Fiona Bruce pops up on my computer screen, looking like she's about to read the headlines. She is actually at home in Oxfordshire eating shortbread, but has instinctively assumed a power pose; arms stretched out, hands on the desk, just like on the News at 10. Her hair is even immaculately blow-dried - she's just been to the hairdressers and acknowledges "it's not bad". Bruce is lively company, sharing anecdotes about MPs, gleaned from her 31 years working at the BBC, and laughing conspiratorially when she tells me about the time that Amber Rudd felt awkward in the Question Time green room with Nigel Farage and suggested they put some music on to fill the silence.
It's all friendly and jolly. Until, that is, I bring up the subject of pay. Bruce is the second highest paid woman at the BBC after Zoe Ball, earning £450,000 a year (Vanessa Feltz and Lauren Laverne are the only other women in the list of top-earners). That's still considerably less than the men, led by Gary Lineker who made £1.75 million last year (he's since agreed a £400,000 pay cut). Are some BBC staff paid too much? Bruce's smile disappears. "I will leave that to others to answer," she says in clipped tones. "It is unacceptable for there not to be equal pay," she expands later. "The BBC has made great strides forward in that territory, especially in the last three years - there is now a representation of women that there wasn't three or five years ago but it still has a way to go."
Bruce has been at the vanguard of this change. In 2003 she became the first female presenter of the News at 10. She now presents The Antiques Roadshow and Fake or Fortune, and last year she became the first female host of Question Time, which is back tomorrow night.
Her salary makes up for the years she was underpaid when she started out as a researcher on Panorama aged 25, she says. "I was not confident talking about pay at all," she says. "If I got a promotion or another job it just never occurred to me to argue about the salary. I knew from the get-go that there was a differential in how much people were paid but it just never crossed my mind to talk about it."
She can laugh about it now but there is still a sense that Bruce (56) can't believe her luck. She watches all her shows back. "I think, 'what could I have done better?' Could I have got a question in quicker, should I have let a person talk more?" Does she ever feel she has nailed it? "I don't think I ever will." We are interrupted by a fluffy paw appearing in the corner of the screen and Bruce introduces me to her Irish terrier, Molly, whom she talks to in an adoring, soft voice.
When she started on Question Time the pressure was on and "I was incredibly nervous". But she's relaxed into the role. Viewing figures are up and she and can't wait to get back to it. "Now that Brexit is in the news again I've dug out all my Northern Ireland notes from the end of last year," she says, taking a sip of tea from a tangerine-coloured mug that matches her bracelet.
Does talking about EU politics make a refreshing change from Covid conversations? "I wouldn't say that. There has never been a more important time for people to be able to ask questions and find out information. Since we came off air in June there have been periods when I felt the lack of opportunity to give members of the public a chance to put their questions to our national leaders; during the exams crisis, with quarantine, in general the way the nation is handling coronavirus." Her daughter Mia (18) took her A-levels this year and "it was pretty challenging for that cohort". Bruce also has a son, Sam (22) and she is married to advertising executive Nigel Sharrocks.
She was unimpressed with the Government's press conferences. "There were only ever two questions from the public and you know as well as I do that you may not get an answer the first time." Sounding like a headmistress, she chides me for even mentioning them in the same sentence as her show. "It's like comparing apples and oranges." Tonight, Bruce and the panel will be joined virtually by people in Oldham. Covid means there will be no chats beforehand or debrief in the green room, over "tepid white wine". "We used to have strange green rooms," she says. "There was once a Tory who went off to meditate before he went on air, which was a first for me."
The biggest disappointment when she took over from David Dimbleby was that the post-show refreshments weren't better. "David has a certain status so I assumed there would be better nibbles. Not at all. Sometimes it is Domino's pizza. I'm sure there are others available but that goes down well with the team. I'm not a huge fan. I wouldn't touch a pineapple pizza. Margherita is my kind of thing."
The downside of gathering the nation to have their say is that Bruce has to mediate and make sure everyone has the opportunity to speak. This puts her in the firing line for complaints about BBC bias. She doesn't "look online much". "I get criticised from all sides, which is better than if it was coming one way. Question Time is rare in that it puts people with different opinions in a room together - that's not a position people usually find themselves in. Usually they tend to read papers that accord with their political outlook or follow those people on Twitter. So obviously it can be uncomfortable to go out of that comfort zone."
Does she see herself doing Question Time until she is 80 like Dimbleby? "Oh gawd," she sighs. "Will they want me to do it that long? When I started I couldn't even imagine having a job until I was 50 but then I sort of wised up." This is what she meant, she says, when she said recently she didn't think she would have a career after 56. "That was about my naivety about when I needed to take out a pension. I couldn't imagine having a job after 50. But there is a point about how in the not too distant past it was unusual for a woman to be working in her fifties. By and large that is something women have found more than men. There is no reason why a woman should be asking herself that question in my profession anymore."
She's sanguine about the threats facing the BBC - recent accusations levelled at it include a lack of diversity and the licence fee being too expensive, as well as the ministers refusing to appear on its programmes. "When you have been at the BBC for as long as I have I cannot see a director general who did not have his work cut out for him. It is not an organisation where it ever feels like plain sailing. The challenges are different now - there is streaming - but think about the Labour years. I used to hear Alastair Campbell on the phone after the news every night not happy about what he had seen. The BBC has always felt, how should I put this?" She purses her lips. "Under scrutiny, always having to fight its corner, but so it should. Let's see how the licence fee discussion turns out. It's not the first time, there was a review in 2017."
Bruce is a feminist with an aversion to mansplaining ("who wants mansplaining? Not me"), so was she disappointed that the new director general wasn't a woman? She toes the party line. "Tim is a really, you know, a good fit for the job, actually. I am interested to see what he does. Of course we will have a female director general in the next 10 years. I am sure."
After the Black Lives Matter protests she read Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. "I wish I'd read it before. It was so thought-provoking, interesting and useful. I don't think you can read it and not challenge your own assumptions." There has been discussion about race and gender at the BBC but what about class? Bruce went to state school and was the first person in her family to go to university (she read French and Italian at Oxford and was briefly a punk). "B****y hell, I'd better get myself another biscuit," she says. "The BBC is not perfect for sure but it is always trying to do better and it is not complacent."
What is annoying is that as well as being paid less, "women are held to a different standard" on TV. "There's that American anchor who wore the same suit every day for a year to make the point that no one notices what men wear and for women it gets picked up on all the time. It is a fact of life, although it is not one I appreciate."
She insists that she doesn't let it affect what she eats. "Peter Sissons used to tease me when we did the news together because I eat so much. I do eat big portions and working in TV is not going to change that."
Question Time "takes up a lot of my headspace", which means she has to make an effort to carve out time to switch off. "If I don't go running, go riding and walk the dog that way madness lies. It is too stressful if you don't."
A news alert saying that the R rate is now one pings up on her screen. Bruce looks alarmed. "I was quite anxious at the start of lockdown," she says. "I don't want to get ill so I do all the things you are supposed to do, but at the start we didn't know what the rules were. I remember seeing a woman on the high street with a branch two metres long, cutting a swathe through anyone who tried to get close."
She used the time off productively, clearing out her homes (the other is in north London). "I found an autobiography of Robin Day, who used to present Question Time," she says with a warm smile. "It must have been a present from my parents when I had started working at the BBC. In it they wrote 'maybe you will be as famous as him one day'. At the time I had such a junior position and thought maybe I would become assistant producer. I am incredibly lucky."
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