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Wendy Austin: 'My brother David died from AIDS. It was the worst time ever'

'He was unlucky. If he'd become HIV positive even five years later he'd probably still be here now' 

Wendy Austin
Wendy Austin
Wendy Austin in the BBC in 1981
Wendy celebrates happy times with her parents Irene and Cecil
Wendy with Kerry, husband Frank Hewitt, mum Irene and dad Cecil Austin
Wendy Austin, her daughter Kerry and grandsons Austin (4) and Ellis (2)
Wendy's daughter Clare and son Niall
Belfast Telegraph journalist Claire McNeilly interviews Wendy Austin

Interview by Claire McNeilly, pictures by Kevin Scott

The doyenne of Northern Irish female reporters Wendy Austin (67) talks for the first time about the tragic death of her only sibling, the battle for equality in the workplace... and why she isn't a great granny.

Q:  You've been on the airwaves for more than four decades; radio and TV in London and Belfast, Good Morning Ulster Seven Days, Talkback, Inside Business etc. Do you have a favourite?

A: I'm a radio animal, really. I loved doing television, but there's nothing like live radio. I spent a long time doing Good Morning Ulster and I loved it. Nobody likes getting up at 4am but there is something very nice about doing a breakfast show where you feel you're priming people for the day. When I stopped it was like I'd stopped banging my head against a wall. You suddenly realise you've been exhausted for 20 years. I absolutely love Inside Business. I've always been interested in business. My dad was self-employed and my grandfathers had businesses. Grandpa Wilson was a heating and electrical engineer and Grandpa Austin was involved in the shop in Derry.

Q: You have an instantly recognisable voice. What's the secret?

A: I'm lucky. I never had any voice training. I've quite a deep voice, it gets deeper as you get older. Back in the days when I was doing Woman's Hour from Belfast and London I used to have what other people called my Woman's Hour voice. It was "frightfully nice", certainly a bit posher! One day I was talking to David Lyle, who was on the board of a big London advertising agency, and he said his Northern Ireland accent was a big advantage because he didn't sound like anyone else.

I thought he was completely right; why on Earth would you try and sound like anyone else?

I never did it again after that. That was the end of my posh voice.

Q: You signed a letter that was sent to BBC director general Tony Hall and you campaigned on 'Equal Pay Day' in Belfast. Have you any idea how much less you were getting paid to do the same job as one of your male counterparts? Will we see a day when men and women will be paid the same?

A: I haven't. I did ask and was assured that it wasn't the case. I think I'm probably the only person who works only one day a week so I haven't really got a comparator. Transparency is what we need. Equality is really important. I'm a big fan of young people and I want them to be equal. I don't want the young guys to feel that they're disadvantaged any more than the young women. There should be a level playing field.

Q: Do you think women have a more precarious position than men in the broadcasting media?

A: No, but I think their longevity depends on different things unfortunately - looks, age. I would love to be proved wrong but I haven't seen much evidence to the contrary.

Q: You were the first woman to write a column for Ireland's Saturday Night. How'd that come about?

A: Julie Welch, the first woman to write about sport, had just started with The Observer and the then Belfast Telegraph sports editor Malcolm Brodie thought he needed one too. I loved it.

Q: Your dad Cecil was a Spitfire pilot turned dentist, and homemaker mum Irene was also a librarian for the Red Cross. Are your parents still around?

A: My dad has been dead for 10 years and mum for nearly five. My dad broke his hip when he was 89 and he just didn't survive that; then mum got pneumonia and died. She'd had a big party for her 90th birthday and I think she just decided that would do her.

Q: Your younger brother David had a biology degree and worked in computers. He was only 40 when he died in London in October 1995. You were 44. That must have been really hard.

A: It was enormously hard (Wendy breaks down in tears). I've never told anybody this before... but David died from AIDS. It was the worst time ever, truly awful. I was partly working in London at that stage and David lived there so I got to see him quite a bit, but it was really ghastly. He had cancer as well and, because of that, my mum and dad bought a bed in the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice in his name when he died as a little memorial. David's partner was Griff. It was very difficult to get through losing him; there were only the two of us, and David was the only Austin boy. I could see how much my parents struggled with it. My children were very distressed as well. You have to shield them from a certain amount but I thought they needed to know. At least I got to spend time with him. AIDS is the most horrible illness. He was so unlucky - if he'd become HIV positive maybe even five years later he'd probably still be here now. There weren't the drugs then that would have saved him.

Q: You now live near Dromore but were born and bred in south Belfast. A happy childhood?

A: Mount Charles was a terrific place to grow up. We lived in number 50, just inside the gates. Dad had his surgery on the ground floor. The house was always full of patients. My mum loved having people around and there were lots of parties. I walked to school. Botanic Avenue was a really nice, cosmopolitan place.

