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Maxine: 'How I coped with ageism and sexism at work ... and the shock of my breast cancer diagnosis'

At 59, Belfast-born Maxine Mawhinney was the UK's oldest female newscaster when she left her BBC News job this week. She talks to Una Brankin about life on and off camera

By Una Brankin

On Monday, Maxine Mawhinney presented her final afternoon news programme, after almost 21 years, for the BBC News Channel. That evening she dined at one of London's most celebrated restaurants, The Ivy, to celebrate the end of one chapter in her life and the start of another.

But by Wednesday, she was doing the ironing at home in London and getting ready to fly home to visit her mother and sister in Donaghadee.

Like the vast majority of women, the award-winning, Belfast-born broadcaster is happy to abandon the housework to have a chat about her 40-year career as a foreign correspondent and broadcaster, and her forthcoming 60th birthday in September. At a well-preserved 59, she was the oldest woman newsreader in the UK until she signed off on Monday.

"Sixty has crept up on me - I don't feel it at all," she says breezily. "It's one of the catalysts to thinking about what I can do now, not that I had to leave the BBC.

"When I said I was leaving, the BBC did say they would not like to see me go - in fact my boss asked me a number of times about staying. But it was totally my decision to leave," she says.

"It was a really hard decision - I had one of the best jobs in news broadcasting, one that all journalists want. But I want to get back to writing, and do more of my speaking on women's empowerment and other issues."

Her former UTV and GMTV colleague Eamonn Holmes was one of the first on Twitter to wish Maxine well.

A former cub reporter for the Bangor Spectator, Maxine took over UTV's Farming Ulster when Eamonn moved to the sports department.

"It was a fabulous job - we could make lovely long reports about agricultural matters, which of course are very important in Northern Ireland.

"I was the first female in the chair and got a tremendous reception from farmers' wives when we would go out filming - I came home every time with tins of biscuits and cakes.

"And Eamonn and I worked together later on GMTV, when he was on the sofa and I was Washington Correspondent. We do keep in touch and his tweet made me smile."

Now a glamorous grandmother of two, Maxine lives in London with her husband John, a former journalist, who took her to The Ivy on Monday as a treat - it was her first time at the exclusive Kensington restaurant.

Since Monday, she has been inundated with "thousands of messages and people saying they'll miss my soft Irish brogue", and as a result, has missed catching up with Homeland, her favourite drama. ("Don't tell me what happened!" she implores.)

Her native accent is more pronounced on the phone than it is on television; she explains that, for broadcasting, she slows down her naturally more fast-paced delivery.

Unlike her friend Kathy Clugson, the Belfast-born Radio 4 broadcaster, she has never received any flak for her Ulster-tinged speaking voice, which is mellifluous and uplifting, to these ears. But some of her colleagues have had trouble with her surname (I heard a continuity man recently pronouncing it 'Maw-hinney').

"Everyone strangled the pronunciation when I started at the BBC over here - the silent H confuses people, but they were keen to get it right", she laughs.

"We do speak fast in Northern Ireland and it's important to speak clearly to make yourself understood.

"It's funny - on my first day working with the BBC in Belfast, someone said to me, 'don't be thinking you're going anywhere, you won't be getting a big job in London with that accent'. And John Cole was the London political correspondent at the time!

"But I've never had any problems and the Americans loved my accent when I was working in Washington."

She has, however, encountered ageism and sexism in her career, in which she has worked for BBC Belfast, UTV, ITN, Sky News, GMTV and BBC national news in London. "This is an issue that is industry-wide and not only for women in front of the camera, but also those behind", she asserts.

"When I left the BBC on Monday, I was the oldest female presenting national news in the UK - that's a fact of which I am very proud. I think that TV broadcasters in particular, and there has been criticism of the BBC for this, have not recognised the value of older, experienced women on air.

"American TV news is much better for older women presenters. I think attitudes are changing and long may it continue. I have experienced ageism, gender bias and sexism in my career across the board.

