Sarah Neville is Public Policy Editor for the Financial Times. She has been with the paper for almost 15 years, working in senior positions such as Analysis Editor and UK News Editor.
She began her career as a reporter on the Rochdale Observer before moving to the Western Mail where she wrote about health and the arts. She joined Pulse, a medical magazine, before moving to Westminster as Political Correspondent, then Political Editor, for the Yorkshire Post.
Are you proud to be a Manchester High girl?
Absolutely. I’m a Londoner but I moved to the city when I was ten - to Brooklands - and as soon as I discovered it was the best girls’ school in the region I set my heart on going there. As I prepared for the entrance exam I remember my parents telling me all I had to do was pass as they would pay fees for me if I didn’t secure a free place. But I’ve always had a competitive personality and I was determined to get one anyway, which I’m glad to say I did!
Was it always going to be a career in journalism?
I must have had an interest in journalism from quite early on as I remember volunteering to be my form’s representative to secure contributions to the School magazine in what was then known as Upper Third. I created Lord Kitchener style posters - ‘your magazine needs you!’ - and plastered them over the form-room walls.
My career choice crystallised a few years later, in 1976, when I watched All the President’s Men. Seeing reporters Woodward and Bernstein uncover the Watergate scandal was so thrilling that, half way through the film, it wasn’t a question of if I’d become a journalist but when!
In 1995 I was awarded the prestigious Laurence Stern Fellowship, winning a three month, paid position on the Washington Post’s National Desk. To work in the same newsroom as Woodward and Bernstein had done, and to have lunch with Ben Bradlee, the Post’s legendary editor, was more than I could have dreamed of on the day that I saw that movie — in a long-defunct cinema on Deansgate — and discovered my vocation.
Did any of your Manchester High teachers influence your career choice?
I don’t think any directly spurred me to become a reporter but I do remember some outstanding members of staff. A history teacher, Miss Blakelock, brought her subject wonderfully to life. Miss Thomas was an inspiring English teacher while Mrs Thompson and Madame Cruse made French language and literature compelling. I remember being immensely impressed by Mrs Thompson’s impeccable French accent. She even used to umm and err in French!
You joined the lobby at the start of 1991, just after Margaret Thatcher had quit. Did you feel you’d missed out on one of the greatest political stories of our time?
Some of my press gallery colleagues did suggest my timing might have been better! But the decade I spent there turned out to be brilliantly exciting. I witnessed the implosion of the Major administration and the rise of Tony Blair and New Labour. I’ll never forget being outside the Treasury when Norman Lamont emerged to announce that Britain was leaving the Exchange Rate Mechanism - one of those moments when, as a journalist, you feel so lucky to have a ringside seat at history.
What have been your standout interviews?
I have been fortunate enough to interview four serving or former Prime Ministers; Edward Heath, John Major, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. For me, Thatcher had an aura that none of the others could match.
I met her twice, in 1993 and 1995. On both occasions it was very definitely an audience, rather than an interview. The first time round the wounds left by her defenestration by her own party were still livid.
However, when I asked her how she had coped she simply said: “My dear, it happened”. Her words, and the resilience and fortitude they represented, often come to me when dealing with my own problems or challenges – they happen but you will get through them!
Any other career highlights?
Throughout my career I have taken on various roles and each has had its own highlights. As Weekend News Editor I was responsible for deciding which stories went on the front page of Monday’s newspaper and as Analysis Editor I discovered a love of long-form editing. As UK news editor I ran our coverage of the 2010 election which was tremendous fun.
What advice would you give our current pupils that are interested in a career in journalism?
With the contraction of the print market, particularly the sad demise of much of the local press, it’s certainly a lot harder than it was to get into journalism but don’t let that put you off. It remains a wonderful career and the internet is throwing up so many new opportunities.
For my generation, it was enough to be “good at English”. But I would encourage those wanting to enter the profession now to arm themselves with robust data analysis skills; you’ve got to be comfortable working with figures and being able to find the story among all the statistics.
What does the future hold?
As Public Policy Editor of the FT I have a lobby pass which allows me to go into parliament without having to navigate all the security. For me, that symbolises the part that the House of Commons has played in my professional life. It’s my home, I know every inch of it, and whatever happens in the future I can’t imagine straying too far from Westminster.