Q: You attended Victoria prep, then Victoria College followed by Queen's University Belfast for two years. You've previously said you regret not finishing your law degree. Is that still the case?

A: Nobody likes unfinished business... but what I did do was good grounding for journalism.

Q: You started out in the East Antrim Times in 1972, followed by two years at the Belfast Telegraph (1974-76). Then it was Downtown Radio (1976) before starting at BBC NI on your birthday, November 19, 1976. Why journalism?

A: Journalists seemed to have a better time back then. I bumped into quite a few and thought what they were doing was quite exciting, whereas I was up to my ears in contract and land law. My folks were horrified when I dropped out of Queen's but less so when I got a job, and I think they were proud of me, which is nice.

Q: You're married to Translink chairman Frank Hewitt. You tied the knot on November 17, 2003, at Banbridge Registry Office and honeymooned in the Seychelles. How'd you two meet?

A: He asked if I could help a friend who wanted to make a TV programme about the royal family. He suggested dinner and a chat, and that was it; kind of love at first sight.

Q: You have three children from your previous marriage to Peter Hutchinson in the 1980s - Niall (pronounced Neill, 35), Kerry (33) and Clare (30). Tell us about them.

A: Niall runs the Paris office of a big advertising agency; Kerry is a devoted mother of two sons - Austin is four-and-a-half and Ellis, who's nearly three; and Clare is a trainee plastic surgeon. I'm going to be granny again in April, Niall and his partner Anna are expecting a little boy. Peter and I are still friends and he has come over for the last two Christmases, so we all get to see the kids and the grandchildren on the one day.

Q: I've heard stories about you bringing your kids to work in a Moses basket. How did you manage being a full-time working mum?

A: I coped. I was freelance, Peter was self-employed... but I had a terrific woman called Florrie who looked after the kids. I was back at work after a month with all three. I'm not a great granny. Grannies have to be consistently available and I'm not!

Q: What sticks with you most when it comes to seismic events such as the Omagh bomb or the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales?

A: I remember on Talkback speaking to a bus driver who'd taken people to hospital in his bus and how it was just covered in blood afterwards. We were both in a state. Diana's funeral was amazing. I remember there being a really strange atmosphere, a mutinous air. People were taking it all very personally and it was the first time there was a huge public outpouring of grief like that. It was heartbreaking - there wasn't a mum on the planet who wasn't beside herself watching young Harry behind the coffin. When Charles Spencer made his speech and everyone was clapping; talk about the hair standing up on the back of your neck. That night I bought a set of wind chimes, which still hang from our cherry tree in Donegal. Our Diana chimes. We have a house overlooking Lough Swilly.

Q: What's the most important piece of advice you've ever been given?

A: Treat people the way you'd like to be treated, be kind and take no flak.

Q: Do you believe in God?

A: I don't have a strong faith but still know all the words of hymns we sang at school. My kids all went to Sunday school. I believed it was important that they were equipped with the knowledge to make up their own minds.

Q: Does death frighten you?

A: Getting really old frightens me more. My Granny Austin lived to 106 and she lived on her own until she was 102. That's a very challenging prospect.

Q: How do you relax? I'm told you like Jaguar cars.

A: I have a nice old Jaguar XK8, it's a 10-year-old sports car. I also like walking Mollie the dog on the beach in Donegal, pottering about the garden, having a glass of Italian red wine and baking.

Q: Tell us about the best day of your life so far.

A: The births of my children and grandsons stand out. From a work point of view, it was the day I interviewed Meryl Streep in 2007. She was fabulous, a superstar in every way.

Q: In 2005 you were given an honorary doctorate from the then University of Ulster for your contribution to journalism. Wikipedia says "uniquely among recipients" you use the 'Dr' title.

A: I don't think it's uniquely at all. The reason I use it is specifically because the then vice chancellor Richard Barnett said he wanted me to; they'd given me it for a reason and there's no point sticking it in a drawer.

Q: You also received an MBE in the 2012 Queen's birthday Honours List. What's your greatest achievement?

A: I was the Northern Ireland Radio Broadcaster of the year in the CIPR Awards in 2006 and we won quite a number of Sony golds when I was doing Good Morning Ulster.

Q: Technically you're past UK retirement age. Any plans to hand up the Mic?

A: I'm really enjoying what I do, and I still do conferences and awards ceremonies too. I wasn't thinking of packing it in just yet.

Q: You're known as a feisty, no-nonsense professional. You famously told UUP veteran John Taylor "I am not your 'dear girl'". What would you most like to be remembered for?

A: I'm quite happy with that, actually, and for being fair.  And for being more interested in the interviewee than the questions I'm asking them.

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