Orla goes for Gold
As a young athlete she dreamed of being an Olympic star and now Sky’s the limit for Northern Ireland’s Orla Chennaoui as she becomes the station’s 2012 Games correspondent. Audrey Watson meets her
Growing up in Draperstown, Co Londonderry, Sky News reporter Orla Chennaoui dreamed of becoming an Olympic athlete or a journalist. And although the former All-Ireland triple jump champion didn't achieve her sporting ambition, she'll be there in the stadium covering the 2012 games in her newly-appointed role as the station's full-time Olympic and Paralympic Games correspondent.
“It's close enough for me,” laughs the 30-year-old who, as well as the competition itself, will cover all aspects of the build-up to the London event for Sky's millions of television viewers. “It's my dream job and I'm loving it. The athletics didn't work out, but the journalism did and this is a pretty good combination of the two.
“I'll be keeping viewers up-to-date on everything to do with the games — from the building of the stadium, the finances, the politics, security and all the different areas involved, to meeting athletes, coaches and families and sharing their medal dreams.
“I've always been into athletics and did well in competitions at school, but was never anything special. Then when I was in sixth form, I started to do really well at triple jump and became all-Ireland champion when I was 18. I haven't kept it up, though,” she laughs.
Securing the coveted role is just the latest highlight in a glittering career. Prior to landing her dream job, Orla was Sky's Northern Ireland correspondent reporting stories such as the Omagh bomb trial, the murder of former IRA member and British spy Dennis Donaldson and the historic power-sharing agreement that finally concluded the peace process in Northern Ireland.
In 2007, she moved to the station's London HQ and also covered national and international news including the trial of serial killer Levi Bellfield, the 21/7 terror trials, the Iranian sailor hostage siege and the infamous row over the naming of Mohammad the Sudanese teddy bear.
Although now living full-time in London with her Moroccan-born husband, Mourad (hence the exotic surname), Orla comes back home every six weeks to see family and friends and to get a breather from her high-pressure job.
“London is great, but it's mad,” she laughs. “My best tonic is coming back to Draperstown for a few days. I find that really helps me to step away from everything and keeps me sane. I get really homesick if I haven't been back for a while.”
After completing a degree in Law with French at Queen's University Belfast, Orla began her journalistic career at the Edinburgh Evening News and Scotland on Sunday, where she did work experience and freelance shifts while studying for a post-graduate diploma in journalism at Napier University.
She then progressed to radio, working at 2 Ten FM in Reading before making her small-screen debut with Meridian TV in Southampton and then moving back to Edinburgh where she worked as a TV newsreader and reporter with Scotland Today.
“There were no journalists in my family at all — mum and dad worked in the construction industry,” reveals Orla.
“But I was always a bit of a media junkie as a child and loved watching the news.
“It was the war correspondents that really inspired me, especially Kate Adie and Orla Guerin and now Sky's Alex Crawford.
“It's hard not to be inspired by the women who have gone before you and who have broken through so many barriers.
“And it's great that more and more females are becoming sports reporters and presenters as it's an area where you often come across prejudice and have to convincepeople you can do the job — something you wouldn't have to do if you were a man.
“But sometimes it can work to your advantage. For the Olympics, I'm part of a two-woman team — myself and producer Lisa Hervey — and a lot of people so far have seen us as a refreshing change.”
Although she grew up in Northern Ireland, Orla says she was blessed in that neither she nor any members of her family were affected by the Troubles, but she was very aware of events at the time.
“I went to St Mary's Grammar in Magherafelt and the town was bombed when I was at school. I remember hearing the explosion from home. I also recall getting caught up in bomb scares and things like that, but I was blessed in that no one I knew was involved or hurt in any way.
“It was just an ugly thing there in the background. But when you are growing up, you don't realise that it's an unusual or different thing to be going on. You just think that's life.”
As Sky's Northern Ireland Correspondent, Orla covered many of the province's big news stories, but it was the murder of two off-duty soldiers by the Real IRA at Massereene Barracks, Antrim, in March that affected her most.
“To me, Northern Ireland had moved on so much and it was such a great thing to see... and then that happened.
“I'd worked on a lot of big stories, but I found that one very hard.
“I remember standing outside the barracks and looking at the bullet holes in the wall. It brought the whole Troubles period home to me in a way that I didn't get watching news reports.
“Just being on site and remembering how difficult it used to be. It was impossible to comprehend that we could be slipping back into the dark days. People were genuinely scared.
“Of course, any story involving personal tragedy is really hard to cover. It's that case of knocking on the door — whenever student Meredith Kercher was murdered in Italy, I had to go to the family home and persuade them to give an interview. I also had to approach the families of serial killer Levi Bellfield's victims and ask them to talk to me.
“That gets to me — having to do that. It's heart-wrenching, but it's important that the human side of stories like that are told.
“I'll never get used to it and I hope I never will. I don't think you should. Once you start seeing things like that as ordinary, you lose the empathy that you need to be a good journalist.
But, as Orla admits, there are lots of good sides to her job as well.
“I had a fantastic time in Switzerland last year when they switched on the Large Hadron Collider, trying to recreate the Big Bang,” she says. “It was just brilliant fun and I was surrounded by people who have spent the last 10 years engrossed in the minutiae of the science.
“And so far this year, covering the Olympics, I've been to Denmark twice, Sardinia with Rebecca Adlington and the swimming team, Rome and Berlin. Athletes have training camps all over the world.”
When she's not working, Orla enjoys skiing and spending time with Mourr — as he's known to family and friends — who works as a research associate at the Imperial College in London.
“I met Mourr when I was at Queen's,” she says. “As part of my course, I spent time studying at Rennes University in France. Mourr was also a student there and we were in the same halls of residence.
“We only got together just as I was about to come home. The timing was terrible, but it worked out ok and Mourr came to Belfast for a while before we both moved to Edinburgh.
“We've been married four years now and even though my job means we have to spend periods apart, he's really supportive. Whenever I started at Sky no one knew how to pronounce Chennaoui and Eamonn Holmes told me that because he was from Northern Ireland as well, everyone asked him how to pronounce it — they thought it was an Irish surname!” she laughs.
She may be fast becoming a household name in television news, but Orla reveals that despite her high-profile career, she isn't treated any differently by the folks back home in Draperstown.
“I have an older sister, Karen, and two younger brothers Cathal and Oran,” she says.
“Karen and Cathal have followed the family tradition and work in the planning and construction industry while Oran has just opened a music studio. We are all really proud of what each other has achieved and though my job may be more prominent, I don't get any special treatment.
“In fact, I met some of mum and dad's friends recently and one of them asked me, ‘Are you the one in planning?' and I said no, so he just turned away, he wasn't interested in talking to me!”