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Armed with Adrenaline, a Short Deadline, and a Dictaphone, What is the Experience of Political Journalists during a General Election?

Source: fourcommunications.com

What is it like reporting from the eye of the storm? What kind of impact does covering a General Election have on one’s mental health? Is a work-life balance even achievable? Six political journalists give their insight.

By Bethany Dawson

This article was originally released in November 2019 as part of Incite’s General Election special edition.

A General Election is a stressful period for anybody who has an interest or is involved in politics, be that students, academics, party activists or those simply addicted to BBC Parliament. It goes without saying that this is one of the most intensely exciting, and stressful, time periods for political journalists. However, there is little widespread discussion about the wellbeing and mental health of political journalists during a General Election. In an attempt to tackle this topic, I spoke to journalists Natasha Clark, Ben Weisz, Geraldine Scott, Aubrey Allegretti, Hettie O’Brien, and Josh Thomas.

It’s safe to say that this election in particular occurs during a particularly volatile and unique political  era. Commenting on what makes this election unique, amongst many other facets, Hettie mentioned the timing: it’s indeed the first time since 1923 that we’ve had a General Election in December, as no one usually wants an election at Christmas. What makes this election different, however, is not merely when you can cross it off on the calendar, but also the partisan context which underpins it. Indeed, Geri commented that “in 2017 they said it was the revival of the two party race. If that’s true then 2019 will be the complete reversal. With the Lib Dems, Greens and the Brexit Party splitting the vote more than ever before there will be seats where the majority is very slim.” Also making a comparison to the 2017 election, Josh said: “This time will be different because it is so wrapped up in Brexit. With Parliament unable to reach a consensus and after consecutive major defeats for the government, the Tories will be praying for a workable majority and renewed legitimacy.” 

Further reflecting on politics in the past few years, Hettie said: “It’s exciting, there have been so many unprecedented moments during the Brexit elections; emergency breaks and sitting on a Saturday. There’s slight lethargy, it’s been quite non-stop. General Elections are a really exciting time, particularly with this one where we really don’t know what’s going to happen and where we could be looking at multiple scenarios.” It’s not as though there was a great degree of certainty as to what the result of the 2017 election was going to be, but we have an even foggier idea as to what the result will be on the 13th of December, and for those reporting from the eye of the storm, it’s a game of sharp turns, long hours, and adrenaline rushes. Speaking in a range of places, from the traditional London Pret to a bustling Wetherspoons, I was lucky enough to slot myself into some of the busiest schedules in the business. One particularly notable discussion, however, was my telephone interview with Ben Weisz. After a few technical glitches from both sides, Ben and I started speaking as he drove back from Crawley to his base in Brighton after interviewing Emily Thornberry. What struck me was that his schedule included so few gaps of free time, that his spare moment for a phone call was indeed whilst driving down the A23. 

In each interview, considering the overflowing schedules and the never ending twists and turns of political madness, I asked about how to manage stress, mostly for the good of political journalists and politics students who can feel the General Election weighing on their shoulders, but also in a mildly desperate attempt to figure it out myself. When discussing how to navigate the complexities of political journalism, with the pressure of deadlines, the competitiveness, and the relentlessness of politics itself, Natasha Clark said that “most people who want to be a reporter is a specific type of person, they’re very excited about what’s going on around them in the world and that comes at the expense of everything else.” On the note on striking a balance whilst being so entangled in the excitement of current affairs, she adds: “Stay off Twitter, and Facebook, and maybe don’t watch the news sometimes. Allow yourself some time to be off of it. Every political journalist is doing the job because they love it. It’s a stressful job, especially during a General Election. What makes journalism and political journalism quite so stressful is exactly what makes people love it, and that’s why it’s difficult to make that balance.” Hettie echoed that idea, saying: “There’s such a cult of productivity, especially in people under the age of 40 where you feel like you cannot not be busy, and it’s really important to take some time to unplug.” She also said that one way she manages stress was by being a “not very active Twitter user.” Whether it’s to avoid the unwavering onslaught of news and updates, or to ignore any criticism you might be receiving online, unplugging yourself was a constant theme in methods of self care during a General Election. 

With Twitter feeds, push notifications, and a plethora of news apps making current affairs practically inescapable, I was keen to discuss how – or even if – a work-life balance is maintained during such a crucial period. Aubrey said: “It depends on who you are as a person, some people will really want to maintain a work-life balance, some people will want it more than others. Some people will want to do literally nothing else but live and breathe the next seven weeks.” Natasha erred more on the side of protecting the work-life balance, saying: “It’s really hard when you’re working online and the deadline is now, or the deadline was five minutes ago. I try to get my lunch break, to leave on time. You have to cut yourself quite a lot of slack, otherwise you will burn out.” Echoing what Aubrey said about living and breathing the General Election, Josh honestly, and bluntly,  said: “Work-life balance is out the window. It’s all hands to the pump. Adrenaline gets you through a lot of it, and good colleagues”

On the topic of good colleagues, at a time when there could not be more division within Parliament – and within the country – it was reassuring to hear all six journalists say that there is cross-publication support for other journalists. Josh describes “definite solidarity”, and Geraldine – whilst she also pointed out that everyone is working to get the story and be the first to reach the headlines – noted that “everyone is exhausted and a bit hysterical and you are all in it together”. Aubrey also mentioned solidarity across publications, whether that’s because major broadcasting networks co-operate on stories, or because that’s somewhat enforced by time together covering stories on campaign buses. He notes that this isn’t unique to a General Election period, but is consistent regardless of the context, “though, maybe that’s just because normal politics over the last four years has been completely mad”, he speculated. 

