MY JOURNEY TO THE BBC IN THE DARK AND BACK IN THE DARK OF YORKSHIRE AGAIN
By Sophie Mei Lan
Stepping into the chilling pitch black of the morning, I carefully navigated myself and my four-month-old daughter into the car. I secured her tight into her car seat as she attempted to suckle the cold air searching for my bosom, her mother’s skin and milk. She had been by my side feeding all night, I was exhausted and I longed to pass away the rest of the morning in bed. But like most mornings, it was a military operation, we had to be up before sunrise to go on our journey together from Wakefield, West Yorkshire to Salford, Greater Manchester and were always at the mercy of the M62. We were off to MediaCityUK, ‘the Theatre of Dreams’ for northern journalists, as it was the new home of the BBC, some of ITV and where I thought I could ‘get my foot finally in the door.’
So, for now without a clear route to get inside the secure glass BBC buildings, I had opted to study journalism at University of Salford in MediaCityUK, even though it was far from my Yorkshire home where there are some incredible universities, I was determined that after years as a freelance journalist managing mental illness (mostly on ‘work experience’ except for paid work as a local newspaper reporter and investigations for Channel 4 News) and now young mum, that I would become an inspiration to my daughter as well as the “impoverished community” I was brought up in in Sheffield.
I had actually discovered I was pregnant whilst undertaking work experience at The Guardian Newspaper in London after a stint at The Sunday Times, all unpaid, whilst continue to hustle hard back home, working as a dancer and starting a range of businesses to supplement my income and fund my passions as I could barely afford the travel down to London let alone eating when I was there or even the expensive pregnancy test! If my work placement over-ran, I would stop on a friend’s floor or when I had an interview for ITV, I caught the overnight bus down and rocked up, hoping my flask of coffee and mental preparation on the journey, would plaster my lack of sleep. It was all worth it, as I could see the glow of my ‘dream,’ changing the media for the power of the good. My life-long purpose is to show that no matter what your background and how you present, that you deserve to be heard and treated equally.
Now, with a newborn baby and managing severe mental health problems, unable to relocate with my support network all in Yorkshire, I could not afford the mental and financial cost of chasing my dream.
I am fiercely proud of where I am from, I thought it could be fate that MediaCityUK had landed up north. This could be my big break. I could show the world that despite my abusive past, despite my disability, despite being a mama, that you can still aspire to make waves and have an impact on your own life but most of all those of others who get shunned.
So off I went to university with my daughter in tow, our long commute, where I would drop her off at 6am as the doors opened to her nursery inside MediaCityUK.
I didn’t want to be separated from her so young, but I thought it was the sacrifice I had to make, and at drop-off I would see all the other parents enter, many beckoning BBC and ITV staff badges. I would sometimes allow my head to get the better of me, and I felt inadequate, not only were their children older as they had had paid m/paternity leave but they also had the rights of employed parents and the comfort of knowing that they were getting paid for what they did.
By this time, I had already won awards for some of my human rights reporting I had carried out, but awards didn’t mean a ‘job,’ nor did it mean that the industry was ready to hire someone like me. I was over-trained for many schemes, under-connected with those at the top and I didn’t have enough money to endure many more years of work experience and still having to earn from an eclectic range of side hustles. I had Yorkshire grit and passion and was grateful for any opportunities, yet becoming internally depleted by the false hope these bright lights which many media schemes offered.
By this point, I had already studied one degree whilst battling a severe eating disorder, having time off as an in-patient at Seacroft Hospital in Leeds and I somehow managed to do regular work experience for BBC local radio and newspapers. I had even been offered the odd job in the industry but most of the roles required me to relocate down South.
The only way to get close to the new media hub of the north was for me to study next door to it, hoping I could bump into the right people.
But the more time I spent in the fake world of MediaCityUK, the more the novelty wore off and it just felt excruciatingly close yet further than ever to wedge my glass slipper in the door. Not to mention, that without an invite you wouldn’t have a chance to get inside the high-security buildings, unless you were an audience member for a gameshow.
I managed to discover the odd project with the few people that really did have a passion for northern people, but the structured system and community schemes weren’t set up to truly include those who can’t conform to the London-centric vibe.
Every opportunity I discovered following university involved reams of application forms, a sharing of my thoroughly researched story ideas which had been acquired following years of living, volunteering and working within the ‘diverse’ communities I am from. Most of the time my investigations were appreciated and utilised as a ‘scoop’ but not credited or paid for and the very few low paid national ‘jobs’ I could have secured always involved me relocating or travelling far from my home and my vital support network in Yorkshire.