"It shouldn't have happened, of course, but I was able to get through it.

"Sometimes it was very demoralising and hit your confidence.

"You just have to take a stand and not get walked over", she adds.

Didn't her experience and age help secure the longevity of her career?

"I don't know. Did I survive because I am older, at a time when it is desirable to have older women?

I was asked by the BBC more than once, 'are you sure', when I said I was leaving.

"The bottom line is, I believe that jobs should be given to those best qualified and not just because of their gender or age. Perhaps I could still have been presenting the news at 70, who knows? But wouldn't that be a great message to send out?"

Although she left Belfast in 1990 to travel the world - starting in Tokyo - as a foreign correspondent, Maxine comes home every couple of months to visit her 80-year-old widowed mother and her sister Alexis Dunlop ("my mother gave us very exotic names!), who owns the Omeya Day Spa in Bangor.

Describing herself as a "thoroughly Belfast girl", she came from a modest background, grew up on the Belmont Road in the east of the city, and attended Strathearn school and the College of Business Studies, where she studied journalism.

"I wasn't a brainbox at all - I was just all right", she says. "I worked hard and I was nosy and wanted to know what was going on in the world.

"The Northern Ireland education system is fantastic and my time at the Belfast College of Business Studies doing the NCTJ course was one of the most valuable things that I have done.

"It set me on the road to my career.

"One of the things I like now about the education system is the integration. Integrated schools were not around when I was young and I think they are a tremendous step forward for Northern Ireland and I am a big supporter of the Integrated Education Fund."

Since 1990, she has interviewed presidents, prime ministers, pop stars, movie stars and sports stars, and covered many of the major stories in the last four decades.

She covered the Clinton presidency, the Oklahoma Bomb, the trial of OJ Simpson, the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi, the Gulf War and the siege at Waco, Texas.

On a lighter note, she also conducted the first interview with Elizabeth Hurley just after she wore that famous dress with the safety pins.

She has been on hand for the Royal births and deaths, and all of the political upheavals and crises of recent years.

Then, in November 2013, she faced her biggest personal crisis when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

After surgery, she underwent radiotherapy and still takes the anti-cancer drug, tamoxifen. "It was, of course, a terrible shock, as anyone who has gone through it will know", she recalls.

"As a journalist, I always want as much information about the story as I can get - I approached my diagnosis in the same way.

"I was lucky it was caught early, but I want to stress it would not have been caught had I not been for my NHS mammogram. So, ladies - don't miss those appointments."

She adds that the BBC was "extremely good" to her at the time. "They left it to me to come and go between treatments if I wanted to. And the support of my husband John and my family was absolutely essential during this time, and they were all fantastic.

"My daughter who lives in England brought my very new grandson to visit and cheer me up and made me lovely food. And my daughter who lives in Australia sent me treats such as manicures and pedicures.

"Today I'm in great health - I still have my check-ups every six months and never miss a mammogram."

As the tamoxifen makes her skin dry, she has been taking better care of it recently, constantly moisturising.

"But I am so lucky that we have good skin in our family - my mother looks amazing at 80," she says.

"I'm currently using Niod Moisture Vaccine for my face and Niod Neck Elasticity Catalyst which has actually done wonders for my nearly 60- year-old neck. Previously, I was using products from Dr Sebagh.

"I have regular ultrasound facials with a fabulous lady at the French Clinic in London. That really perks me up.

"But when I'm home in Northern Ireland you can find me at my sister's Omeya Day Spa in Bangor. I always walk out of there glowing.

"Sleep is important to me and I don't sunbathe, and always wear sunscreen," she adds. "I'm always trying to drink enough water but don't necessarily succeed, and I love Pilates reformer classes. Most of my spare time, though, is spent with my two small grandchildren, reading and travelling - we are just back from Cuba - and I have recently started to revamp my garden which is taking up lots of time."