Also noting the continuity of the madness of politics, Hettie described the election period as “business as usual”. She reflected on the fact that politics hasn’t taken a breather for years now, so this General Election is not something that caused widespread panic with a shock call to action: “I guess, partly because we’ve been doing so much Brexit reporting, been on call regularly, so it won’t be much different with a General Election.” Taking the whirlwind of the election period in his stride, Aubrey commented “Our [Sky’s] whole ethos is underpinned by the breaking news slogan, so we’ll just continue breaking news as we do at the moment.” Essentially, this election isn’t a surprise, and the dynamic, volatile political climate that has remained unshaken for the last three years has just readied journalists for this election. 

It was mentioned repeatedly that politics has been frantic for years. This is nothing if not an understatement, and it made me consider the fact that political journalists must be nothing less than exhausted. Speaking on the topic, Ben said: “It’s relentless, but it’s relentless in one direction. We now have an end date… sort of. The new government is the start of other things. When we had political uncertainty for weeks and weeks with no end date, that can be quite stressful for anyone working in politics. It’s the little things like not having to book in any holiday, to commit to family or social events, you just don’t know how long it’s going on for. Burnout is a real risk.” Discussing the experience of riding the intersection between digital and political journalism, Natasha Clark said: “As a digital journalist and as a political journalist you’re always on, especially in an election when the news is always rolling. It comes in incredibly quickly and you have to be able to deal with that. During an election, during Brexit, some of the rules I try to stick to – leaving on time, getting lunch, getting exercise, friends and family – do get put to the wayside.”

Speaking about what organisations can do for their employees, both Aubrey and Ben said that their employers – Sky News and the BBC – have mental health first aiders who are trained to signpost people in periods of distress. Adding to this, Aubrey said: “It should be the exception rather than the rule that you’re asked to stay late” and “if [an organisation] needs more staff, then hire more staff.” He added: “Even if it’s just an email saying “your dedicated mental health first aider this week is x”, it’s good to slowly introduce mental health into the consciousness of the newsroom.” Commenting on the importance of support within the workplace, Geraldine said: “You spend a lot of time with your bosses and colleagues so that camaraderie is important. It’s really important to feel appreciated.”

Speaking to all of these journalists confirmed my excitement at the prospect of political journalism. Granted, it’s not as though they passed me a pair of rose tinted spectacles to make the job seem calm, or stress-free, with multiple sentences being punctuated with yawns acting as an insight into just how exhausting such a career can be. However, the enthusiasm shown by all of these journalists – the commitment to making politics accessible to the public,  the joy of getting the best story of the day, the willingness to be in the centre of the storm – was invigorating. I had to ask, however, for any advice for someone at the bottom of the journalistic ladder and trying to find a way up. Josh’s advice was: “Young reporters should have faith in what they’re doing. Do your prep and research and everything will be easier. It can be tough, but it’s exciting too. If the balance is wrong, it’s not because you can’t hack it. It’s genuinely a lot.” 

Adding a plethora of incredible advice, Geraldine said: “Write whatever you can, do work experience at your local paper, everyone thinks you have to go straight to London but the best journalists I know started on their local papers. Learn shorthand, do an NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists)  if you can. Apart from a few weeks of work experience or your uni newspaper to get something on your CV, don’t work for free, you’re worth more than that and it devalues the industry. Read everything, especially the papers you don’t agree with. Be nice, you’ll be surprised in politics how many people whose views you find abhorrent are genuinely lovely people, and vice versa people you really agree with are the kind of people who are rude to waiting staff or bully their staff. Take people on how they treat you and try and always be fair.” Giving advice that was equal parts wholesome and heartwarming, Aubrey looked back at the start of his career: “When I was first starting out I would write a list of three things I was proud of everyday, whether that was small things or big things. That was a good thing to look back on at the end of the week if I was worried I hadn’t achieved enough.”

These discussions with journalists cemented two things: firstly, reporting politics is scary, with multiple stories of burnout, of harassment, and of exhaustion. Secondly, however, it also appears to be one of the most exciting jobs, especially in this current climate. As Ben said as a closing statement to our interview: “If you’re into politics, if you’re into journalism, this is like Christmas.” The fear and the excitement go hand in hand to create a forceful adrenaline rush that pushes you to live and breathe politics, and to be front and centre reporting on it. Granted, there will be mornings where you do not want to unwrap another story on Brexit, or another poorly worded tweet by Trump. However, to be right at the frontline of the political chaos is a massive privilege, one that can be thoroughly enjoyed through ensuring a consistent element of self care and a careful balancing act. 

With thanks to Ben Weisz, Hettie O’Brien, Aubrey Allegretti, Geraldine Scott, Josh Thomas, and Natasha Clark for taking the time to speak for this story. 

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