Yet, I was always grateful that the industry was showing an interest in acquiring “diverse talent” like me, they saw my depth of interest, colourful life and the fact that I would normally have been a ‘case study’ in one of their documentaries, meant that I had “insider info.” But the industry still hadn’t changed to include and fully embrace people like me who still live in “adversity” and the older I was becoming, the more confidence I gained that I couldn’t conform. I was never stubborn, I would still complete work experience placements and free projects if I thought they would serve the community. But my health deteriorated and so did my finances as I struggled to bring up, now two children without adequate leave… I answered calls during labour through fear of not proving I was dedicated enough. I went above and beyond to upskill myself and prove my worth despite my perceived flaws.
As I dropped off the cliff of the ‘18-25’ age bracket, the harder it became to secure any work, I was too old, too qualified now and too experienced and yet not experienced enough to get a ‘proper job and especially not one on my own terms to suit my location, disability and family life.
On the surface however, I had become a beacon of hope for aspiring journalists, inspiring others with my “award-winning scoops,” setting up a popular blog and YouTube channel during my battles with mental illness. Yet I was rarely paid, still hustling, as I struggled to conform to the status quo and just serve as another tick-box exercise on diversity forms. On reflection, my online platforms and side hustles, have been a brilliant tool for me to change the way I work but that’s because my deep desire to work as a journalist on my own terms has been dwindled, so I make the most of the free tools available… I have a Yorkshire grit so whatever I put my mind to I can do, if it is just down to me, not a huge corporation.
Freelancing is obviously tougher than ever these days, it requires you to have a lot of unpaid time to build, develop and sustain relationships, not to mention the fact that most commissioning editors are hard to reach in person, the time it takes to research and pitch ideas, keep on top of briefs and the news. Whilst I am definitely not in journalism for the money, I have thick skin for knockbacks and it is my life’s vocation, you get to a point where it is hard to afford to carry it out mentally without a supportive team or the financial ‘backing.’ If it was just a case of it being about my actual work, I can take that, but the issue is institutional and it is easy to exploit people like me who are optimistic, hard-working and grateful for any glimmer of hope.
I understand Lockdown has meant it is exceptionally more challenging than ever before with paid work sources drying up left, right and centre for everyone and, I have tried to keep a positive mindset and take part in the opportunity which national news outlets have invited me to participate through watching their commissioning briefings and training online. But I have spent weeks in Lockdown on a variety of different briefings and training ‘opportunities’ with national and global news outlets, yet following a pitch and sharing of ideas there is no feedback, no new contacts or relationships formed and at best an email address to send ideas to.
I am realistic. I have failed lots. And I am OK with that. But there is deep fire within me that knows I am being utilised to tick their ‘diversity boxes’ just so they can prove that as publicly funded broadcasters, they have tapped into ‘local talent.’ Better still for them, I tick most of their boxes, other than not being young enough now to hit their youth quota. But I am depleted by grand moves up north. My faith has dwindled because I have experienced the stark reality of it all.
Whilst I am a largely optimistic person, there is an air of cynicism now each time there Is a ‘ground-breaking’ media move announced such as Channel 4 coming to Leeds and even more so with BBC coming to the north.
Many mean well and offer exciting ambitions, but the reality is they are relocating the same bubble of people, ideas and it’s just another gesture to tick more boxes.
It actually feels closer yet further than ever when it comes to real opportunities for those of us who don’t fit the institutional setting, yet have the talent, knowledge and skills to truly shake up draconian institutions.
I rarely share my views on the issue as I fear of losing any possible work-related opportunities, but now I have the hindsight to know that there are rarely that many real opportunities anyway. I am building the confidence to not try and ‘fit in’ anymore as I am not simply straddling two worlds or a rag to riches tale – we live in one world; one region and such a huge institution has the responsibility and money to truly invest in us rather than exploit our nature.
I am attempting to live congruently with my values by writing this to truly begin to empower the seldom-heard of us to be properly heard and valued.
And, to truly ‘empower’ us institutions need not just appreciate the beauty of what diversity looks like, they need to adequately pay, nurture, include and harness ‘diverse talent.’ Actually, become part of the communities we are living in through partnerships, adequate funding and deeper change… I have had enough of exciting headlines and initiatives.
This isn’t a blame game for me, I realise that I am part of the picture and I am working on my own ‘poverty mindset,’ building my self-esteem so I can appreciate my unique talent, and most of all charging what I am worth so I can honestly empower others, rather than just recite verbal statements, half-hearted gestures and get energised by campaigns from the powers that still be.
But I am fed up of always side hustling, being dangled carrots and exploited for my background.
To truly empower “us,” we need to be truly valued in the same light, if not sometimes higher esteem for our ‘grassroots’ work as ‘local talent,’ local media… all of which those at the top could learn from.
To truly get inside our hearts, minds and most of all, create a change in the world. This isn’t about just the institution, it’s plea to give us northern folk genuine opportunities because “our BBC” could actually help to transform the future lives for many of us.