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Journalist Ian Woods on volunteering as an NHS driver and working on a film featuring the Belfast Telegraph

The Belfast-born journalist resigned from his job as senior news correspondent with Sky News after 25 years because he didn't want to become the broadcaster's health correspondent... and then coronavirus became the world's biggest story

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Oscar and Ian homeschooling in lockdown

Oscar and Ian homeschooling in lockdown

Ian with his partner Vicky Tennant, who works for the UN in Geneva

Ian with his partner Vicky Tennant, who works for the UN in Geneva

Ian with his partner Vicky Tennant in 1981 at BRA

Ian with his partner Vicky Tennant in 1981 at BRA

Ian at the Open last year in Portrush

Ian at the Open last year in Portrush

Ian and Oscar outside 10 Downing Street

Ian and Oscar outside 10 Downing Street

Kegworth 1989

Kegworth 1989

Democratic convention 2004

Democratic convention 2004

Climate change, Arctic 2008

Climate change, Arctic 2008

Col Gadaffi’s compound, Libya 2011

Col Gadaffi’s compound, Libya 2011

Last shuttle launch 2011

Last shuttle launch 2011

Oscar and Ian homeschooling in lockdown

The irony of the timing would give even Alanis Morrisette pause for thought. Broadcaster Ian Woods (55) caused something of a stir on Twitter this week when he announced that he was handing the mike in at Sky News after 25 years to go freelance.

For now, he says, he will be volunteering as an NHS driver in London, helping to deliver medicines and prescriptions wherever they are needed.

The Belfast-born journalist laughs as he explains why he is leaving Sky - a decision made back in December when a global pandemic was unimaginable.

"The trigger behind it really was that Sky wanted me to become the health correspondent," he says.

"Back in October or November of last year they wanted me to become the health correspondent, and I just didn't fancy the brief - they were trying to turn us all into specialists, which is pretty sensible in many ways, but I always think that every newsroom needs somebody who can turn their hand to anything and everything, and make complex stories simple."

Who would have thought that health correspondent would be the prime job in any newsroom in 2020? I mean, it seems like a crazy decision now that I turned down the health correspondent job just before coronavirus

Ian says he felt his strength was his versatility and he was reluctant to specialise, so he decided to take redundancy rather than take on a role he didn't want.

"Who would have thought that health correspondent would be the prime job in any newsroom in 2020? I mean, it seems like a crazy decision now that I turned down the health correspondent job just before coronavirus," he laughs.

"Obviously it would have been interesting, and fantastic to do it, and I do feel slightly odd at the moment being idle when the biggest story ever is happening.

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Ian with his partner Vicky Tennant, who works for the UN in Geneva

Ian with his partner Vicky Tennant, who works for the UN in Geneva

Ian with his partner Vicky Tennant, who works for the UN in Geneva

"But on the other hand, I've always been very used to going somewhere to do a story. And this story, you don't go somewhere to do it - it is everywhere, it is all around you, the effects of it are touching every single corner of the globe. It's a very different story to be covering."

For now, he has signed up to be an NHS driver, bringing vital supplies to those who need it, but such is the backlog that he's still waiting to hear what he needs to do.

In the meantime, he has joint custody of his nine-year-old son Oscar with his ex-wife, and they're taking it in turns to look after him throughout the lockdown.

"This week, she gets to do the homeschooling and I get to pick him up afterwards and do play time. But last week she had the virus and she had a really bad cough and tightness in the chest so I had my son all the last week - and it was a challenge," he says.

"He's nine years old, and the homework that he's given - I mean, every parent will identify with this. I consider myself to have a fairly good use of the English language, but when he asked me to define which are the common nouns, pronouns and verbs in a sentence, I'm struggling, I really am."

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Ian with his partner Vicky Tennant in 1981 at BRA

Ian with his partner Vicky Tennant in 1981 at BRA

Ian with his partner Vicky Tennant in 1981 at BRA

Despite having lived in England for many years, Ian grew up in the same north Belfast street as Sky colleague Eamonn Holmes. His dad Leslie was a sewing machine mechanic and his mum Caroline, known as Lila, worked in clothing factories.

"My dad's father was like the school handyman janitor type figure at Belfast Royal Academy in the pre-war years and my dad therefore insisted that his sons should go to BRA as well," he says.

"I got invited back a few years ago to do the prizegiving and do a speech at prizegiving day, and it was absolutely one of the proudest days of my life and having my mum there to see that was fantastic.

"I still maintain contact with the school and with some of my teachers. I still have an ongoing connection now with the school because my girlfriend Vicky was also a pupil there as well."

His girlfriend is Vicky Tennant, an old flame from his school days with whom he had stayed in touch, and who is now working for the UN in Geneva.

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Ian at the Open last year in Portrush

Ian at the Open last year in Portrush

Ian at the Open last year in Portrush

"We went to the school formal together in 1981 at the Europa and she had still kept the menu all these years. We kind of had a Facebook friendship for many years and when we finally got back together again a year and a half ago she was able to produce a scrapbook which still had the menu from the formal in there," Ian says.

"Our relationship at the moment is constructed entirely on FaceTime because she can't get out of Geneva now - she's stuck there and I'm stuck here. So whereas we used to get together every two or three weeks, it's proving a little bit more of a challenge these days."

Ian went to Warwick University to study Film Studies and European Literature before switching to History and Politics.

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Ian and Oscar outside 10 Downing Street

Ian and Oscar outside 10 Downing Street

Ian and Oscar outside 10 Downing Street

But he freely admits he spent much of his time working part-time for the university radio station and then the local commercial radio station and never completed his degree.

