‘I’ve had some amazing bosses and I’ve had some non-human bosses’ … Victoria Derbyshire at Broadcasting House. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
The veteran BBC journalist discusses her axed TV show, her father’s domestic abuse, reporting on Ukraine and reaching a new audience on TikTok
I call Victoria Derbyshire’s team to say I’m at Broadcasting House in central London. Before the sentence is out, she is standing in front of me. The BBC journalist has always been one step ahead of the game.
The expression “Don’t mourn, organise!” could have been invented for her. Every time the journalist has had a crisis – and there have been plenty – she has done something about it. Whether it was surviving her father’s domestic violence, getting cancer in her 40s, or finding out from the newspapers that her TV show was to be axed, she has always been quick to act when faced with adversity.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, she acted again. A couple of days earlier, Jonathan Aspinwall, BBC news’s podcast supremo, had asked if she fancied co-hosting a podcast on Ukraine with Newsnight’s Gabriel Gatehouse. On 24 February, she woke up at 4am, an hour after Vladimir Putin announced the launch of a “special military operation”. “I WhatsApped Jonathan and said: ‘We need to do the first podcast today.’”
Ukrainecast has become a must-listen for those keen to contextualise the latest horrors of the war. The daily podcast takes a deep dive into a topical theme, calling on the BBC’s bank of experts and talking to those struggling to survive in Ukraine or trying to escape. It does what 53-year-old Derbyshire has done so well throughout her career – establish relationships with people and return to them time and again, so we have an investment in their lives. Here, this makes the terrible numbers game of war intimate and personal.
I tell her how much I like Ukrainecast. “Why?” she asks. It’s typical Derbyshire. Most people would settle for the compliment and move on, but she puts me to the test. She wants to know if I really like it and why – partly to learn (she is incredibly inquisitive) and partly because she can’t stop herself asking questions. Derbyshire, who joined the BBC 28 years ago after graduating from Liverpool University with a degree in English and Preston Polytechnic (now the University of Central Lancashire) with a postgraduate diploma in journalism, is an exceptionally good interviewer. With vulnerable people, she is empathic without being saccharine. With politicians, she is tough without being strident.
Derbyshire gets the coffees in at a cafe next to the BBC. When she returns, she checks the latest headlines on her phone. As well as the podcast, she co-presents the BBC’s lunchtime news. She has also just learned a new skill of which she is particularly proud. For the past four months, she has been making short films on TikTok, highlighting the stories of the day. “They’ve had over 50m views,” she says, proudly. She loves TikTok, because it’s targeted at young people who will quickly tell you when you are getting it wrong. “I’ve learned such a lot. I get amazing feedback. I put up a story about police officers not being vetted properly and someone asked what vetted means. Journalists throw these terms in and, if we don’t explain them, it excludes people.”
I ran to the police station to get help for my mum when my father was beating her up. They took two hours to get there
She is a dab hand at marketing herself. TikTok has provided her with a new audience, just as I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! did when she appeared on the 2020 series. “Young kids stop me on the train. They don’t know me from doing the news or doing my programme. But they know me from TikTok and I’m a Celeb.”
Derbyshire grew up in Rochdale, Lancashire, the oldest of three children. Her mother, Pauline, was – and remains – her inspiration. “My mum was a brilliant primary school teacher. She taught all three of us.” Did you have to call her Mrs Derbyshire? “Course. What else would you call her?” Mum? “No, she had to be completely impartial, though when we used to go up and have our books marked she would put her hand up my skirt and rub the back of my leg as a secret sign that actually I was her daughter and she was my mum.” She laughs. “In a comforting way, not an inappropriate way!”
As for her father, the family lived in fear of him and his violent outbursts. On one occasion, he poured a cup of boiling soup over Derbyshire. “When I was a young teenager, I ran to the police station to get help for my mum when my father was beating her up. They took two hours to get there.” When the police arrived, her father invited them in for a cup of tea and they left happy. “I wonder if that was a point in my head when I thought: ‘OK, don’t rely on other people; if you need something doing, do it yourself.’”
Her father, who ran a building company, went bankrupt. Bills went unpaid and the phone and electricity were cut off. Did she ever think her father would kill her mother? “Yes,” she says, baldly.
