Remembering Sarah Cullen
Sarah Cullen reported for Today from 1994 until her retirement some 8 years ago. Her specialism was reporting on Northern Ireland but she was also a fine social affairs reporter. Sarah died at home this weekend and leaves a son, Tom.Head of Programmes, Steve Mitchell, writes:
I have many fond memories of Sarah, not least the long conversations about Tom and how proud she was of him and later how much she was looking forward to their life together after she left the BBC, I am sure he will be finding this very hard.
Sarah's professional life was inextricably linked to her wonderful, challenging, engaging and never predictable personality. She seemed passionate about everything in her life and words such as 'average' or 'good enough' were never part of her vocabulary. Nor indeed did she ever seem familiar with the concepts of 'office hours' or 'too risky'. If Sarah thought a story worthy of attention she would pursue it relentlessly with an energy and passion that had to be experienced to be appreciated, but which always, always could be heard on air, a passion that could turn the mundane into journalistic gold dust.
Two particular recollections: A trip to Glasgow to cover drug dealing where she disappeared for nearly a week, but the eventual reports were full of outstanding images and gripping voices. When I asked how she had won the trust of those involved I learned she had 'adopted' one of the addicts involved and ended the week ensuring that the young woman attended and stayed in rehabilitation.
Second; a call at one o'clock in the morning from Sarah who without any preamble said 'Steve, here's someone who wants to talk to you.' Before I had fully woken up a man with a very strong Irish accent was explaining that he was with the Provisionals and was demanding to know whether I could vouch for this 'mad woman' he'd found talking to people on the Falls Road in the middle of the night. I said she did indeed work for us, he said 'Thank God we can let her go .. I was afraid we would have had to keep her and she's terrifying!'
Needless to say Sarah came up on Today next morning with a live two way and a brilliant package and the audience would have been completely unaware of what had gone on the night before. .
Finally all Sarah's bravery and determination came to the fore when health problems ended her BBC career. I will never forget the calm, dignified and courageous way she dealt with that. I was supposed to be a manager helping her, it was, of course, the other way round ……Radio Newsroom Editor Richard Clark writes:
Sarah was different, distinctive, brave.
Different because she was almost the polar opposite of her fellow reporters on Today. Most were male and had been talented spotted at an early age by BBC Radio. Sarah came from tv, from 'the opposition' (ITN), was a little older and was a woman. Sarah was a competitive animal: she wanted to show she was as good - if not better -than anyone.
However, she did not go with the prevailing style, which is where distinctiveness comes in. Sarah's reporting was not about the 'shakers and movers' - it was about those affected by the shakers and movers. It came from the streets rather than the board room or the debating floor. If an output editor wanted to find out what impact a governmental decision had on working people, they'd go to Sarah. She had the knack of finding people at the sharp end of someone's policy, someone's decision. And the harder it was to find authentic voices, the harder Sarah would work.
Which is why bravery deserves a mention. There are remarkably few reporters who could find those voices in Northern Ireland - but Sarah could. She would arrive in Belfast late at night, tell you she was off to one of the so-called 'no-go' areas (where better to start?) and that she WOULD file for the morning. And if she said she would, she DID. It was difficult and dangerous and it was of enormous benefit to R4 listeners.
But - and this can't be said of everyone - she would make light of the dangers she ran and she could laugh at herself.
Finally, she could stop being a journalist. Yes, she could bang on about stories she'd done, but she could also surprise by talking simply and charmingly about family and especially about Tom.