"I was doing interviews with anybody who came through the university, either to play concerts, so the likes of Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats - I interviewed him when I was still a student - and also politicians," he says.

"I interviewed Michael Foot when he was Labour leader, and David Owen and David Steele and Roy Jenkins."

He went on to become the main presenter of East Midlands Today with the BBC, and was the first reporter on the scene at the Kegworth air disaster. He also interviewed legendary Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough on numerous occasions.

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Kegworth 1989

Kegworth 1989

Kegworth 1989

After five years, Ian moved to Sky as sports correspondent, which took him to the Winter Olympics in Japan and the World Cup finals in France. Five years later, he switched back to news reporting and was to become Washington correspondent, covering the aftermath of the 9/11 Twin Towers attack.

"I spent a lot of time in New York particularly, interviewing people affected by the World Trade Centre attacks - we interviewed a lot of survivors and bereaved families, and police and firefighters," he says.

Ian talks of meeting then US President George W Bush at the Pentagon, just after the Iraq invasion, and being mistaken for an employee. "He came and he shook my hand thinking I must be one of the Pentagon staff," he says.

And he also interviewed George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton in the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami.

"Clinton was incredibly interested in what was happening in Northern Ireland at the time - it was just after the Northern Bank robbery and he knew all about that," he says.

"He's without question the most charismatic figure I have ever met by some distance and I've met a lot of prime ministers and politicians - I've even interviewed the Dalai Lama - but Clinton was just head and shoulders above all," he adds.

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Democratic convention 2004

Democratic convention 2004

Democratic convention 2004

Once back in the UK working for Sky, Ian would have filled in periodically for Ireland correspondent David Blevins, which is how he came to be walking up the steps of Stormont in the pouring rain when Michael Stone launched his ill-fated attack.

"I looked up and all the security guards were standing over Stone and trying to hold him down, so I recognised him and knew who he was," he says.

Other postings included two years in Sydney where his son Oscar was born.

"He's called Oscar because I was the Australia correspondent for Sky when he was born and I tried to convince his mum to call him Ozzy because he was going to be born in Australia," he says.

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Climate change, Arctic 2008

Climate change, Arctic 2008

Climate change, Arctic 2008

"We finally compromised on Oscar," Ian adds.

"Despite my buying him constant Northern Ireland shirts, he still thinks of himself as Australian, even though he's got absolutely no entitlement to a passport or anything like that."

You get very accustomed very quickly to the sound of gunfire, so it doesn't faze you after a while, until the gunfire is obviously coming towards you

Since then Ian has been based in London but travelling the world to cover international stories. He remembers the fall of Gaddafi as a particularly hairy experience.

"I've worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, but either at a safe time or with plenty of protection," he says.

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Col Gadaffi’s compound, Libya 2011

Col Gadaffi’s compound, Libya 2011

Col Gadaffi’s compound, Libya 2011

"But with Libya, it was just chaotic because a civil war means you are mingling with people who are not very well trained and disciplined with their guns, and they would break all the rules in terms of accidentally pointing guns at you.

"You're having to wear body armour for long periods of time in temperatures which were in the 90s - it was really, really uncomfortable and really gruelling work.

"You get very accustomed very quickly to the sound of gunfire, so it doesn't faze you after a while, until the gunfire is obviously coming towards you," he adds.

On one occasion he took the body armour off to climb over a high wall to do some filming on the other side, and came under gun attack.

"While we were climbing back over the wall again, somebody started taking shots at us, and that was a very scary moment - you could hear the bullets fizzing close by you and that was a quite a sobering moment," he says.

"I was never a big adrenaline junkie like some of my colleagues who just love covering wars, and I stopped doing it completely after one of my best friends and colleagues, a cameraman called Mick Deane, was killed.

"He was working in Cairo and he was shot by a sniper and died, and because he was a close friend, I had to look after his family and spend a week with them and help organise the funeral. And that was a very, very sobering moment, you know, because his widow would just say to me, 'Why did he have to die - it was only a f***ing job, Ian, it's only a f***ing job'.

"And I said to my bosses after that, I don't want to do that kind of story anymore, because it was too heartbreaking," he adds.

After that was a "parade of natural disasters" - the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, the volcanic eruption in Guatemala, Hurricane Katrina. "For a while, my friends were calling me the Grim Reaper, because I just seemed to do an awful lot of natural disasters!" Ian says.

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Last shuttle launch 2011

Last shuttle launch 2011

Last shuttle launch 2011

He has a few things lined up for after the lockdown, including some work related to the injustice of the death sentence for Oklahoma State Penitentiary inmate Richard Glossip.

He's also going to be back in Belfast working with fellow former BRA student Tony Macauley whose memoir Paperboy is being made into a film.

"Tony and I went to school together so I'm actually a character in one of his books," he says. "They're shooting a movie of his life story later this summer and I'm one of the characters in it so I've pitched to do a documentary behind the scenes on the movie and the real thing. It's linked to the Belfast Telegraph actually because the book is all about him growing up as a paperboy, delivering the Bel Tel in Belfast, and so the Telegraph features quite heavily in it."

But for now, Ian's building a lot of Lego with Oscar and tackling the chores while he waits to start work as an NHS volunteer.

"I keep on thinking that I should use the time to do some more writing. I've written one book and I'm sure there's another book in me but I haven't quite found the subject material yet," he says.

"If Terry Waite can cope with being chained to a radiator for several years, along with Brian Keenan and John McCarthy and others, then I think the rest of us can manage with our limited self isolation.

"It's still possible to go for walks and I'm lucky that there are plenty of green areas around where I live."

Belfast Telegraph