotland Editor for seven years. She has covered some of the most significant political events of the century, chaired leaders’ debates and fronted TV shows such as Sunday Politics and Scotland 2014. Since February 2022, she has made Washington DC her base.
What personal qualities should an international correspondent have?
A mixture of curiosity and cheek! And a degree of competitiveness, because if I’m not there shoving a microphone in somebody’s face you can bet that someone else will be, and then I’ll feel terrible about it afterwards. But you need to be genuinely interested in other people and have the nerve to just stride up there, if you see the Governor of Texas walking out of the State Building or whatever, and start demanding answers to your questions.
What do you find are the main differences in reporting, either side of the Atlantic?
In the UK, you have good access to the politicians and their aides, so you’ll have sources telling you what’s going on and allowing you to break a story whereas here, perfectly understandably, American politicians really don’t care about speaking to the foreign media because there’s no votes in it.
"If you stop people on the street here in the US, they’re much keener to speak to you than in the UK, and have an astonishing propensity to deliver beautiful soundbites. You meet lots of outsized characters who tell you entertaining things.
Do you remember your first broadcast?
It was for Channel 5 News during the 1997 election campaign. [Then Prime-Minister] John Major was refusing to do a televised debate with Tony Blair and so The Mirror had this man dressed up as a big, yellow chicken who was following John Major to all his campaign appearances, to say, you’re too "chicken" to do this debate. So I was sent to follow the chicken for the day and ended up going to Stirling. When we got there, The Sun, obviously supporting the Tories, had a fox that was waiting for the chicken … It’s obviously not, in hindsight, the most significant thing that happened in the entire campaign, but it was absolutely hilarious.
What's the best thing about interviewing?
On something like the Today programme or the Sunday Politics Show [below], if you've really done your homework and spotted an inconsistency in someone's position and you manage to expose the fact that there's something not quite adding up about what they're saying, that can be very satisfying, in the moment.
Photo: BBC Press Office
How did growing up in a high-profile political family prepare you for your career?
We weren’t super-famous, but when we were growing up in Edinburgh, our family was a bit more prominent than others, so I was accustomed to receiving a certain amount of attention in the street. But what it definitely did was reinforce in me that I did not want a career in politics. Seeing my father’s [former UK Labour Party leader John Smith] career where he spent 18 years in opposition and just the deep, unending frustration of working as hard as you possibly can, believing that you’re right, but not being able to do any of it, just looked so hideously frustrating it wasn’t something that I wanted to do.
"I would love to own a nice house in the Highlands with a view of a loch, and grow organic vegetables, but I can’t do that AND have an exciting journalistic career, and that’s what I’ve chosen to do.
Which story or investigation had the biggest impact on you?
The Haitian earthquake. I’d never been to anything as chaotic, dangerous or heart-breaking as that before. I’ve got colleagues who do that day in day out, who are in Ukraine at the moment, who go to some of the most dangerous places and see the worst of humanity, and I wouldn’t want to pretend that I was bold or brave compared to them, but in my own personal experience, because I do a lot more politics and debate, that definitely left a huge mark on me.
You once said that if you scroll through your notifications and see that you are getting abuse from all sides, then you are probably doing something right. Is that still your opinion now?
A notification is just the latest way that people complain about what you're saying. I guess you're not going to escape without some kind of criticism, so if it's evenly balanced on both sides, it probably means you've struck the balance right. I'm no longer of the view that every notification you get on Twitter comes from a reasonable person who has actually listened carefully to what you had to say. So I don't spend a lot of time scrolling through my notifications these days.
After several years working for Channel 4 News, you returned to work for BBC Scotland in 2014 to cover the Scottish independence referendum. How did you find the mood of the country that summer?
At the time, it felt like just about the most exciting campaign I had ever been involved in, probably because it meant so much. It was such a huge and momentous question to be asked, and one that engaged people so much that you'd be sitting on the bus and listening to people talking about it, standing in supermarket queues, at the hairdressers. You'd hear people saying, "I've never voted before, I've never been interested in politics before." I'm so glad that fate accidentally delivered me to Scotland at that point.
What attracted you most about living in the US?
The weather; guaranteed sunshine through the summer is just amazing. There’s a free, public, open-air swimming pool two blocks from my house and every day between now and the end of September I know it will be hot enough to go and swim there. I don’t have to wait for that one sunny day to come along. That said, July and August are hideously sweltering. There are days where you can see rivulets of sweat running down you live on television and your hair gets ruined in the humidity.
And what do you miss about living in Scotland?
Funny people! Americans can be lovely, friendly and welcoming but they’re not witty like Scottish people are. There’s nae patter here. You need a decent amount of bitter Scottish cynicism to make you laugh.
Memories of Glasgow
My dad took me to a lecture theatre when I graduated, to make sure I’d actually seen the inside of one! I should have known that signing up for classes with 9am lectures was not going to be a route to success for me. I was on campus a lot, I just spent more time in the GUU and less in the library than I should have done.
The minute I arrived on campus I joined the QM because it seemed more left wing, more cool and trendy than the GUU. I was a member for about six weeks until I discovered that you couldn’t join in the parliamentary debates unless you were a GUU member, so I reluctantly switched sides and accepted that I was going to be in what was portrayed as a sort of stuffy wannabe men’s club. But I made lifelong friends and had a hugely good time there. I enjoyed the debating a lot and won a couple of trophies.
I loved organising and helping with Daft Friday, the themes and the months of work that went into that. One year we lined every single corridor in the GUU in black fabric to make tunnels and it was good fun teamwork, then you really enjoyed the event at the end of it.
I spent a huge amount of time in Ashton Lane; the Cul De Sac bar for crepes and, when I could afford it, that wee bar above The [Ubiquitous] Chip. If I could persuade somebody else to pay for a really special night out for a birthday or something, I loved Rogano.
If I could go back to my graduation day, I’d tell myself, “Don’t be in such a hurry.” After a three-year Ordinary degree, I was still only 20. I was very lucky to get onto the BBC training scheme, but I should have taken time to have more fun, whether that involved doing a postgraduate or just working in a bar. At some point I got it in my head that being so young was some kind of mark of achievement and that I was going to spend my whole career being the youngest to do everything. I’d be a producer by the time I was 25, editor of Panorama before I was 30 ... Now I’d tell myself, just go and have a good time, stop worrying about what’s on your CV.
Photo: courtesy of the Smith family
Restoring trust in politics
Sarah’s father, the Rt Hon John Smith QC MP (1938-1994, MA 1960, LLB 1963) was one of the University’s most renowned alumni. After serving as MP for almost a quarter of a century, John won leadership of his party in a landslide vote and was widely considered to be prime minister-in-waiting at the time of his sudden death, aged 55.
The John Smith Centre for Public Service was established at the University in 2014, with the mission of promoting civilised debate and helping young people with talent to access politics.
"The idea that everyone should have equal opportunities to make the best of their talents and that you shouldn’t be held back by the circumstances in which you grew up was at the absolute core of what my dad believed. And he was very, very proud of being a Glasgow graduate.” Sarah Smith
"We work to make the positive case for politics and public life," says Centre Director Kezia Dugdale. "We run a Parliamentary Internship Programme open to all third- and fourth-year students with a paid placement in an MSP's constituency office, a hands-on learning experience where students get to see first-hand the work our elected representatives do. We are also incredibly proud of our Minority Ethnic Emerging Leaders Programme, which aims to remove barriers that can be faced by minority ethnic people moving into leadership positions in society. Both these programmes demonstrate how crucial it is that we make politics and public life as accessible as possible to everyone."
This article was first published September 2022.