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BBC's Karen Patterson on witnessing IRA atrocity, how she and husband Martin clicked and life after Good Morning Ulster

In an interview to be broadcast on Radio Ulster's Talkback show today, the popular Good Morning Ulster presenter talks about her career, family life and what she's looking forward to when she leaves the post in the new year. Leona O'Neill gets an exclusive preview

Karen, husband Martin and son Max
Karen, husband Martin and son Max

Karen Patterson has been a familiar face on our television screens and voice on our radio airwaves for over 20 years. Northern Ireland has been waking up to the sound of the 48-year-old Co Down broadcaster's voice on Radio Ulster's flagship Good Morning Ulster show for the past 10 years.

All that is about to change though - in November it was announced that she and her co-presenter Noel Thompson will step down from their presenting roles early in the new year to pursue other challenges.

Two other popular BBC NI faces, Seamus McKee and Wendy Austin, are also leaving their posts at Evening Extra and Inside Business respectively.

Now, in a revealing hour-long interview with Talkback presenter William Crawley, to be broadcast at noon today, award-winning journalist Karen looks back at her life, speaks of how coming across the Ballygawley bomb scene as a teenager prompted her to pursue a career in journalism, and reveals the stories that have had the greatest impact upon her.

The eldest of three sisters, Karen grew up on her parents' farm near Bangor. She says she was surrounded by the news and always wanted to work in the media, but never really "set out a plan".

"I grew up on a dairy farm near Bangor," she says. "My father Aubrey had farmed there since 1947. We have the oldest prefix dairy herd in Northern Ireland. He was a very talented farmer, but also voraciously interested in news. So news has been around me all my life. We would have been a Downtown family with the radio on all the time.

"It was a family when the news came on, everyone went quiet, because we needed to hear it. Dad would have read at least a couple of newspapers every day. So I would have been surrounded by news.

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"My dad was an incredible storyteller and joke teller and had a memory for everything. He was constantly entertaining everyone, and at one time was invited to join the Group Theatre as an actor, but the farm held him back from that. It was a great, great childhood and one full of fun."

It was during her teenage years that Karen says she experienced a devastating incident during the Troubles that ultimately compelled her to pursue a career in journalism.

"Living in a farm in north Down, I wouldn't have been exposed to some of the pretty awful stuff that was happening in Northern Ireland," she says. "Through the Young Farmers, which was a great social organisation for kids at the time, we had this trip to Kesh. It was off-road driving and was in August 1988 and I was just 17-years-old.

News hounds: Noel Thompson, Karen Patterson and Joel Taggart
News hounds: Noel Thompson, Karen Patterson and Joel Taggart

"It was just after midnight when we were coming back, three or four car loads of us. Suddenly in the darkness the car in front of us had stopped, and there was a light in the middle of the road flashing. And we had just come across the Ballygawley bus bomb.

"So that was a crowd of kids out having a great day out in Fermanagh and it had the most awful ending. The boys got out of the car and went off to see what had happened. Eight soldiers were killed in that bomb attack. The bus had been thrown around 30 metres along the road and we were literally the first cars there.

"I remember moving to get out of the car, to see what was happening and why the boys hadn't come back and one of them came over and said to get back in, he said you must not get out of the car, because it's horrific. And they disappeared off, and came back, and they didn't even recount what had happened, but some of them had blood on their shirts. It wasn't spoken about, to be honest. Then subsequently, the boys were invited back to the local police station and recognised for helping out that night.

"So news has been part of my life, from a very early age. But that was one of the most awful encounters for me. That prompted me to pay more attention to the news and ask more questions.

"Don't get me wrong, I wasn't exposed to it in a way that many people would have been. But when I went to my careers teacher and said I think journalism might be for me, she told me not to be crazy. Her exact words were 'you're too sensitive'.

"That was her view. In hindsight, I think sensitivity is a great thing, because you have empathy with people you talk to and draw stories from them, so I don't knock anyone who is sensitive."

In 1990 Karen began her journalistic career at the Bangor Spectator newspaper. She says she "covered the court, the council, the cat stuck up a tree, whatever it might be" with "such a tight-knit bunch of people". At the time, Colin Bateman, the novelist and screenwriter, was the paper's deputy editor.

"I finished school, I had done my A-Levels, was accepted to study speech therapy at university and thought, 'I don't want to do that'," she says.

