Julie Etchingham reflects on Theresa May's 'fields of wheat'

Julie Etchingham reflects on Theresa May's 'fields of wheat'

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Julie Etchingham goes head to head with Prime Minister Theresa May

Julie Etchingham does more than read the news.

In the wake of the Westminster Bridge attacks, she was live on ITV in minutes. She was on the ground at Grenfell for the News at Ten, capturing the mood of a community, and a country, reeling from the tragedy. And she sat eyeball to eyeball with the Prime Minister as she revealed to the nation the naughtiest thing she’d ever done.

“It still happens sometimes… when I am presenting the News at Ten [that people] will say, ‘What are you going in so early for? Don’t you just get there for about 9pm?’ I’m sort of surprised that people have the misconception about presenters as just rocking up to the office, putting a bit of makeup on – for the women, not necessarily my male colleagues…”

I meet Julie in her office in ITN’s hulking headquarters in central London. It’s the early afternoon and she’s in preparing to anchor that night’s News at Ten. As someone whose day consists of asking tough questions to politicians, CEOs and campaigners, she is understandably edgy about the roles being reversed. “I like being where you are,” she laughs. “Not where I am!”

In the past 12 months her time in the interviewer’s chair has been making waves. In an election campaign that the Prime Minister has since described as a “mess”, Julie’s interview with Theresa May showed a rare humanity and vulnerability to the ‘robotic’ PM that had been previously absent.

The question “What’s the naughtiest thing you ever did?” drew an answer that spawned parodies, memes, a hashtag and Glastonbury flags. “I have to confess,” the Prime Minister replied, “when me and my friends used to run through the fields of wheat, the farmers weren’t too pleased about that.”

The wide-ranging interview covered Theresa May’s youth as the only child of a vicar and the loss of her parents at a young age, as well as reflecting on the controversies of the recently released Tory manifesto. However it was the ‘fields of wheat’ line that really caught the public imagination.

“All the reading I’d done on it suggested this extraordinarily focused, well behaved child and student, so I just wondered really, what moment of rebellion there might have been,” reflects Julie. “I thought she was extraordinarily honest actually. I thought it was quite warm and charming and I just didn’t have a sense in that moment of how that would play out.”

“She burst out laughing and you suddenly felt that you’d opened up an area of the Prime Minster that we hadn't necessarily heard from before”

It is those moments of candid humanity that really stand out, Julie believes. “They’re little treasures in the cut and thrust, and the noise of an election. In an election people want to know who these people are that are putting themselves forward to be our political leader so I was just trying to find a different way in.”

That is the attraction of the role. For all the time she is on camera, she explains, hours are spent preparing and researching. Off the back of the Westminster Bridge attack in March 2017, Julie was pounding the phones with her colleagues to cover the story, arranging an interview with the Home Secretary Amber Rudd and holding her to account.

“I’m endlessly curious. I love spending hours poring over what people have said before and how it fits into the current picture,” she says. “It’s just this endlessly fascinating project, and when you get a big event like an election, yes, my kids roll their eyes, and yes, I might have a whinge about not having a day off in a really long time, but secretly you sort of adore it.”

“I really love this job and would never want to do this job if you were just rocking up to read it out.”

Julie Etchingham is nominated for the RTS Television Journalism Awards 2018 sponsored by Guestbooker, in the Network Presenter category. She is nominated alongside Victoria Derbyshire and Andrew Neil. All nominees in this category have been approached for interview. 

To see the full list on nominees or to book tickets to the awards, click here.

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Julie Etchingham does more than read the news.