While she won't be disappearing completely from the screen and airwaves, she admits she'll miss the buzz of the daily newsroom, and that she'd "give anything" to be reporting from Washington again. Her high profile appointments included stints as a Sky correspondent for Ireland from 1988-90, and as a BBC national news anchor London in 1996. The following year, she single-handedly presented the BBC World news during the night of the death of Princess Diana, on August 30, 1997.

"There were three of us in the TV centre - I was on at 12.55am and the news that she was injured in a car crash flashed up in the gallery in front of me," she remembers. "It was just the one line but the producer told me to keep talking until more came in, and luckily I'd been to the hairdresser's the day before and had read all the Hello magazines, and had loads of info about her to kill time with.

"We knew she had died an hour before it was officially announced. One of our foreign correspondents was in the Philippines with the Secretary of State, who told him, so he phoned to tell us to bring the tone of the bulletins down, in preparation for the announcement.

"I remember sitting there thinking, 'oh my God', and getting the goosepimples. The room - of hardened journalists - just fell silent, then we had to swing into action.

"There was no obit ready for her but the hour's notice was enough to winch it into place. I didn't get off-air until 10.30am. I didn't really take in the enormity of it until the next day."

Like Diana, Maxine was moved by stories that she covered involving disadvantaged children - including those at a centre for babies with HIV in Harlem in New York, in 1993.

"They had been born to drug addicted mothers with HIV/Aids," she explains.

"It was possibly one of the most heart-wrenching stories because, as a mother myself, it was always the stories involving children which got to me.

"I also did a story about an orphanage in Thailand in the late 1980s and almost came home with another daughter."

She has also made fleeting appearances, as a newsreader, in various films over the years, including The Queen, starring Helen Mirren.

"That was the big one. I didn't know about it - I was in France on holiday and my daughter rang to say she had just been to the cinema to see it and when I appeared on screen she was so shocked she jumped up at shouted 'that's my mum!'

"They had taken news footage from the night Diana died and used it in the film. I used to appear a lot in the series Spooks - I was a great fan, anyway. They were always needing a newsreader as part of the plot.

"But you film them in isolation so it was always interesting to see the finished story.

"I also once was a newsreader of the future in a sci-fi programme but I'm not sure that made it on to the screen," she adds.

Maxine's Heroes... and Villains

As a highly experienced former Washington correspondent, and having covered Bill Clinton’s presidency, Maxine is keeping a close eye on Donald Trump. Will he last?

“Well, he’s a democratically elected president; they’d have to impeach him to get rid of him,” she says. “I read that he might not serve the full term — he may step down early, saying he’s done all he wanted to achieve. I’d give anything to be reporting on him now.”

As for the defeated Hillary Clinton, Maxine saw sexism writ large during the last US election campaign.

“Hillary stood on a platform and said: ‘Women are seen though a different lens’, and she’s right. She came through the indignity of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Whitewater and her health care initiative, which was a disaster.”

Having been outside the LA courthouse for the infamous trial of OJ Simpson, when he was acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman but had to pay damages of $33m to their families, Maxine was glued to the recent drama series on the case, starring Cuba J Gooding and John Travolta.

“It was fascinating to see what went on inside that courtroom,”

she says. “As foreign Press, weweren’t allowed in. The defining moment, of course, was Johnny Cochrane’s line: “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit”. But, come on! It’s not for me to say if OJ was guilty.”

She names Winston Churchill as one of her political heroes, along with Barack Obama, “a true statesman”. She admires Taoiseach Enda Kenny, for standing up to Trump, and John Hume, “for taking risks”.

And she agrees that Bill Clinton is the most charismatic of them all.

“He’s very invigorating. Everyone says he’s very, very charming and it’s true,” she confirms. “When he walks into a Press room, the tone changes.”

She regards Tommy Lee Jones as “a fabulous actor”, and names the late Leonard Cohen as her lifelong favourite musician. And as for sports stars she has met, she turns closer to home: “Mary Peters — she will always be the best”.

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