‘I was devastated, but I immediately went into practical mode, fighting mode’ … Derbyshire on the surprise closure of her daytime show. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
She tells her two teenage boys that, if they are faced with a bully, they should fight back with humour. Is that what she did? “God no, there was no humour there. The older I got, the more confident I became with language. He would get words wrong and I wouldn’t dare laugh, but I would say: ‘Don’t you mean such-and-such a word?’ and that would really piss him off.” You knew it would? “Yes. It was my only way of trying to get one over him. I couldn’t physically match him.” In 2020, Derbyshire made a Panorama programme about domestic violence and spoke about her experience.
When Derbyshire was 16, her mother took Derbyshire and her siblings and walked away. She never saw her father again. In 2020, he died of a stroke. The family didn’t attend his funeral. Was she glad when he died? “I was completely emotionless, because I don’t want to spend any of my energy thinking about him. Life is short. I think this feeling’s really intensified since cancer. I love my family, I love my friends, we have the best time – and I’m not wasting time on people that …” She trails off.
She has two glitzy rings on her wedding finger. Wow, that’s a lot of diamonds, I say. She grins. “Loads of diamonds, man! Aren’t they gorgeous? These are the engagement and wedding rings my stepdad bought for my mum. How fab is that?” She adored her stepfather, Des, who was married to her mother for 20 years before dying at 56. “Des was a proper dad to us. I never regarded my biological father as a proper father. When Mark and I got married, Mum gave them to us. So my stepdad is with me all the time.”
In 2018, Derbyshire married her long-term partner, Mark Sandell, the father of her sons, who runs a radio and podcast production company. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, she told him that, if they got through it, she would like to get married. She never expected to make it. But after six rounds of chemotherapy and 30 sessions of radiotherapy, she was told in 2017 that there was no evidence of active cancer. There is an 11% chance of the cancer recurring.
She went into practical mode after her diagnosis. She made plans in case she didn’t survive, telling Mark that he would have to sell the house, because he wouldn’t be able to afford the mortgage on a single salary. As she has done so often, she turned her experience into journalism. She made a series of powerful video diaries, documenting the gruelling treatment, the loss of her hair, her changing moods and how she was coping.
Millions of viewers and listeners are turning to the BBC right now because they trust it, because it’s accurate
Derbyshire was determined to make people more aware of breast cancer. So, two years after her mastectomy, she stripped off in front of a live audience for ITV’s The Real Full Monty. Then, last year, she launched the podcast And Then Came Breast Cancer. If ever there were a cancer programme that could be uplifting, this is it. Her latest guest was the Labour MP Dawn Butler, who spoke to Derbyshire for the podcast and BBC Breakfast about Butler’s recent breast cancer diagnosis, which she revealed yesterday, and the lower uptake of screening tests among women of colour. Derbyshire says she is unwilling to waste her energy on negativity and anger, particularly since her diagnosis.
This was put to the test in January 2020 when she read in the Times that her BBC Two programme was going to be axed, as part of a wider set of cuts. Called Victoria Derbyshire, it ran every weekday for two hours. It did something no other morning magazine show was doing, covering heavy-duty subjects (such as the contaminated blood inquiry) and regularly breaking news stories (exclusives included the story of a woman who proved her father was a rapist using her own DNA as evidence; a harrowing 45-minute interview with four footballers who had been sexually abused by the football coach Barry Bennell; and 800 women suing over vaginal mesh implants).
The management team claimed the show was too costly and that it hadn’t grown its audience. As usual, Derbyshire tackled it head on. She called out her bosses, stating that the show had met the targets it had been set: to get millions of digital views and reach people who don’t think the BBC is for them.
How did she react when she read that the show was being pulled? Her first mission, she says, was to find out if it was true. “I texted my immediate boss just before I went on air. No reply. I texted his boss. No reply. And then, after the programme, I received a really shit, cold message, which told me nothing, so I went to find them. They were in a meeting, so I basically doorstepped them.”
The people in the meeting were Gavin Allen, who was head of news programmes, and Fran Unsworth, the director of news and current affairs – both of whom have since left the BBC. “They said: ‘Oh, this was meant to come out next week,’ and I said: ‘What was meant to come out next week?’ I was so fucking steely it was untrue. I was determined not to cry. Fran Unsworth said: ‘W-w-w-w-we-we weren’t meant to announce this till …’ She was shaking. And I said: ‘What is it that you weren’t going to announce till next week?’ because I wanted to make her say it.
