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Maxine Mawhinney: 'I left the BBC for new challenges at age 60'

Veteran television news presenter Maxine Mawhinney is embracing the digital age at 60, after 20 years with the BBC. The Belfast woman tells Joanne Sweeney why she hopes that her granddaughter will not face the pay inequalities that she and her peers have

Journalist and broadcaster Maxine Mawhinney has launched her own interview-based channel on YouTube
Joanne Sweeney

FORMER BBC News anchor Maxine Mawhinney is having a 'moment' in her 61st year, so don't dare mention that she's anyway close to retiring.

After 40 years of as a senior journalist working all over the world and covering some of the biggest news stories, the Belfast woman has found herself returning to the first love of her life – that's interviewing people and being nosy.

One year on from leaving the BBC's rolling 24 hour news channel in London, she has launched her own YouTube channel called The Moment where she interviews a range of well-known people from all walks of life about a moment which transformed or redirected the course of their lives.

Best-selling author Kathy Lette recently opened up about finding out that her son Jules Robertson – now an actor playing an autistic character on TV soap Holby City – was autistic in the 15-minute interview slot. Mawhinney promises many more revealing interviews from big names to come in this partnership with Celebro Media Studios in London.

For some people, her departure from the world's most respected news broadcaster with a guaranteed and loyal audience in order to start all over again and build an audience on the internet might raise eyebrows. For the grandmother-of-two, however, it was simply the right time for her to do something different.

"When I left the BBC last year, I was its oldest female national newsreader in the UK. I left when I was 59 so I have started this whole new internet project at the age of 60. But that’s not why I left as they asked me to stay on several times. They didn’t get rid of me because I was old," she stresses.

"I had been a journalist for 40 years and had been with the BBC for 20 of those years so last September I turned 60, it was a bit of symmetry in numbers for me. I thought if I was ever going to do something different, now is the time. There happened to be another round of voluntary redundancies so I applied to leave.

Maxine Mawhinney reporting for Sky News in Belfast, with cameraman Cyril Cave and sound man Steve Ward

"Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely loved my job – which was probably the best job in the world – and even now people ask why on Earth have I walked away from that?

"But I had been doing it a long time and been a journalist for an even longer time in many mediums so I just thought that if I was going to do something else that would give me a bit more freedom to do other things as well, then this is the time to do it. I suppose that was my moment really."

She faced another defining life moment in October 2013 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was successfully treated with surgery and follow-up treatments.

"It was the scariest thing in my entire life," she says. “The day I got the diagnosis my best friend came with me, as my husband was away at the time. I thought it was just a recall on a routine mammogram screening as I hadn't felt the lump – and couldn't even after I knew about it, which is why I now always urge woman to go for their screening examinations.

"My friend went to pieces but I went into journalist mode and started to ask all these questions as it was my way of coping. After my treatment was over, my surgeon told me that every time he had a consultation with me, it felt to him like an interrogation."

The BBC has been criticised over the past year for the inequalities in pay levels for its leading male and female presenting talent. While Mawhinney is well aware that she has been underpaid "on occasions" by the BBC and other news organisations she has worked for over the years, she has not yet joined in the class legal action that some other BBC women broadcasters are reported to be taking against the corporation.

"To me, the most important thing is that this issue is sorted out for the future," says Mawhinney. "I am not just talking about the BBC. I know that over the years in various companies men have been paid more than me. And not just me, of course, as there would have been other women doing the same job.

"I have a one-year-old granddaughter and have a five-year-old grandson, her brother. I would like to think that when they grow up she would earn the same money as her brother that if they did exactly the same job.

"[Radio 4 presenter] Sarah Montague really summed it up in her recent press article, that when you find out that someone is getting paid more than you because they are a man, when they are doing the same job as you, it makes you question your own ability and your self-esteem really suffers."

From covering the Troubles at home, Mawhinney has reported on some of the biggest international news stories. She was the duty presenter when news of Princess Diana's car accident in Paris in 1997 broke and effectively announced to the world that the princess had later died.

She started her career as a reporter with the Bangor Spectator because, she explains: "I’m really nosy and I loved hearing stories. I also liked writing so journalism was the obvious place to go."

Mawhinney quickly went on to work for both BBC in Belfast and UTV for several years before taking a job as Sky News's Ireland correspondent. That let her to work as the Asia news editor for Reuters in Tokyo for two years before working in Frankfurt, again for Reuters, and then joining GMTV as its Washington Correspondent from 1992-1996. She was raising her two daughters during these years and spent some time then as a single parent before marrying her husband John.

"It was a fantastic period in American politics to cover in Washington DC as it was early in the Bill Clinton administration. It's the job that every broadcast journalist wants because you are at the centre of power."

However, Mawhinney admits that she personally felt she had to "prove" herself more as a woman.

"I had children and it was always the case of, 'What happens if the kids get sick or this or that happens?' As a woman you always felt quite guilty to say that I can't come in today as my kids are sick. You wouldn’t have got a man saying that as he had a wife or partner to look after the children."

In addition to her work as a global keynote speaker and conference facilitator, Mawhinney’s new YouTube channel is currently the focus of her energy.

"It’s very exhilarating to be doing The Moment as it many ways it feels like I've come full circle in my career. Not only does it seem to have grabbed the attention of those who are watching it but I’m also interested in it and really passionate about it."

:: The Moment with Maxine Mawhinney can be found on YouTube on http://bit.ly/TheMomentwithMaxineMawhinney or visit maxinemawhinney.com

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