Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Maxine Mawhinney on how she broke the news of Princess Diana's death, covered many harrowing atrocities and survived breast cancer

Now retired from reporting, next month the Belfast-born journalist will become an ambassador for the NI Hospice, a charity close to her heart after the deaths of her sister and stepfather from cancer. She talks to Leona O'Neill

Maxine Mawhinney
Maxine Mawhinney
Maxine Mawhinney
Maxine Mawhinney breaks the story of Princess Diana’s death
Maxine with her husband John Clare
Maxine Mawhinney reporting in Belfast

She is one of the most well-known journalists to come out of Northern Ireland and working on some of the world's biggest news stories while juggling single motherhood, she blazed a trail for strong, fearless female reporters in what had been predominantly a man's world.

Sixty-one-year old east Belfast woman Maxine Mawhinney covered some of the worst atrocities of our Troubles as a UTV and BBC journalist. As a BBC News anchorwoman she delivered the news that Princess Diana had died, and she covered the length and breadth of the island in her role as Ireland Correspondent for Sky News.

Now living in London, and the mum of two grown up daughters and three grandchildren, she says her early life in Northern Ireland trained her well for her job as a reporter.

"I grew up in east Belfast," she says, "We lived just off the Belmont Road. I grew up before the Troubles started. I went to Belmont Primary School and then Strandtown. After that I went to Strathearn School for two years ­- and then my parents moved to Donaghadee so I went to Regent House, Newtownards, after that.

"I wasn't from a very wealthy family so my childhood was just normal for the time. We played in the street, we all had bicycles and did all the things that we did before anything electronic was on the scene.

"I had two younger sisters, Alexa and Lorraine. It was a house of women growing up. When you are in a mostly female environment you are dealing with mostly female stuff. There were the usual rivalries. We all had very different personalities.

"I do remember us getting our first car. It was very exciting in those days. And I remember watching a man landing on the moon. We were in the front room and had the curtains drawn so we could sit down and watch it. At the time I didn't realise actually how exciting it was."

Maxine remembers when the Troubles began, just as she was on the cusp of her teenage years.

"I was around 12 years old when the Troubles started," she says. "What I remember more than the actual Troubles is the adults talking about this thing that was happening.

"I was a Protestant growing up in east Belfast and one of the things I was never really aware of was the religious divide. It was not something that was spoken about in my family. But as I went into my teens I became more aware of it, mainly because of segregated education. I played a lot of sport, I played hockey and we would play other schools. And then suddenly it was 'they are a different religion'. And to me it never mattered. I had a lot of Catholic friends.

"But I think it really struck me when I was around 16 years old and one of the guys in the local garage asked me if I would go to the cinema with him. I told him I'd have to ask my mum.

"So I went home and asked her and she said that I couldn't. She got quite upset and told me that she was really sorry, but that he was a Catholic and I was a Protestant and that it might cause a lot of issues and it might even be dangerous. But at the time I didn't take it in.

"People don't remember what it was like. You have to go back to those days. That was at a time when, if a couple got together from opposite sides, they were targets.

"So a lot of couples had to leave and people were being shot. I was too young to understand the enormity of it. I was really very angry about it at the time because I never really saw any division at all between people.

"It was later on when I had my own children that I thought back to it. I think my mum was just afraid. She was worried about me. She had nothing against me going out with a Catholic, it was actually a fear for both of us that it might put me and the boy into a difficult situation.

"It took a while for me to look back and understand where she was coming from on that.

"My teenage years spanned the Troubles and I have friends who were killed on both sides.

"I remember the brother of one of my school friends was shot dead. I think it was a case of mistaken identity. We moved to Donaghadee then, and it was quieter down there."

Maxine says she feels that part of Northern Ireland's problem is educating our children separately. "I am a real supporter of the Integrated Education Fund," she says.

"Having grown up through a segregated system and then travelled the world with my children who grew up in non-segregated systems, I can see the damage that that kind of isolation - particularly in our community - can do.

"I think separating children along religious grounds is not a good idea. Integrated education just takes away the 'them and us' scenario."

Maxine says uncertainty over Brexit has brought back age-old fears which had been long forgotten and is urging our politicians to get back to work.