“And she said: ‘We are – we are – we are – we’ve taken the decision to close the programme.’ I was like: ‘You’re fucking kidding me?’ She said she was sorry it leaked out. I said: ‘What about being sorry about closing the programme and the impact on the team’s jobs? It’s a disgrace.’”
The meeting went on for almost an hour, Derbyshire says. “In the end, Gavin Allen said: ‘We’d be really grateful if you could keep this to yourself till next Wednesday.’ I just laughed and said: ‘You’re fucking joking, aren’t you?’” Her voice rises in pitch. “And then I just left.”
Young kids stop me on the train. They don’t know me from the news, but they know me from TikTok and I’m a Celeb
You must have been angry then, I say. “You’re desperate for me to say I’m angry. I wasn’t angry. I was gutted, I was devastated, but I immediately went into practical mode, fighting mode. What can we do? How can we change this? We had some amazing people on our team. Young, diverse people, who left the BBC because they had no job.”
When I approach Allen for a response, he says: “It was an appalling way to have learned the news, which I said, apologising on the BBC’s behalf, to the entire Derbyshire team.” But, he adds: “It wasn’t about ‘keeping the news to herself until the following week’; it was about giving the wider team the remaining courtesy to explain the decision and discuss it with them face to face [first].” Unsworth did not respond to a request for comment.
A campaign began to save the show. Derbyshire even ended up reporting on the decision, live-tweeting from the BBC staff presentation about the cuts. “Head of Internal Comms jst said to us all, ‘enjoy and relax’,” she told her followers on Twitter. But the campaign ended with a whimper when it was overtaken by the pandemic.
I ask how she has managed to rebuild her trust with the BBC. “I haven’t got a trust issue with the BBC,” she says. “It’s not the BBC, is it? It’s individuals. The management have all changed now. It really depends who’s in charge. I’ve had some amazing bosses and I’ve had some non-human bosses.” Like who? “I’m never going to tell you that in a million years.”
She says she loves the two jobs she is doing and is as hungry to tell stories as she has ever been. I ask if she feels there is an existential threat to the BBC, with the government treating it as a political football. “I’m going to choose my words carefully,” she says. The idea of Derbyshire being discreet is funny, as much of her appeal lies in the fact that she isn’t. “I was grateful when the culture secretary stood up in the House of Commons and appreciated all the journalists that are out in Ukraine right now bringing the truth to audiences across the world.”
Anyway, she says, the BBC’s coverage of the war has been brilliant and it has proved once again why the country needs a public service broadcaster. “Millions of viewers and listeners are turning to the BBC right now because they trust it, because it’s accurate, because they like the correspondents who are out there, because they’re human beings. This is what we do and we shouldn’t forget that.”
Isn’t it about time she looked for her next big job? I remind her that there is a vacancy at Newsnight, now that Emily Maitlis is leaving to launch a podcast and host a radio show with Jon Sopel for Global. Would she fancy that gig? “Errrrr, I think everyone will go for that. Look, I’ve got two jobs at the moment,” she protests. Has the BBC advertised the job yet? “I have no idea. That is a very good question.”
As we wind up, a producer friend runs into the cafe with the news that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been released after being imprisoned for six years in Iran.
“Oh. My. Fucking. God,” Derbyshire says. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.” She takes a deep breath. “I messaged them all last night to say I’ve got my fingers crossed for you. Oh my God, that’s amazing. Can I just check that?” She picks up her phone. “Oh my God, she’s on her way home to the UK.” Now I see first-hand how much journalism means to her. She is almost hyperventilating with joy. “Oh. My. God. I feel like I want to cry.” She is welling up. “Wow!”
She tells me that, when Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard, was on hunger strike recently, she spent 90 minutes with him, just chatting to him and his mum. “Wow! He’s amazing. But she’s amazing, too. Jeeeeeesus. Wow! See! I’m just so happy. Some positivity in the gloom. Wow! Right, I’ve got to go to work and do this. I’m going to do a TikTok straight away saying: ‘Oh my God, you will not believe what’s happened.’ Then I’ve got to do the 1pm news. And all the headlines have changed, which is good. Then I’m doing Ukrainecast. Oh my God!”
Ukrainecast is available on BBC Sounds and other podcast platforms