It turns out there is an art to perching and Sian Williams has it to neat perfection. “Eleven years on the BBC Breakfast sofa,” she says crisply, as we pose for pictures. And then, looking across at me, “Shoulders back!” That’s quite an inner gym mistress she’s got there.
We have met for lunch at the Riding House Café in central London, to talk neuroscience and nerves: for the past 18 months, Williams has been studying for an MSc in psychology, specialising in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), at nearby Westminster University.
It’s a bit of a departure for a woman who has spent the last three decades as a BBC news presenter and current affairs journalist reporting on stories from the Paddington rail crash to the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Asian tsunami, but then psychology is on the up. Over the past decade, it has become one of the ten most popular subjects studied in universities in the UK. In fact, I am doing a part-time psychology MSc myself. So what made Williams go back to school?
“Wait,” she says. “I want to ask you about your course first.” Here we go. It’s always a nightmare trying to interview an interviewer, questions flashing down like cards as if this were a game of racing demon.
No, no, no, Sian, it’s you we want to hear about.
“Well, I’ve always wanted to study the workings of the mind, inasmuch as you can, and thought I’d do an MSc to challenge myself.”
She says her interest in psychology built gradually, stemming from a growing unease about many dimensions of the unequal relationship between journalists and the subjects whose lives are pillaged for broadcasts and print.
“I was in Liverpool in the Eighties – there were a lot of big news stories going on which was why I wanted to go there. But sometimes you’d be sent out on a road traffic accident or to interview victims without properly knowing how to handle them. I did a lot of interviews, aged 21, with people who had been at Hillsborough and who were in a state of shock. Now I look back and think, ‘How did I handle those people? Were they even aware I was there? These were their stories, their lives.’”
She began seriously to assess her own direction at the end of 2009, the year in which her youngest child, a daughter, was born and her mother died of bowel cancer. Then when BBC Breakfast transferred to Salford in 2012 she resigned from the programme and decided to use the time to embark on the course.
We pause for a moment to order. The menu is contemporary comfort food: small plates, soups – there’s lobster lasagne on the menu but we demur.
Williams set out some of her views on how journalism might be honed and improved in a recent and very lucid cover story for The Psychologist, the monthly magazine for members of the British Psychological Society.
In it, she discusses practice around the coverage of mental health stories and the fine line between allowing people’s stories to be told and using tactics to extract juicy details that might not quite be in the best interests of the vulnerable.
She’s right, of course. The statistics say that one in four people will have a mental health problem at some point in their lives yet these are still stigmatised and we haven’t found the right language to talk about it openly and easily. But how realistic is a more considerate approach in other areas? Is her editor – she has recently started an interview show for BBC Wales – going to think she’s gone soft?
This draws a wicked laugh. “An interview with a politician is always going to be an interview with a politician. No.”
The piece also touches on her current area of research, the difficult-to-handle emotions of those sent to cover the stories in disaster zones.
“You’re caught up,” she says now, talking rapidly. “You’ve got conflicting emotions. There’s the adrenalin. You’re running to try to keep up, what’s happening now? What are the latest casualty figures? How many people have pledged to the helpline? When’s the aid coming through? Getting all this, asking what was it like, what did you experience, how many family members have you lost, where are you going to sleep? But you’re in a position where you can ask those questions, their lives have been changed forever.
“In Pakistan we were sleeping in a car and we didn’t have any food. However, we had a car to sleep in, whereas most people had nothing. And afterwards you get to go home and they don’t and I don’t like that feeling.”
One of the difficulties faced by news teams is the struggle to find a way to process what they have seen and heard when it is filtered through this sense of guilt. Williams says sharply, “It feels self-indulgent to acknowledge your own emotions in such circumstances – it is self-indulgent,” but her own research is about the need to do exactly that, so it’s clearly a conflict she’s still resolving.
She has also said that after covering stories, memories were returning “uninvited”. What was returning?
