Clive Myrie is about to become nationally famous as host of Mastermind, taking over later this year from the quiz show’s long-time inquisitor John Humphrys. To some unfamiliar with his work this may seem like overnight success, but it has been a long time in the coming.
He has been a fixture on our screens for more than a quarter of a century.
Myrie recalls his life in journalism in an exclusive interview with the University of Sussex as part of their Festival of Ideas (9−12 June) which celebrates the work of the newly formed School of Media, Arts and Humanities.
His inspiration came when he was a small boy, watching veteran broadcaster Trevor McDonald at home in Bolton with his Jamaican immigrant parents.
“Here was a guy who looked like me. It all seemed very exciting and interesting. Later I got a paper round and, reading the papers I delivered, realised it was a window on a whole different world,” he says in the interview with the faculty’s professor of political journalism, Ivor Gaber.
It was at Sussex in the early 1980s that he first cut his journalistic teeth. For someone studying for a law degree, it was an interesting start: “Within two weeks I was involved in a rent strike!”
Myrie got his first step on the ladder when, still a student, he started making features for what was then BBC Radio Brighton but is now BBC Radio Sussex. It helped him get on the BBC training scheme. While working in Bristol in 1989, he recalls: “I remember looking at the TV and seeing Kate Adie in Tiananmen Square. I thought I wanted to be in Tiananmen Square. How do I get there from here?”
His first foreign posting was to interview warlords during the civil war in Liberia. From there he went on to cover many of the significant events and conflicts of the 20th century.
“There was a fixed idea of what a foreign correspondent looked like,” he says. “They tended to be white, from public schools, and tended to be men. Kate Adie and Bridget Kendall were instrumental in putting women on the map, and there were very few black people. I can’t think of any, looking back now, in foreign news.
“As a young black reporter I didn’t want my colour to define my career. I didn’t want to be seen as a black journalist. I wanted to be a journalist who just happened to be black. I made it clear to my bosses that I didn’t necessarily want to be going down to Brixton every day covering riots, I didn’t necessarily want to go to Notting Hill every day covering the Notting Hill Carnival.
“They got that, which is brilliant. So they said OK, we’re going to send you to the whitest place on earth – Japan. And I went there and it was absolutely fantastic.”
Back in England, life was not always so smooth. Trevor McDonald had attracted racial abuse from some viewers, Prof Gaber recalled. Did Myrie?
“You might get the odd letter saying ‘we don’t want to see people like you on the TV’, but it was nothing that bothered me particularly. And to this day, the vast majority of the postbag is actually very, very positive. I have had death threats from one particular person, but that kind of thing is very, very rare.”
Another major moment came when Myrie was posted to the United States for the first Obama election campaign.
He covered the election itself from Morehouse, a black liberal arts college in Atlanta, the alma mater of civil rights leader Martin Luther King. When it was clear that Obama had won, he says: “Everyone around me was in tears. I told David Dimbleby, for me to be a black reporter in this place was a privilege.
“I thought ‘oh no, I’ve injected myself into the story’ … then I saw the reporter for ABC News and he was broadcasting live to more than 30 million people and he was in tears. I thought ‘I haven’t crossed any line at all’.”
Of the subsequent Trump years, Myrie says: “The South never really paid the price it needed to pay to acknowledge the sins of slavery. It was allowed to say that white men are superior to black people.”
Trump had been willing to feed on that latent racism to get power, he added.
Myrie believes there is a toxic media landscape in the States, one which he hopes Britain will avoid: “When it comes to mainstream media, we have rules here which means, I hope, that we are not going to go down the toxic route the Americans have stumbled down for several years.”
He says our own media covered the Covid crisis “by and large very, very well. As time went on, the media began to tell a story that wasn’t part of the political narrative.”
Myrie himself did a series of reports from one of the hardest-hit hospitals, the Royal London in the heart of the East End of the city.
“I knew a couple of the medical staff from when I had reported on knife crime. I wanted the human dimension to this crisis. It wasn’t easy, but we managed to get access and tell some of those powerful stories.”
Myrie looks fondly on his life back at Sussex. Even that rent strike. He says: “There is a sense that if you take the initiative, you can make things better, you can make your society better if you get up and fight for it. And I love this about Sussex. It’s got that revolutionary zeal, it’s got fire in its belly.”
And what is his top tip for aspiring journalists?
“You’ve got to have determination, you’ve got to have a thick skin and you’ve got to not necessarily take no for an answer. It’s a competitive industry, a lot of people want to get into it. Some for the wrong reasons; they want to be famous. Some want to just tell human stories, which is essentially what journalism is about. The jobs are limited, you’re going to get rejected, but just keep going.”
Myrie’s own persistence paid off. And he has won the respect of his peers. In the Royal Television Society’s Journalism Awards this year he was named ‘Television Journalist of the Year’ and ‘Network Presenter of the Year’ for his “versatile, measured and compelling style”.
When not on the TV front line he enjoys football, cricket and opera. And if Clive Myrie was sitting in that famous Mastermind black chair, his specialist subject might well be jazz. His passion grew when he was reporting from Japan – “Tokyo has some of the best jazz clubs in the world” – and he is currently presenting The Definitive History of Jazz in Britain on Jazz FM.
Find out more about the Sussex Festival of Ideas, running online 9−12 June at: https://sussexfestivalofideas.co.uk
Follow @SussexBylines on social media