Strong willed, calculated and hard hitting. These are the words that come to mind when you think of Ruth Davidson, the politician. Which is why acquiring this exclusive interview seemed impossible. But would you ever believe that there is a different person behind the political persona?
Ruth, as everyone knows, is the Scottish Conservative leader. Like many politicians she regularly comes under fire from the media, but do you know the person behind the sharp exterior? Did you know she was a journalist? Did you know she wanted to “slay dragons and build new worlds?”
Speaking to Ruth about herself is different to speaking to the politician. Her attitude and presence is laid back. She is as passionate as she is when arguing against the opposition, but it is a passion about something close and personal to her. You could see that when Ruth spoke to a group of journalism students at The Sun’s News Academy conference where she was the key note speaker. Talking to the budding journalist brought that passion out in her speech and that is what led to this exclusive interview.
It didn’t start out as a passion for journalism though. Ruth went to university with the full intention of becoming an English teacher but somewhere along the line that idea lost its appeal.
She said: “I was always interested in news and current affairs and did a lot of competitive debating – learning about politics all round the world in order to compete. I applied for a job at a local paper just as I was finishing my degree and they phoned to offer me an interview when I was in my gown and on my way to my graduation ceremony.
“I got the job and everything just kind of flowed from there.”
As a journalist there is always a satisfying feeling when you see your by-line in print for the first time. For Ruth this was no different.
She explains: “Seeing your by-line in print for the first time is the best feeling in the world and I will always have a soft spot for papers. I still have a copy of every single edition of the paper that I worked on, kept in a big pile at home.”
“But broadcasting is where I really found my feet, especially once I got to the BBC. There are some radio packages that I put a lot of time and creativity and craft into that I am still proud of and there is something hugely satisfying as a reporter in asking someone to tell their story and to be able to broadcast it to thousands of listeners.”
Being a journalist isn’t always sitting behind the desk or hounding celebrities for interviews. In every newsroom there will be stories of playground antics, hard times when a story can affect you emotionally and incidents that may make our gran blush.
Ruth isn’t afraid to come clean about some of the antics that went on. There are just too many to recount.
She said: “Everything from the first time I corpsed on air (…”and Miss Mills flashed her ring at waiting photographers” *dissolves into giggles*) to vomiting with nerves on my way to the studio the first time I presented a 2-hour news and current affairs programme.
“Some of the stories I covered like the Terror attacks in London and how that left me feeling – to being sent over to Kosovo just at the end of the war to report back the work our local regiment was doing.
“I have stories about the government minister who phoned my boss to try and get me fired.
“And my co-presenter and I trying to get a segment onto radio about the great beaver plague of Tierra del Fuego, just because we wanted to say the words ‘great beaver plague of Tierra del Fuego’ and many other juvenile beaver-related questions for our South America correspondent.”
In the journalism industry it is a hard time to garner the attention and get the job 100 other journalists are running at. Like any industry in the UK journalist are being made redundant, so this may cause concerns for students trying to make their way in the world.
According to Ruth it’s all down to hard work and going the extra mile.
She said: “It is a great job in a terrible industry.
“Make sure you hit your deadlines and always, always, always make sure that you can say, hand-on-heart, that you have given a true representation of the people you’ve interviewed and the story you are trying to tell.”
Ruth started her career like any journalist, fighting for a job which everyone was going for. But luckily managed to get a job at the Glenrothes Gazette.
She explains: “I was lucky with my first job, but it can be very tough. Everybody wants experience but how can you get experience if nobody will give you your first job?
“I did take a job with an independent television company which then went into administration within a month and I was left unemployed for a bit. I had to work in a shop for a few months to make my rent before I could get back into the media.”
After training as a reporter, Ruth moved on to Kingdom FM and then the BBC as a reporter, producer and presenter. Speaking about the challenges of moving from news reporter to broadcast journalism.
She explains: “Not at all. It’s a different set of skills and a different way of writing, but I’ve always enjoyed explaining things (I can talk for hours down the pub trying to change people’s minds on things) so it felt pretty natural to me.
“Also, when you are young and starting out, you absorb advice and instruction like a sponge and are keen to do the very best you can do so it’s just a case of knuckling down and learning your craft.”
As glamorous as some may think being a journalist is (interviewing celebrities, travelling abroad, meeting political figure heads) there is always hard days that can take a lot out of the journalist.
Death knocks are a part of the job. Going up to a grieving family’s house and asking for tributes and pictures of the diseased. Ruth was no different and had to deal with these situations.
She explains: “The worst one I had was for a teenage boy who was out walking his dog in Glasgow in the rain in the graveyard across the road from his house. Some mineworkings opened up and he was sucked unto the earth, they needed earthquake rescuers to try to help recover the body.
“Nobody expects to bury their own children – certainly nobody expects them not to return from walking the dog. Death knocks are a horrible part of the job, but sometimes they can be used to tell an important story.
“You need to be as cognisant of the families’ position as you can and try to know what you need before you go as you shouldn’t ever go back and disturb folk twice. It’s actually much easier now with social media as usually you can use pictures from online rather than having to physically knock the door.”
As a journalist, they should keep their politics out of their reporting and for Ruth, she found this particularly easy.
She explains: “When I contacted the Conservative party and said that I wanted to join and be a candidate etc, their head of press (who I’d dealt with many times) had no idea I was a Conservative – and neither had the party’s leader who I’d interviewed often.
“The job, particularly in broadcast, is to tell people what’s going on; it is not to be an active agent of change and try and shape what’s going on – it is to be an honest narrator.”
From being a reporter to jumping into a career in politics it was not much of a leap for Ruth. She was frustrated with just telling people what was going on and not being able to change things.
She explains: “There were things in Scotland I wanted to help change and I was desperate to get my sleeves rolled up and get stuck in. I couldn’t do that and still stay a journalist so I decided to switch sides.”
Ruth appears to handle the press with ease and this comes down having a journalistic background
She said: “I have known that folk can smell spin a mile off. They aren’t stupid. They know if you are not answering a question or if you don’t really mean what you say.
“So my best advice is to just try not to say anything you don’t mean and you’ll never be caught out.”
When speaking to the budding journalists at the News Academy conference, Ruth said: “You can change people’s lives; you can make a huge difference. It’s a great job, but it’s a tough job with long hours. In fact, it’s not a job, it’s a trade and a vocation.”
Ruth didn’t feel as though she was making enough of a difference.
She said: “I wanted to slay dragons and build new worlds and life just isn’t like that. But I was able to tell people’s stories. I was able to help them speak their truth. I was able to – on occasion – pressure the government into changing things or helping a charity make a difference.
“It is an important job and it needs good people to step up and be determined that they won’t settle for a brush-off, they will dig deeper and add pressure and strip back lies. Journalism can be powerful.”
Speaking to the students from the perspective of being a female journalist and being one of Scotland’s most prominent female politicians, Ruth firmly states that: “Don’t expect anyone to treat you any differently from the men, don’t allow them to treat you differently and don’t give them reason to.
“When I started our 16 years ago, newsrooms were very male dominated. That’s changing, but we’re not there yet. They can also be pretty rough and tumble places so be prepared to hear things expressed in a way you’d never repeat in front of your mother or your priest!”