Where are they now?
Dorothy Byrne (Dip Business Studies 1974, Hon LittD 2018)
We spoke to alumna Dorothy Byrne about returning to Sheffield during winter graduation to receive an honorary degree, as well as her career as Head of News and Current Affairs for Channel 4.
What did you study and what made you choose to come to Sheffield?
I came to study for a postgraduate diploma in business after finishing my undergraduate degree in Philosophy at Manchester. I chose to come here because Sheffield’s a great place to live, including some fantastic people and some brilliant countryside.
In my current role, I’ve just worked on a programme - the ‘UK’s Best Place to Live’ - and Sheffield actually came out as the top city because it’s got the excitement of the city centre, good schooling and nurseries, fantastic countryside very close to the city and housing isn’t too expensive. In fact, quite a bit of countryside is within the boundary of the city, so it’s a really, really great place to live.
How has Sheffield changed since you were studying here in the 1970s?
Sheffield then was very different in many ways to now because it is so much more developed. When I first started coming back in recent years I couldn’t find my way around because it has changed so much. It’s got so many exciting things going on now compared to before, in particular the Sheffield Documentary Festival – Doc/Fest – which is one of the leading documentary festivals in the world. I think it’s really helped to put Sheffield on the map.
You’ve had a varied path, going from philosophy to business to journalism – how has this benefitted you and your career?
I think that students now are a lot more focused than we were. When we went to university we just thought ‘What are the subjects that I find interesting?’ But actually I think that philosophy is a good grounding in helping one to be able to tell truth from lies, which is probably the number one job of a journalist, so it’s stood me in good stead.
My business diploma has been incredibly useful to me in my career too. Channel 4 is a publicly owned, totally commercial channel. We make all our money out of adverts: I could come up with fantastic news and current affairs programmes, but if nobody watched them we wouldn’t get any adverts and we’d quickly run out of money. So having a business sensibility is important, and a lot of how you’re selling your programmes to the public is marketing.
And then finally of course, much of what you learn in business is to do with people, and I think you can never know enough about that because it’s the key, the most important thing that you do in life. Either the people you are directly working with – and TV is all about working in teams – or how you’re relating to people in organisations that you’re trying to find information out about.
And now, given your career, you have been back at Sheffield working with the Department of Journalism Studies.
There’s fantastic teaching in the Department of Journalism Studies at Sheffield – it’s one of the leading courses in the country – one of the handful of leading courses. I would certainly recommend the journalism courses here. Looking back, maybe now I would have done a postgraduate course in journalism, but it wasn’t available then. I was on the Department’s advisory board here for a period and I was very impressed by the quality of work. I also know that some of the research taking place here is excellent, not just as academic research, but it’s useful in the real world too.
What was the most useful thing you took away from your time at Sheffield?
Throughout my career I would say asking other people for help and admitting what you don’t know are two of the most important things I learned at Sheffield.
For me, moving from philosophy to business was very hard, and what I learned was to find out very clearly what you don’t know and tell people “I don’t know that, can you tell me about it”. But also, don’t be afraid to do something new and very different, because you probably can do it, if you ask other people for help.
What challenges have you faced in your life and career and how have you overcome them?
Entering journalism as a woman 40 years ago was a challenge as it was a very sexist environment. I dealt with that by getting together with other women so that we helped and supported each other. Sometimes I just really had to stick up for myself too. When men behave badly towards me, my instinct is to tell them that their behaviour is inappropriate. I know that sometimes this counted against me in my career and I suffered prejudice as a result. But I’ve been true to myself and I have self-respect and, overall I believe that’s why I’ve been a success.
What was your journey like after graduation?
After university I did voluntary service in Nigeria, and I would really recommend to people going to work abroad and experiencing another culture for a period of your life.
After that, I started at the bottom and worked my way up in journalism. First on a local weekly paper, and then a morning regional paper, then regional television, and then as a producer/director on World in Action, which was the best current affairs programme in Britain at the time. I went onto work in some other roles at ITV before moving to Channel 4, where I’m now Head of News and Current Affairs.
I’ve been very fortunate. I’m aware that some of why you do well in life is your talent and your tenacity, and some of it is luck.
Throughout your career you’ve focused on journalism that has an impact and makes a difference – what has been your favourite thing to work on?
I wouldn’t say that I have one favourite campaign, but I would say that I love investigation and that I love challenging what people just accept as being true. So my favourite thing isn’t one subject – it’s an attitude to life that if somebody tells you a thing is just obviously true then you should immediately challenge that preconception.
But I am also proud of being part of a group of women who changed the subject matter of investigative current affairs. It used to be that investigative journalism in television was overwhelmingly dominated by men. They didn’t view investigating subjects like rape, domestic violence and the oppression of women and children as what investigative journalism should be looking at. That has now completely changed.
Do you have one piece of advice that you can share with our new graduates as they move on to the next stage in their lives?
Well my number one piece of advice is don’t smoke. But after that, I’d say focus on what you really want to do, but be realistic. Try to get yourselves work experience and then be pushy – approach people directly, don’t just sit there and answer adverts you see advertised. If you want to work for an employer write and say, ‘I want to work for you, and here is why I want to work for you’. And, in particular, find out all about the person you are writing to and write them a really sycophantic letter. It can be the key that gets you through the door.
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