"And it was my mum Kitty, who is brilliant, who said why don't you do a little work experience at the local newspaper, the Bangor Spectator. She reminded me that I liked English, writing, debating, that type of thing. And it was the editor there who suggested I do the NCTJ journalism course at the Business College. So in my year - what a year that was - were Jim Fitzpatrick, Suzanne Breen, Trevor Birney, myself. Malachi O'Doherty was a tutor of mine for a time.

Winning way: Karen (left) winning the News Broadcaster of the
Year for her work at BBC Radio Ulster at the IMRO Radio Awards in Kilkenny
Winning way: Karen (left) winning the News Broadcaster of the Year for her work at BBC Radio Ulster at the IMRO Radio Awards in Kilkenny

"I did that for a year and then the editor at the paper offered me a job. I hesitated and wondered if I should go and get a degree. And he said that he would rather have someone with three years' worth of contacts in a little black book than someone with a degree. So I took the job at the age of 19.

"Colin Bateman was the deputy editor at that time, so you can only imagine what that office was like, it was crazy, but great.

"We didn't know that Colin would become 'The Bateman' at that time. I don't even know if Colin knew. He was writing away furiously at home.

"We kind of knew that he was busy of an evening, but no one knew how busy he had been. He had been sending his books off quite regularly and having them refused.

"And then he met a girl and she told him to send 'Divorcing Jack' off to the biggest and best publishing house that you think of, which at the time was Harper Collins. It went into their slush pile, someone pulled it out and recognised the talent that they had there.

"So it was lovely to be in his life, even if just on the periphery, when that all happened. It couldn't have happened to a nicer fella."

After "growing out" of newspaper journalism, Karen took a job at Downtown Radio, becoming one of Northern Ireland's most renowned voices and covering some of the stories that defined the region.

"It's a totally different kind of work," she says, "I felt like I had outgrown the newspaper a little bit. I just needed something else. When I was leaving the newspaper I put together a story of a Canadian trip I had taken as well as some political stories and I put them towards a competition, and was lucky to win the Provincial Journalist of the Year competition in 1995.

"The award ceremony was on the 7th of February 1996, which was the night that the IRA shattered its ceasefire with the Canary Wharf bomb. Just before my name was called the room emptied, which is proof that news always, always comes first. Within a few weeks a job came up at Downtown Radio as a newsreader.

Karen with Jackie Fullerton hosting the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards in 2007
Karen with Jackie Fullerton hosting the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards in 2007

"They took me on and trained me up. I went from having a deadline once a week to a deadline every hour. It was a pretty ruthless environment at the time. There were half a dozen reporters working across Northern Ireland. Whatever landed on your lap you had to do.

"One particular day something happened and it was just quick, go! At that stage they had computers and there were mobile phones, these big giant things. This one fella had grabbed the mobile and run out the door and away he went. About 10 minutes later the editor discovered that the reporter had lifted the TV remote control instead of the mobile phone and we had no way of contacting him!

"I was there for a while, just reading the news bulletins and that was 1996. Come the July holidays, everyone was off on leave and Drumcree happened. And it was just me left in the newsroom. So the rookie was sent there and I was there for a week. And I remember looking over the hedge at the entire BBC encampment with reporters, crew and producers and I was sat in a field wondering where I was going to file my copy from.

"I was at Downtown for three years, and they were remarkable years. We had awful events such as Omagh, which rocked my world. I was at home with my parents and got a call - 'Karen, make your way to Omagh'. I remember travelling there and hearing the appeals for blood transfusions and when I neared the town the phone lines were all down. I got to the Tyrone County Hospital. I wasn't overly familiar with the geography. I thought if I run up to this hospital they will probably have phones, not realising that Tyrone County was taking the overspill from the explosion. I remember opening the door and seeing what I later discovered was Alan Radford's family coming out with a bloodsoaked blanket, in hysterics. [I'm] just saying that this was horrendous and that you have no idea what happened up the road...

"I found a phone and filed my first report for the six o'clock news. I made my way into the town and saw the extent of it. I was there for a week, and that was just, for everybody, as dire and desperate a period as anyone can remember. I recall going to the leisure centre and seeing people covered in rubble and dust, and the lists of those missing, and just families fearful that they might not see their loved ones again. And the funerals. That period was desperate."

Karen moved to the BBC in 2000 to present Newsline. In 2006, her role was extended to include Evening Extra and then to Good Morning Ulster.