"I hope we have moved away from our Troubles," she says. "But I think that our politicians haven't moved away from it. I think they are still entrenched. There is too much history attached to them, too much of that mindset on all sides, and I think we need to get a new generation of young politicians who actually want to work for the good of Northern Ireland. There is no Assembly. It is ridiculous. Look at the fallout from that.

"I think our politicians are clinging too much to the history of the past rather than what is best for the future for everyone. We get the politicians we deserve. They keep getting voted back in again.

"I think when you step outside Northern Ireland and come back in again you can see that people don't really question their politicians enough. And I think they should. People just think he or she has always been our local councillor or MLA and that is why they vote. It's tribal. I don't understand why people don't vote for the issues instead of the parties. In England people seem to be voting more along issue lines. If we could get to that and if we could get the issues solved, that might help."

Like her childhood, Maxine's career has also spanned the Troubles and she was a familiar face on our television screens during the darkest days.

"I went to the College of Business Studies and did the NTCJ journalism course," she says.

"Then I went to the Bangor Spectator and on to UTV where I took over from Eamonn Holmes on Farming Ulster. It was fun because I was a girl, doing Farming Ulster.

"I used to go out and do filming around all the farms. And the farmer's wives loved it because finally a girl was doing it. I used to come home with biscuit tins full of cake and biscuits. It was such a fun programme to work on. And from there I went to the BBC in Belfast.

"Being a journalist in Northern Ireland during that period was the best training you could possibly get. Not many areas had that scale of a conflict on their doorstep. I was constantly on the border with bodies.

"I went to ITN in London and did some shifts there, and then Sky News started in 1988 and I got the job as the Ireland correspondent. My cameraman was the legendary Cyril Cave. It was a great job but the period around that was pretty bad. There were lots of bombs going off and lots of shootings and a lot of politics. But the other side of that was that I also covered the south. It was the era of the Celtic tiger. So there I was doing all these amazing economy and financial stories on one side and the internal conflict on the other. It was a very interesting patch to cover."

Thinking back over those days, Maxine struggles to choose one story that stands out above the rest.

"Something happened every single day," she says. "There was a bomb going off or another historic political breakthrough or you were down around the borderlands where there had been another shooting. We covered everything.

"It's interesting covering that type of story on your own doorstep. It is really strange. One of the things I was told was 'you are not the story. You are the person between the story and the viewer, listener, reader. You are not the opinion. They are the opinion'. And I always stuck to that. And it really does insulate you emotionally quite well from what is going on."
One story which is etched on Maxine's memory - and which unfolded far away from these shores - is the Oklahoma City bomb of April 19, 1995, which killed 168 people and injured almost 700.

"It was a nightmare story to cover," she remembers. "When we turned up the building was half collapsed. And there is a very famous picture from that scene of a fireman carrying out a little baby in his arms, because there was a childcare centre on the ground floor. And we were there when he came out. That story really affected me because of my own children. I was looking at that baby and thinking, that could have been my child. I still remember him coming out, thinking about that and having to do the report. Stories with children always affect me. I don't let it affect my reporting, but I do feel that much more emotional."

Maxine says she recalls the biggest story she ever worked on - the death of Diana, Princess of Wales - like it was yesterday.

"I think the biggest story I covered was when I was anchoring BBC news during the night of the death of Princess Diana," she says.

"Diana died in August 1997 and BBC News 24 didn't go on air until November of 1997. I was presenting on BBC World TV and when I sat down in the chair at just before 1am the first flash came from Paris saying that Diana had been injured in a car crash.

"I stayed on air broadcasting the unfolding story and the eventual news of her death until 10am that morning.

"It was an astonishing story to cover, not only for the magnitude of it but also it was the last major story pre-internet, pre-social media and pre-smartphones.

"It took nearly four hours to get video from the scene. Today it would be flashing around the world in seconds. All of the world's major broadcasters took our output so I was broadcasting to a huge global audience.

"There wasn't time to think about that though.

The job was to get the information to the audience in a clear and calm manner without speculation.

"We knew of her death about 30 minutes or so before the official announcement. I rang my mum in Donaghadee and woke her up and told her to switch on the TV."

Newsrooms of the day were predominantly male-dominated spaces. Maxine says she smashed that particular notion, travelling the world as a single mother with two young daughters in tow breaking the news.

