Towards the end of the last academic year, I was lucky enough to speak to Sharanjit Leyl on her visit to campus with the Foreign Languages Centre, and over summer I had the opportunity to interview her for Exeposé. With nearly 20 years at the BBC and well over two decades within journalism, and having covered events from the US invasion of Iraq to the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, Leyl was able to offer unrivalled insight into the world of media and current affairs, as well as a few words of wisdom on the future of the industry.
Having covered events from the US invasion of Iraq to the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, Leyl was able to offer unrivalled insight into the world of media
I began by asking Sharanjit about her formative experiences, having grown up in Singapore and Washington D.C. She noted how the latter as “such a political city” sparked her interest in current affairs, with domestic and global politics at the forefront of the city’s identity. Perhaps even more interesting, however, was her insight into seeing the “rapid progression” of Singapore into a global economic hub and first-world country during her childhood.
Moving into Leyl’s experience within journalism, she has been a keen advocate of increasing diversity, equity and inclusion within the industry and felt that the BBC in particular had made improvements to adequately reflect the increasing diversity of wider society. However, she recognised that this is a long process, and spoke about the issues her former employer had faced in recent months. Nonetheless, she felt the BBC is still hugely valuable and has been able to adapt to changes in how we consume news, such as adopting new platforms like its app and social media platforms.
Social media is a recurring theme throughout our discussion, and Leyl admits that the negative impacts of this on journalism are “very obvious”, with threats such as fake news and misinformation becoming more acute, as we have seen in recent US elections and the ongoing war in Ukraine. However, Leyl is not a pessimist, noting how social media can be a tool for positive change in the industry by helping to “amplify your message” – stories can have a “much wider audience” than in the era of traditional media, and can better reflect the trends and interests of readers and viewers. This form of journalism could perhaps be considered more democratic, as it was no longer a “news editor in their ivory tower” setting the agenda.
Leyl is not a pessimist, noting how social media can be a tool for positive change in the industry
In the second half of our interview, we moved away from discussing macro trends within the media to instead look more at Leyl’s own lived experiences of the industry. As aforementioned, she has reported on some of the biggest breaking news stories of the past two decades, and I was interested to understand how she prepared to be thrown into a massive breaking story like the invasion of Iraq or Sri Lankan bombings. The key, she felt, was unsurprisingly to “read up as much as you can”, and having covered the former in 2003 live on-air for Bloomberg, was trying to make sense of it economically as much as politically.
Leyl spoke candidly when it came to covering some of the worst atrocities of recent years, such as terror attacks or the Hong Kong protests, where there was a focus on “how real people on the ground are being impacted.” These stories, she noted, would require “a great deal of empathy and understanding” to give a “balanced story of what is happening on the ground”, particularly when that involves injury or death – ultimately, she said, “you are a human being… you can’t turn up and start counting the bodies, you react to it like most other people would react to it.” Indeed, empathy is perhaps the journalistic skill she notes most frequently, as it is also Leyl’s top tip for conducting interviews, as someone who has interviewed figures from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Bollywood actress and “most beautiful woman in the world” Aishwarya Rai.
Empathy is perhaps the journalistic kill she notes most frequently, as it is also Leyl’s top tip for conducting interviews
This led into a very insightful discussion on the impact of covering such tragedies on mental health, particularly in an era where so many people find the news can negatively affect their mentality. She was honest in noting that news organisations like the BBC offered counselling, and although she never used these resources at the time, perhaps wishes she had, as when covering these stories she felt that “the last thing you think about is dealing with looking after yourself.”
Reflecting on her own experiences of covering traumatic events as a journalist, Leyl was able to offer words of wisdom to aspiring young journalists to “look after yourself [and] make sure you’re okay” as you cannot cover a story with accuracy and authenticity if you don’t do these things. She also gave some more practical advice to young people hoping to break in to the industry, noting that it is an incredibly competitive environment, but the most important thing is to remain educated and informed on everything going on in the world, and an ability to understand the viewpoints on a particular story.
Look after yourself [and] make sure you’re okaySharanjit Leyl, on how young journalists should prioritise their mental health
This led us to look at the future of the journalism industry, which she notes is “transforming and evolving so rapidly” at a rate that even she struggles to keep up, and returns us to the earlier theme of social media, which she hopes will create new opportunities for young people in the field. As we looked ahead to this future of journalism, I concluded our interview by asking Leyl what the biggest change she hopes to see in the next two decades. She felt that the content of the news would always stay the same, governed by principles of accuracy, truth and impartiality, and that the big changes would instead be how we consume and deliver news.
Speaking to Sharanjit Leyl offered me a huge level of insight into the past, present and future of journalism. At a time when it seems that social media, fake news and scandal seems to threaten the key tenets of the industry, I came away from our conversation feeling optimistic that there was still a future in which the media can be relied upon to be honest, impartial and reliable, even if institutions like the BBC may evolve into new formats.