“Images, individuals. Smell. Smell goes straight to the limbic system and gets locked in there. Even if we try to manage all those other bits. I can block out that image, I don’t need to remember that. Somehow you can’t shake smell.”
What smells came back? There is a long silence before she answers.
“The smells that you would expect in a disaster area. Which is just… what you’d expect. What you’d expect after five days of tsunami. Where there’s no sanitation and there’s no care and aid is taking time to come through and dysentery is starting and bodies haven’t been cleared away and you don’t have food. That sort of thing.”
She is quick to point out that she has never experienced PTSD herself but research suggests war correspondents show similar levels of symptoms to those who have been in active service. Not only is there little support but newsroom culture is all about coping, staying professional, and moving on.
“And you don’t want to bring it home because of what benefit is that to people who love you? None. So you put it away and keep the box very firmly closed. Whereas what I am learning now is sometimes it’s better to open the box and take stuff out and have a look at it and put it back.”
Our food has arrived by now – there’s a particularly lovely small plate of pickled watermelon and goat cheese, and I’ve ordered a springlike and uplifting glass of Framingham pinot noir from New Zealand (you can take the girl off the wine page…). But we’re not making much headway with it. There’s too much chat to eat or drink. Sian won’t tell me what she has in those mysterious boxes, so I ask about getting to grips with the deeper demands of academic study when you’re used to daily deadlines.
“Slowing down was the most challenging thing. The lecturer would stand in front of me and I’d be like, right, tell me everything about cognitive psychology and I’ll write it down, thank you very much, and then I’ll know it by the end of the day. But you need to take time to analyse.”
Is she very impatient? Does she get cross with people who walk slowly down the street? There’s a long laugh then a long silence. I’m thinking the answer’s yes but she’s worried that will sound bad.
“Do you meditate?” No. “I remember buying a CD years ago and sitting there, it was slow! I wanted to say to her, just get to the bit that I need to know. I wanted to put it on fast forward!
“But people who do mindfulness courses always seem calmer in the rest of their lives. One thing I’ve learnt is that the brain is plastic and there are actual physical changes within it – one study showed those who’d done an eight-week mindfulness course had less grey matter in their amygdala (a part of the brain thought to be associated with fear levels), it wasn’t firing up so much, their stress levels were reduced.”
So has she now signed up for meditation? “I did, but I had to cancel because I was too busy.”
We talk a bit more about her course. She tells me about being wired up to a heart-rate monitor and shown a video of a brain dissection. “You think well, I can watch Casualty, my son’s doing medicine, how bad can it be? But – the guy had grey hair and you hear this big crack as they’re opening the skull – and I closed my eyes. Oh! You’re eating your lunch! Sorry!”
And about her research project, “It’s specifically about something called subsequent post traumatic growth which has been recorded in firefighters, emergency responders, social workers, therapists, carers. It’s a strengthening of resilience and a change within yourself and your life that can happen as a consequence of PTSD. The hope is to find something new, to add one tiny cog of information to what we know.”
We also chat about her mother, who had been an intensive-care nurse and ended up being treated for cancer in the same hospital in which she had worked for 20 years and who was moved to a Macmillan hospice two days before she died. “It was very fast and I slept there so I was with her when she died.”
There’s nearly a teary moment as she loses her composure for a second. “Don’t open that box,” she says quietly. “That’s one of the boxes.”
The photographer arrives and she’s straight back to quick-fire, competitive form. “Have you considered a PhD? Doesn’t a little tiny bit of you want to be a doctor? Just a tiny bit? My son is training to be a doctor, and I thought it would be great if we could both be doctors at the same time! Then I realised he would be really annoyed with me. So I am not going to do that.”
And dashing off to the school pickup, all the while talking about how she’s going to Think Slowly, that’s Think Slowly,yes, definitely Think S-L-O-W-L-Y, about what she does next.
This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 3 May 2014.