Sian's saving Saturdays for study

Sian Williams Sian Williams has a new schedule that combines work, home and study

Live broadcasting is a risky business. Even without the notion of breaking news, guests don't show up, or the wrong guests show up, lines go down, tapes fail to play, auto-cues freeze and talkbacks pack-up.

When it all goes wrong and there are acres of space to fill, it's the presenter who's left exposed to the unforgiving camera or impotent microphone.

Presenting BBC One's Breakfast and, more recently, Radio 4's Saturday Live, Sian Williams made it all look easy.

It's hard to imagine just what circumstances it would take to cause her an even slightly accelerated heart rate, but it turns out she's not infallible.

Returning to university nearly 30 years after her initial graduation (she read English and History at Oxford Poly, now Oxford Brookes University) was enough to bring on the butterflies.

Start Quote

The Psychology MSc I chose is science based and I was never that good at science at school”

End Quote Sian Williams

'The Psychology MSc I chose is science based and I was never that good at science at school,' she remembers, 'so that was intimidating at the start. Then there's the taking exams after all that time, working out a schedule that combines work, home and studying and adapting to mixing with a whole new set of people.'

Williams has four children and, while the two youngest are tucked away at primary school, her two older boys have reversed the traditional demand of children living up to their parents' expectations by raising the bar for Mum.

Mother's pride

Joss, 21, graduated from Oxford this summer and is currently working in India. Alex, two years younger, is into his second year of a medical degree - also at Oxford.

'They probably wouldn't tell you themselves, where they're studying, but I'm so proud of them,' Williams says. 'They both went to state schools and studied hard to get through the Oxbridge exams. I'm taking all their revision tips!'

Williams has turned Joss' bedroom into her studying space and followed his method of using coloured cards and post-it notes as aide-mémoires.

'Joss did History and some of his study materials are still stuck up, so with my psychology notes we've a fairly eclectic wall space up there,' she laughs.

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They [her two older sons] both went to state schools and studied hard to get through the Oxbridge exams. I'm taking all their revision tips!'”

End Quote Sian Williams

Within minutes of speaking to Williams it's clear that she's chosen the right degree - one that complements perfectly her experience as a broadcaster.

Every point of interest she raises in the context of psychology as a subject matter has its roots in something she's encountered in her career.

And in an incidental, but nonetheless generous sense, everything she's learning through academia will be filtered back into the broadcast industry. Colleagues, especially in journalism, should reap the benefits long term.

Duty of care

The three pieces of self-generated research she undertook last year were strongly relevant to her job.

The first looked at trauma and journalism, examining whether enough of the correct psychological support is being provided for producers, reporters, crews and auxiliary staff returning from hostile environments.

The second looked at career change, to better understand how people cope in an increasingly fluid working environment.

The third examined the duty of care that media, especially broadcasters, have towards vulnerable people that they interview and report on.

It was the cumulative effect of the 'heavier' interviews Williams conducted as part of her job that influenced her decision to take the course. People with mental health issues are important contributors in debates about the subject and Williams interviewed plenty of them, often on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live.

Bill Turnbull and Sian Williams on BBC Breakfast Sian (with Bull Turnbull on BBC Breakfast) says her research topics were relevant to her job

'I always did my research thoroughly - speaking to mental health charities, for example, before I talked to the guest,' she says. 'But I found I wanted to know more about how the brain works. We tend to report mental health patients by their symptoms, rather than the person as a whole, which isn't right.'

New confidence

Williams says there's no doubt what she's taken from the Masters so far has helped, as was intended.

'I think plenty of us doing interviews around mental health are nervous of being insensitive or using the wrong words,' she says. 'I'm much more aware of the complexities now, of seeing the person as a whole. That makes me more confident and I'm more up front with them.'

David Rathband, the Newcastle police officer who committed suicide two years after being randomly shot and blinded as he sat in his patrol car, was another interviewee for Radio 4.

He had met Sian before and wanted to talk to her about his state of mind since the attack. The interview she conducted was named as one of the best broadcast interviews ever, in a poll by the Radio Times.

Start Quote

'I've been a plagiarist for so long. As journalists we take our three sources and we bash out a cue. Academic writing is a different skill”

End Quote Sian Williams
'So what's the top line?'

While her currently dual-track life may share a common subject matter, the disciplines of journalism and academia will never form a perfect dovetail - as any producer who's tried to get a sound bite from a scientist will know.

'I've been a plagiarist for so long,' Williams concedes. 'As journalists we take our three sources and we bash out a cue. Academic writing is a different skill - our training to use as few words as possible is turned entirely on its head and everything you write must be your own thought, or referenced to within an inch of its life.'

Overall the move has been a positive experience. Williams has done well in the exams she's sat so far and classmates and staff seem unimpressed with celebrity, leaving her to get on with her work. She's currently thinking of a subject for a thesis, to be delivered next year - a piece of work that needs to be good enough to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Williams claims that after being impatient at first, she's grown accustomed to the longer deadlines, wordiness and discursive conversations loathed by journalists, loved by academics. But here I smell a rat!

'I'm getting better at reading dense research papers and the detail is really interesting,' she concludes. 'But my first thought on picking them up is still, 'so what's the top line?''

You can take the girl out of the newsroom, as they say...

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