The BBC’s newest Washington correspondent is not your typical journalist. At the age of eight, Gary O’Donoghue lost his sight on the same day his family bought their first color TV. The English-born, Oxford-educated political journalist is now the BBC’s first disabled correspondent and “that blind bloke you sometimes see on the news.”
From covering the war in Kosovo during the late 90’s to bungee jumping off the Chelsea Bridge his first day at the BBC, O’Donoghue’s career has been anything but ordinary. With a phenomenal sense of humor, a razor-sharp wit and that lovely British accent all Americans wish we had — he has been justly called “the complete correspondent” by fellow BBC journalist, Justin Webb.
FBDC had the privilege to chat with Gary, and he couldn’t be a nicer gent. We discussed everything from how he’s adjusting to life in Washington, to the political differences and similarities between the United States and our friends across the pond.
FishbowlDC wishes Gary the best of luck in his new role, and look forward to watching him on the tele for years to come.
FishbowlDC: With all the hurdles you’ve had to climb to get where you are today, what made you want to become a journalist in the first place?
Gary O’Donoghue: You know, I think I became a journalist pretty much by accident, which is what I hear most journalists say, quite frankly. I was involved in a little bit of student journalism, particularly at school, and I got a taste for it then, I guess. But while I was at university in Oxford, I started doing some freelance work for the BBC. I would sort of sneak off out of my classes and go up to London to do some work for a couple of BBC programs. And during the vacations, I got taken on, doing some work experience and things like that. And really, pretty much, that sold me on the idea of it. I’ve got a pretty skeptical personality, I suppose, and a pretty skeptical view of the world – that kind of disposes you to journalism, I think, in a healthy way.
FBDC: Why specifically a foreign correspondent?
GO: Well, this is the first time I’ve worked abroad properly. I’ve been at the BBC for more than 20 years doing network news, mainly as a political correspondent at Westminster in London. I was the chief political correspondent for the last three years in London. And really, I thought I’m in the point of my career if was going to do any foreign reporting — be a foreign correspondent — now is the time to try it. So yes, I went for it and they offered me this job, so I’m very happy with it. And I think it’s, I mean it’s difficult to say, but we think it’ss probably the first time that BBC has appointed, I’m totally blind, a disabled person as a foreign correspondent
FBDC: So, you were reporting from Macedonia during the war in Kosovo. What was that experience like for you?
GO: Well, during the NATO bombing of Kosovo, I was just across the border in Macedonia. We were there for a few days, and watched the flood of refugees coming over the border into Macedonia from Kosovo when the bombing was happening. You know, we did a lot of interviews; we went into the makeshift camps that were around there. It was a very, sort of, humbling experience. There were people carrying babes in arms across the border at that stage, literally with only the possessions they could carry. It was a very moving experience. Large amounts of people in Europe on the move resonates, you know, if you’re a European it kind of resonates. So that was pretty interesting. And I went back into Kosovo a couple months later, when things had settled down, and went to Priština and did some television pieces there. And that was very striking too because we got around the general post office in Priština, which had taken a direct hit. And to see the sheer devastation that kind of airstrike could do was astonishing. We did lots of interviews with people who had been driven from their homes; Albanians, particularly, had been driven from their homes by Serbs. I went to Mitrovica, which is that divided town, divided by the bridge. That was a pretty scary existence even after the bombing had stopped. So, that was a quite a baptism for me. We went down to Albania as well, and did some stuff in Tirana. But this was all for a program called the “Today” programme, which is the main, sort of, flagship morning news show in the UK, because I was a staff reporter there for five years in the late 90’s from ‘95-2000.
FBDC: I’m sure things operate quite differently in London. So, how are you enjoying DC?
GO: I’m really enjoying it. I only arrived after Christmas, so I haven’t been here very long. I’m a bit of a political junkie, so being here in the kind of center of the political universe, in terms of world politics, is fascinating for me. You know, I’ve been up to the Hill quite a few times. While it’s kind of very different to what I’m used to in Westminster, there are a lot of things that are very similar. Politics kind of works and moves in similar ways wherever you do it in the world. So, I find that very interesting. Of course, because I’m here for a couple of years at least, I’m going to be here for the presidential race. We’re going to get a change election here, so I’m very excited about being able to cover that for our audiences at home and around the world. And of course, you know, we’ve matured I think… the Brits have matured a bit in terms of the way they cover the US. Because we broadcast quite a lot, our stuff is rebroadcast a lot on NPR affiliates, on PBS. We’ve got a presence in the US that we didn’t before. I don’t think we do things as superficially as we used to.
FBDC: You’ve only been here two months, but Washington politics hasn’t gotten to you yet?
GO: I’ll tell you what… I’m chilled to the bone by this damn cold. England is not a warm place, but this cold is too much… And it’s interesting because people think of DC as a big and happening place, and of course it is, but what’s quite striking as an outsider is how small it is — half a million people. It’s the size of not even our second or third largest city in Britain. It’s a pretty small place, and I think, while I focus a lot on politics here and I find that exciting, one of the challenges for me is to get under the skin of America properly. There are big differences between our political life and your political life, in terms of the issues — like God and guns. These issues don’t play in British politics at all. Whereas we had a famous chief of staff to Tony Blair, who used to say, “we don’t do God.” And it’s become very clear to me that if you don’t do God in America, you don’t get elected. I’ve just been up on the Hill this afternoon at the Senate Foreign Relations and your attitudes towards the military, I think, is different than ours as well. You know, much more reverence and, sort of, care with how you talk about the military. Whereas in Britain, there’s a — I wouldn’t say there’s a lack of respect — but there’s a healthy sort of view taken that they should be examined and criticized. There are key differences with the politics, but there’s a steep, steep learning curve for me, but I’m really enjoying it.
FBDC: Most entertaining politician you’ve ever interviewed or come in contact with?
GO: Well, of course in Britain, there are lots of them who are pretty full of character. We’re getting Nigel Farage in Washington this week, who is the leader of the UK Independence Party, which has become a force in British politics in a way that it wasn’t two or three years ago. He’s going to CPAC tomorrow. I’ve interviewed him, and drunk a beer and stood outside a late night special election with him many a time, so he’s quite a character. But I think you have your share of characters here as well, don’t you. What I’ve found very interesting is watching — which is why I’m looking forward to CPAC — the big events where all the kind of runners and riders for the nomination stand up and try and woo the party base in whatever way they choose. I know there’s a lot of cynicism about politics in America at the moment, and a lot of people think the system is broken and gridlocked, and all that kind of thing. But there’s a lot of vibrancy too. You know, you don’t have to go far to find a view, do you. People kind of know what they think.
FBDC: Do you have any preferred outlets you get your news from ?
I’m a voracious reader, so I consumed obviously all the US papers – the Post and the Times, the Journal, etc. I’m a big fan of the online stuff. I find people like POLITICO and Real Clear Politics really, really helpful because they’re very in-depth. They’re obviously amazing well connected, well sourced. Proper grown up journalism. It’s great to see it flourishing.