Jenny Wilson reflects on a career in the Belfast newsroom

Jenny Wilson Jenny Wilson at 21 years old and today

In 1968 the BBC first broadcast the news in colour and a space probe landed on the moon. It was also the year that Martin Luther King was shot dead outside a shabby motel in Memphis. There was both much to celebrate and much to rue.

Jenny Wilson remembers this time well, because it's also the year she joined the BBC as a secretary in Belfast. It was a turbulent time - at the height of the Troubles - but she says you were so busy you didn't have time to stop and think.

'Sometimes you were very distressed with the things that you were hearing, the things people were saying to you, but you just took that as the norm. Because you didn't reflect on it then. That's probably why you didn't have a nervous breakdown. You just kept going.'

Wilson, who now works as a content assistant in radio and current affairs in Belfast, will shortly have more time to reflect on a long career. After 44 years with the BBC - with time off to have children - she will be retiring this week.

Start Quote

I haven't had my personal space for a long time. You are lucky to come in and get a desk”

End Quote Jenny Wilson content assistant

It's the relentless shifts that have finally tired her out. 'I certainly won't miss getting up at quarter past four in the morning for the early shift,' she says plainly. 'That was why I decided to go at Christmas, in case we had snow in January or February.' There's a pause before she adds in a deadpan voice: 'It's the middle of the night.'

Wilson, who grew up in Londonderry, speaks with a distinctive regional lilt. She's direct and with a noticeably dry sense of humour. She peppers much of her sentences with 'aha'.

Code words

Asked to recall the Troubles, she explains how it was a completely different news operation in those days. Depending on where a bomb went off, it could take up to two hours to get to the scene and then the film would need to be processed in the office. Of course there were no mobile phones. She was working at the copy desk at the time and would take people's statements of condemnation.

The worst thing, she says, was taking phone calls from the group admitting responsibility.

'That was just somebody in a phone box calling you up and there was a different code word for every single week. We were given the code word at the beginning of the week and if they had the right code word, then that was right. But you had to listen very carefully to those, because if you got that wrong, that would have been terrible, wouldn't it?'

She ended up becoming a secretary for W D Flackes, the BBC's star political correspondent in Belfast, who died in 1993.

WD Flackes in 1969 W D Flackes during an election in 1969. Jenny (unseen) was hovering behind him when this picture was taken.

'W D Flackes never stopped working, she recalls. 'He was always on the go. His desk was always very untidy, full of old scripts, old newspapers, press releases, etc, although he was always able to find what he wanted. One day he was away at Westminster so I tidied his desk into neat piles. On his return he blew his top and told me never to do that again - which of course I never did.'

In those days Wilson typed up scripts for Flackes that would get used for the six o'clock news; he would dictate them to her over the phone after a long day at Stormont.

No personal space

Today, Wilson has got used to computers and the open-plan office, which she admits has some drawbacks. 'I haven't had my personal space for a long time. You are lucky to come in and get a desk,' she laughs.

She now also works with a lot more women in journalist positions. Having joined the engineering secretarial pool at the start of her BBC career, she says it was all men - the women only had jobs as typists and assistants.

She believes the workplace is more cutthroat these days, with people anxious to climb the corporate ladder. Wilson had no such ambitions because she loved her job, which has been almost exclusively with radio and current affairs.

The job for BBC Radio Ulster has become more technical over the years, with assistants expected to operate audio playout machines and have editorial ideas for the shows she works on: Good Morning Ulster, Talkback and Evening Extra.

The content assistant had a brief stint with television but 'hated every minute of it'. 'There is an awful lot of hanging about with it. Radio is more of the moment,' she argues.

'You know sometimes we'd go down to a pre-record and they could do it five or six times because somebody's hand was wrong or somebody wasn't looking at the interviewee. It was just too slow for me.'

'Loud and opinionated'

A news junkie, Wilson is unlikely to slow down in retirement. She's looking after her 'wee granddaughter' two days a week.

That will be fun, I venture. 'Oh no, that'll be hard work,' she fires back.

For something less rigorous, she's also looking for a part-time job and has written a CV. Not everyone would seek out more work, but Wilson has her reasons - and money isn't necessarily one of them.

'If you ever have a day off, you would get up in the morning and you would get your breakfast, you would do a few jobs around the house and all of a sudden it's four o'clock and you are still in your pyjamas. So it's just to give me a reason to get out of my pyjamas, really.'

She believes she will be missed in the office. With a chortle, she says: 'I have a reputation for being loud and opinionated.'

There's usually at least one opinionated person in a newsroom.


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