"I started in the BBC in 2000," she says. "It was hugely pressured, and Jackie Fullerton was brilliant. I remember sitting in front of the mirror the first few times when I was doing Newsline. And I was physically shaking, you could see my hands shaking on the desk in front of me. I was terrified. Jackie said to me that if I wasn't nervous, I shouldn't be doing the job. He was saying this to me as a person who had a lot of experience.

"I worked with him a lot of times since. Jackie wouldn't even eat a meal before doing an awards ceremony. He said that if you lose that edge, that is the moment your autocue goes down, or you lose that cue. And I thought that was just great to have a healthy respect for being on air, a lot of the time.

"It was a gear change for me doing Good Morning Ulster," she says. "And that was when Wendy and Seamus had steered that big ship for 30 years. What big shoes to fill because they are absolute professionals and I have a huge amount of respect for both of them.

"For us to come in, Mark Carruthers and I, first of all, then Noel and I, it was different. There were plenty of days I spent more time with my co-presenters than with my husband, so you need to develop that relationship pretty quickly.

"For me, that rapport was about generosity. If you go to present that programme thinking 'this is me and I'm going to show someone else up', or expose a weakness in someone else, you can't do that. Because you are both exposed and the programme is a success or a failure because of that rapport. Because let's face it, it's as much about the chemistry between the two of you and you introducing that news in a way that they enjoy as it is about the content. And you have got to be likeable and someone people could sit in the pub and talk to over a pint."

Karen has been married to Martin, a molecular biologist and scientific officer, for 13 years. The couple have a son, Max. She says that when she met her future husband, he didn't have a clue who she was.

"I met Martin at abarbecue," she says. "A girlfriend introduced us. We both had a love of travel and I was heading off with my sister to South Africa and he wasn't long back from a round-the-world trip. He told me about all these places that he thought I should visit and I thought, he is quite a nice guy and good fun.

"But the beauty of it was that I was on the TV and on the radio at the time and he hadn't a clue who I was. And I thought, great. I am not a very industry person and I like people who have their own story. My dad was like that. Growing up, I was quite shy and we didn't have to go beyond the cartilage of the land, because people always came to the farm and I would slink away so I didn't have to talk to my parents' friends. I would have been hauled back and told to be polite. It was a great lesson in life, that no matter who you are talking to, they all have a story. Everyone has had something that has happened to them worth talking about".

Karen says the couple's son Max was 'brought up around the news'.

"Max has just turned nine-years-old," she says. "He was born a year after I started Good Morning Ulster. So lots of people talk about the getting up at 4am, all the early starts. But as any new mum knows, a lot of early starts are required, so I shouldn't really complain too much. But - as they say locally - it's a bit of a tightener with the little one. So he has basically grown up with Good Morning Ulster. I would have a conference call at 6pm before we go on air the next morning, so to all the production team, thank you so much for all of your patience over the years as I tried to get Max settled at the end of that conference call.

"I'm up at 4am four mornings a week. There is not a lot of sleep, but in this business, it's not so much about the lifestyle as the news. You know what you're getting into and you just don't really turn off. I think when you look at some of the stories we have broken, such as Donald Trump's election or referendum result."

As Karen looks back on her almost three decades bringing the news to Northern Ireland, she says presenting Good Morning Ulster has been the stand-out highlight.

"What's not to celebrate about Good Morning Ulster and still presenting after 10 years?" she says. "I never thought I'd still be doing this. It's a big old beast. It's such an honour and a privilege to have the opportunity to do this. I was very lucky to win the Newscaster of the Year award a few months ago. This time the room didn't evacuate."

Karen says that her style of journalism was not "personality-led", but rather taking a back seat and letting the interviewee do the talking. "I think my type of journalism was always represented by me being the conduit to telling other people's stories," she says. "Journalism is changing. Often presenters are very personality-led. And we find out a lot about personalities on air. But when I was being trained it was all about the less I can hear from you on air the better the audio. It was all about the person you were talking to and you making them comfortable enough to trust you tell you their story.

"I have this instinct about letting others do the talking and you being the vehicle that allows their story to be told."

And she says she has great hopes for the future - one of which is sleeping in.

"I'm looking forward to the post-breakfast era," she says. "Feeling awake would be lovely. I have been here for 20 years and it has been an amazing journey. But just to be able to pick projects at maybe a different pace, still journalism, perhaps a bit of corporate work. But telling stories is what I'm about. The journey so far has been great."

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