Image Credit: BBC
A quiet day as a political correspondent is a rarity. Yet, while sitting having a latte in the foyer of Portcullis House, John Pienaar explained that after the hustle and bustle of the previous election in December, reporting at Westminster had now given way to the odd slow news day. An opportunity that only came as a benefit to myself as it offered the chance to ask some questions to an individual who is accustom to usually asking them himself.
I asked John, as he showed me around the impressive buildings of the House of Commons, if he ever finds himself feeling immune to his surroundings when he walks the halls. He admitted that on occasion he falls into such a trap. In order to combat this he makes the time to “remind himself” of where he is, and the immense history that has happened under these roofs. It is not only the historic moments he finds himself recalling, but the accelerated political change the last several decades have allowed him to bear close witness to. When he started in the industry, Margaret Thatcher was beginning her reign in Commons, fast forwarding to present day now he strides past a statue of the former Prime Minister while at work.
Naturally, this sense of occasional immunity arises from the vast experience John has working as a journalist. From being captivated by political language from an early age, John recalled how a career in politics of some sort was always the plan. It was setting eyes on The Sketch that installed a curiosity of journalism in John however. After gaining his NCTJ training at Highbury College in Portsmouth, John started his career working with Press Association and then South London Press, while also writing for The Independent, before being offered the chance to join the team at the BBC in 1992. An opportunity, he explained, that he was grateful to receive and felt that he could not pass up.
John’s career path has provided him with ample different mediums to inform the public through. Aside from writing and broadcasting, John also been a prominent voice on the radio since he joined the team at Radio 5 Live in 2002. On Sunday mornings he now hosts “Pienaar’s Politics”, where he is up early to plan out the hour long show during which he shares his political observations. The show, he acknowledged with a smile, is one of his favourite aspects of his work, as the nature of radio allows for more organic conversation while he also has greater autonomy over the direction of the discussion.
An essential part of political journalism is the neutrality of the writer. It is up to the audience to conjure an opinion of the issue, while the journalist is to lay out the facts and analysis in order for this to be achieved. For many, this can often be a tall order. I enquired if this was ever a factor of his job he found difficult. I was given a short but sweet answer of no, he did not. John continued to say that even when he was a young reporter, remaining neutral was a position he naturally adopted in his work.
Intrigued, I tested this theory, asking John about the political atmosphere in Westminster currently. As expected, his responses were diplomatic as ever. He did express, however, like a large proportion of the nation, a concern over the tone of debate in contemporary politics. Politicians, he believed, often have an impossible task nowadays after being under fire from every angle. Perhaps the new decade will to put an end to this.
On a more positive note, the trust between politicians and journalists may be unscathed by this tone. John remarked how at times, while naturally careful to never reveal policy, occasionally MPs or officials may catch him around Portcullis House and ask him his thoughts on a political trend, or for some last minute tips before an interview.
It would have been foolish to leave John’s company without asking what advice he had for anyone setting their sights on a career in journalism. He explained how the industry plays a very different game than when he began all those years ago. Nonetheless, one constant has remained in that it really is about getting your first job wherever it may be, which in his experience, usually seems to start the process of doors opening, one way or another.
This is not to say, he cautioned, that it is a simple or easy career path to start down. It is a great privilege, he spoke, to find a occupation that one is wholly passionate about and talented at exclusively. Find your voice, he advises, what makes your way of telling a story unique and use it with great conviction.