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BBC's Sara Neill: I wanted to be the next Meryl Streep... when that didn’t happen I focused on my writing

From editing the school magazine to presiding over the Halloween fireworks, BBC NI’s Sara Neill tells Linda Stewart what it takes to become a successful multi-platform broadcast journalist.

It’s not every journalist who can say they’ve received feedback from one of the Royals, but BBC NI’s  journalist Sara Neill admits to having received a telling off from the Duke of Edinburgh a couple of years ago.

The Jordanstown-born journalist was presenting the Duke of Edinburgh Awards at Hillsborough Castle when the Queen and Prince Philip were on a visit to Northern Ireland.

“Before the ceremony began, the Prince was guided through the room to be introduced to people,” she says. “When he got to me he asked what I did. I told him I was a journalist and I co-presented a breakfast show on the radio. 

“He asked me to repeat myself, and whether I ‘mumbled like that on air’, before telling me I should speak more clearly! I did have a bit of a chuckle at that.”

Fortunately Sara didn’t take it too much to heart. The 31-year-old is now a multi-platform broadcast journalist with BBC NI, a role that takes in everything from writing radio bulletins to reporting live from a scene and presenting the breakfast news.

“My job offers a fantastic variety of roles,” she says. “I love broadcasting, even though I started off wanting to be a feature writer for a newspaper.

“Jobs include being at things like the Liam Adams trial, which was huge, and the case of Cody the dog. These were cases that garnered massive public interest and were very, very important.”

Sara says that she has always wanted to be a journalist at heart, but in her early days she did go through phases of having other ideas about her future.

“I did want to be an actress for a while, but when I realised that I was not going to be the next Meryl Streep, I focused on my writing. I always loved doing that,” she says.

“At primary school my teachers told my mum that I was very creative. I don’t get the chance to be creative so much now, as journalism is so fact-based, but I love the crafting of words.

“Samuel Taylor Coleridge said poetry is the best words in the best order and I feel like journalism is like that as well — because, in radio journalism in particular, every word counts.”

Sara says that as a teenager, she also thought about pursuing a career that might involve counselling. “I liked the idea of talking to people and helping them, and I guess I thought I had the right kind of temperament for that, which I’d now say is debatable,” she says.

“At work, I love doing human interest stories and I feel that side of me gets used when you are trying to draw somebody out of themselves, particularly when they’ve been through a traumatic event.”

Sara says being a journalist for the BBC is all about being respectful and sensitive. “Last year, I did a story with a young man who had been very brutally attacked and sexually assaulted by people who he thought were his friends. He and his mum sat and talked to me about the after-effects,” she says.

The story ended up reaching a national audience — but the family returned to Sara when they wanted to raise the issue again.

“In November, I got a call from his mum saying one of the men who attacked him had had his sentence reduced at appeal, and I went and spoke to them again. My work is about the rapport and the relationship that you build with people,” she says.

Sara describes herself as a “very happy transplant” to east Belfast, having grown up in Jordanstown as a daughter of teacher Lynne (62) and civil servant David (64), both now retired.

Her sister Ruth (37) works in IT, is married to Matt, and has two boys Joseph (4) and Patrick (6 months) — “the apple of my eye”, Sara says.

“I grew up in Jordanstown which was lovely because it’s that kind of place where you are walking down the street and you always bump into someone you know. I have still have strong ties there.

“We were always the kids who were out on their bikes, cycling round Jordanstown. It’s sad that a lot of kids don’t do that any more.

“There is a big hill near me and I remember cycling down it using no hands. I cycle a lot now and I think even lifting one hand now off the handlebars is frightening. How did I ever go down the hill with no hands? I’ve become a lot more sensible in my old age!”

Sara remembers lots of holidays  when she was young, with the family often returning to a favourite spot year after year.

“My parents were always very good in that they always took us to museums. They always wanted us to be learning about the world,” Sara says.

“For them it was an opportunity for us to know who we were, where we are from and where we are visiting. In New England there were a lot of Kennedy exhibitions and in Miami I remember going to a Jewish museum and learning about the Jewish faith.

“My parents fostered a sense of learning. They both worked really hard when we were kids and they both went back to university at one stage and studied when we were growing up. Education was very important to us.”

Sara went to Whiteabbey PS, before studying at Belfast Royal Academy. “It’s a mixed school as well, so it was boys and girls and people of all religions, which I think was very important. You had the opportunity to do everything,” she says.

“It was very much a sports oriented school and still is, although I was not sporty at school. So on Wednesday afternoons when we were playing hockey at the playing field at Roughfort, I would be more likely to be found balancing a hockey stick on the palm of my hand than getting near the action.

“I always liked to be busy. I was part of the editorial team for the school magazine, The Owl, and I was all over the school plays.

“At one stage I remember being on stage playing a small role but also doing make-up and costumes backstage.  Everybody came together and there was a real sense of teamwork.”

Sara says her biggest role was in third year as the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. At A-level, she studied English, Politics and History.

“I loved English, loved literature and I really enjoyed politics at A-level. Looking back, I’d  liked to have taken that further — I really enjoyed it.

“But I think always in the back of my mind, I knew that I wanted to be a journalist. It was part of growing up — sitting down to dinner and the UTV news was on and then when that was over, we switched over and watched the BBC news.

“I remember being in my dad’s car and trying to put Radio 1 on and he would be like ‘no, no, no, Evening Extra’ — and now I am that person.”

Sara went on to study English at the Ulster University at Coleraine.

“Once I graduated, I went through that lost period that everybody goes through, doing odd jobs. I worked in a call centre and as a PA for the director of the MS Society during that time.”

But Sara says she had always wanted to travel and she put in an application for Camp America’s sister organisation Au Pair America.

“One Thursday night, I was standing in the queue for Bambu Beach Club in Belfast when I got a call from the Northern Ireland co-ordinator and she said they had matched me with someone, a family in LA who had a little girl who was three.”

Sara spent a year in LA living in the pool house of the home where she cared for little Maddy. “They very much became family over there for me. It’s 10 years since I went out and I am going back again this summer to meet them.”

During that time Sara was accepted onto a Masters course in journalism at Coleraine after doing the admission interview on Skype.

During the course, she worked part-time in a shoe shop and as a residential assistant at the university. She also had a six week placement as a feature writer in a Belfast newspaper, an experience which only convinced her she was on the right career path.

She also decided to try and get radio experience and “fired off a few emails”, resulting in a week’s work at 7FM radio in Ballymena which ended up lasting for a year and a half.

“I was doing news there which was totally different from what I set out to do, but I loved it. It was a small team so you got to do everything —news, producing the gig guide every week and working on a lifestyle programme, contributing to their wedding programme.

“Sometimes I’d work on the drive-time programme, too. My boss there was really encouraging.”

After this, Sara moved to UTV for two years, working in online journalism. “That was a baptism of fire — when I started, it was the week of the Royal wedding, when Prince William married the then Kate Middleton, and we were live blogging it.

“Then there was an election which meant long days and long nights,” she says.

“It was a great chance to learn from some of the journalists who had been there a lot longer then me. I’d watch how they crafted their packages and savour the atmosphere of being in a busy newsroom. I really loved the buzz.”

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