"I was a single mother, travelling the world with my job, with my two daughters," she says. "It was pretty difficult. Looking back I think I must have been mad. During that time there were many more jobs than there are now. There was more flexibility in moving about in your work and moving on up.

"People would see you on TV and sometimes they would approach you about a job. You would still interview for it. When I was approached about going to Tokyo for Reuters, they offered me the job of news editor for Asia. So I was to be in charge of everything from India to New Zealand, all the bureaus, all the money, all the people. And I thought, what a great opportunity. So off we went.

"I was very lucky in that I was either able to have a nanny or that my mum would come a lot with me wherever I was. It was very difficult and it was at a time when not a lot of women were doing this. It was a really male-dominated industry. Therefore you had double guilt. You had the mother guilt and if one of the kids was sick I couldn't say I was taking the day off, and there was guilt with that too. You were always being set up against the man.

"When I went to America to be GMTV correspondent in Washington, I'd be in the office one moment and then off to somewhere in the States and maybe not coming back for three weeks, depending on the story. If you think about that time there was the Oklahoma bomb, the OJ Simpson trial, the Waco siege and the first attempt to bomb the World Trade Centre and there was Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Those were interesting times."

When Maxine hit her 40th anniversary as a journalist, and turned 60, she says she took a step in a different direction. And she admits she doesn't miss the buzz of the newsroom.

"The first story to break after I left was the London terror attacks," she says. "And I sat down to watch the coverage and I was still there at 2am. But did I want to be there? No. And I did ask myself. I was watching the newsreader on screen and I knew what chaos was going on behind the scenes and I thought, no, I'm fine. I think I've got to the point where I feel that I've done it.

"I've been a journalist since I was 19 years old and I have always loved news and current affairs. I have my own internet programme called The Moment with Maxine Mawhinney, which is lovely. It's a conversation, not an interrogation.

"I am writing, I do a lot of speaking about women's issues and career challenges and gender."

Next month Maxine will become an ambassador for the Northern Ireland Hospice, a charity very close to her heart after losing her beloved sister Lorraine and stepdad Ronnie to cancer and battling the disease herself. She is passionate about telling the story of end of life care.

"When the Northern Ireland Hospice approached me about being an ambassador I automatically said yes because my stepfather Ronnie, although he didn't die in the hospice, had respite care there when he was being treated for lung cancer.

"When most people hear the word hospice, they think it's somewhere to go to die, but it's not that. it's the care that people get, the palliative care that is wonderful. People don't really understand it. If I was told I was going to die, I would want to go into a hospice, because of the care you get there. If a patient wants to go for a walk around the garden, staff will walk with them with their oxygen tanks. It is a different approach to end of life care.

"Ronnie passed away five years ago this month. I was in the middle of my own cancer treatment when he was ill and after he died. I couldn't go and see him or attend the funeral because of my own treatment. It was a shocking time."

Maxine was diagnosed in 2013 after attending a routine mammogram appointment on a screening bus.

"A few days later I got a call to say I was being recalled," she reveals. "My best friend came with me because we thought we'd pop into the clinic and then go for lunch. So we went there and they said that they were going to do more tests and I had to see a specialist. I was still not thinking, really, that there was anything wrong.

"I couldn't feel any lumps. The consultant showed me the scans, blown up to the size of a planet, and told me that I had breast cancer.

"I think the way I dealt with it was to ask questions. I needed all the information. And I think that comes down to being a journalist.

"They did a biopsy on the Thursday and I had surgery the following Tuesday. It was a very difficult time. My sister Lorraine had just died of skin cancer and I didn't know how to tell my mum. So I didn't tell anyone for around three days.

"We had two years of cancer being in our family and slowly people dying. I did tell my mum after the three days, but I had to think very carefully about what I was going to say. And I said that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but I'm not going to die. And her answer to me was 'your sister said that'. And, of course, my sister died.

"I think that one of the most difficult things for any cancer patient is managing everyone around you. That is very hard and you're exhausted and in the middle of treatment, but you still have to think about other people and how they are coping.

"I was very lucky and I came through it. I still take medication and I am checked regularly.

"But you always live with a little niggle at the back of your head. I don't think about it. I did everything I could possibly do to help myself in terms of treatment options and here I am. You don't get the all clear.

"If there is one moral of this story it is to go for your mammogram, it could save your life. It saved mine."

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