Cathy Newman is scrambling. It has just gone 9am, breakfast and the school run are behind her, but she is trying to get ready and make me a coffee at the same time, apologising throughout. When she legs it to her bedroom, her husband, John, resumes caffeine duty. “I can’t bear to see you without makeup on,” she shouts. “Which is probably terribly unfeminist of me!”
Newman, 43, is the first female main presenter of Channel 4 News, describing herself as “No 2” to Jon Snow (“the work husband”), and brings in her own tenaciously fought-for scoops – accusations of sexual harassment against Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard; the story of five illegal immigrants working at the Home Officeand, most recently, a string of sexual harassment claims against Mohamed Al Faye
In the past few weeks, two of her interviews have gone viral, with unpleasant results; the first with Jordan Peterson, a controversial Canadian psychologist who has attracted a following among the “alt-right”, the second with Max Mosley, recently exposed for publishing a racist campaign leaflet in the 60s. While a grotesque level of trolling has become a standard part of her job, these two interviews resulted in a heightened spew of unfettered misogyny and abuse online. She even received death threats following her interview with Peterson, and Channel 4 called in security experts. She tells me there was the suspicion of a Russian botfarm dedicated to spamming her with hate across social media. You could say she’s having a moment – at what price is another matter.
John and I make cheerful small talk in the kitchen until Newman breezes back in – “I don’t know if you leave the house in a serene state, but I’m always rushing!” – and settles at the table. Out of the formal news studio armour of block-coloured tailored clothes and in navy jeans and purple chiffon shirt, she seems tiny, and slightly skittish.
“With a big interview like Mosley, I was quite nervous because I just had no idea how it was going to go, [but] when you think the police are now investigating whether he perjured himself, when you’ve somehow changed the course of events through an interview you’ve done, are quoted all over the front pages and set the agenda …” It’s a career high. She laughs. “Getting there before my rivals is important.”
But, generally, she says: “I don’t get nervous. Routinely not. As long as you’ve done your homework and you’re well prepared.” She pauses. “I suppose what makes me feel anxious in life is fear of the unknown – in live TV, there is always a little bit of that. The pressure is not knowing what’s going to hit you.”
Which includes the “terrifying” prospect of being on the other side of the interview process today, although Newman says she is determined to speak up over the shoddy way social media companies are operating.
“The internet is being written by men with an agenda,” she says. “Look at a woman’s Wikipedia page and you can’t believe a word of it.” She has been monitoring her own, which has been rapidly edited back and forth in the past few weeks. “I wasn’t prepared for the torrent of abuse after [the Peterson interview]. People say: ‘Why don’t you just block them?’ But there were literally thousands of abusive tweets – it was a semi-organised campaign. It ranged from the usual ‘cunt, bitch, dumb blonde’ to ‘I’m going to find out where you live and execute you’.”
Newman and Peterson had argued over the existence of the gender pay gap (which he denied as a qualitative fact) and Peterson’s broad generalisations on male and female behaviour. Channel 4 released the full 30-minute exchange on YouTube, where it has now been watched more than 8m times. In it, Peterson maintains an air of unflappable calm; his book sales have rocketed. Would she have played it differently now? “Was it my finest interview? Probably not. If you’re a footballer, you don’t always push the ball to the back of the net. You win some, you lose some.”Still, the response to Newman since has been so intense and ugly, “on every social media platform”, that the police have been involved. Her boss and her family – John and their daughters, aged nine and 13 – seem far more worried than Newman herself, but for all her proud resilience, she admits it is upsetting. “I’ve thought of coming off social media because why should I have to deal with all this crap? It’s too time-consuming, but why should I or any woman be silenced? It gives the trolls exactly what they want.”In any case, she is certain it can be fixed: the mockery and abuse of women in the public eye “is not an acceptable way of doing business in the 21st century. Either the social media companies have to grapple with that or governments will. It is not beyond the wit of man or machine to detect and sift ‘cuntbitchwhore’ from genuine satirical comment. It is corrosive to women, no matter how tough you are, to log on and see that torrent of abuse.”
She shifts in her chair and sighs. “It saps your energy. What’s the point?”
Twitter et al weakly argue that the point is freedom of speech – a cause fought for the hardest by those who have the ugliest things to say.
We talk about the plates she spins alongside the day job – documentaries on FGM, abortion activists and faith schools; a Daily Telegraph column. “It would be very easy to come into the studio every night doing interviews handed to me on a plate, but I’m also trying to do investigations, dispatches and bring in exclusive interviews. It’s quite a hybrid role.”
Newman is keen to impress on me how hard she works, although she doesn’t much have to; it is difficult investigating the stories she brings in, building contacts and then delivering it all live every night. But it is also fun. And Newman, in the kindest way, really does embody the stereotype of journalists in the public imagination: hard-nosed, steely-eyed and sharp-elbowed about getting the job done.
“No one can have it all,” she says of her success, eyebrow raised. “The only reason I can have a high-pressure job and a home and see my kids is because my husband [a writer] works from home. He does the cooking and shopping. The upside of being the main breadwinner is that when the kids were little and they’d get up in the night, John would be the first point of call. The downside is that if the kids wake up in the middle of the night, they’re calling for daddy and not mummy and does that hurt a little bit?” An exhale. “Yeah, sure, but you can’t have it all. Neither men nor women.”
The couple met at Oxford University, where Newman was reading English at Lady Margaret Hall and graduated with a first. Her parents were chemistry teachers and she grew up in Guildford, the youngest of two daughters. She had ambitions for law or to become a professional violinist, both plans thwarted by the sight of Kate Adie reporting in a flak jacket from Baghdad, “which is ironic, because I never got to report from warzones”. She started her career with a stint at the Guardian’s books desk under Giles Foden, followed by a traineeship at Media Week and on to the Independent before joining the Financial Times at 23, where she worked for seven years.
“When I started in journalism, gender just was not an issue,” she says. Newman was unfussed at often being the only woman in the room or that not many women were doing jobs like hers. “I just assumed in a few years’ time that would be a level playing field. The idea of having to worry about being a woman in a man’s world was a total irrelevance, so I was surprised when, a few years back, I had a few knockbacks, a few #MeToo incidents. I was surprised at how slow that pace of change was.”
Back then, she admits she was ashamed to cover gender issues, partly because: “I would never have seen myself as a gung-ho feminist growing up; my mum was quite scathing of bra-burners and things. I [didn’t] want to get pigeonholed as a woman who writes about women’s issues and then I realised that if I didn’t, they wouldn’t get written about.”
She says she was “surprised by how #MeToo took off as a hashtag. It was liberating to see women from all over the world, from all walks of life, and in a way, what’s sad is that it’s become a little more divisive now.”
What does she mean? “Well, I’m very conscious that feminism can’t become a white-privilege thing and I think there is a danger of that, and while we’re banging on about equal pay, what about the two women a week murdered by their partners or former partners? Do we talk enough about that? I think #MeToo has to encompass everyone.”
But #MeToo has been about encompassing everyone, I suggest. It was a campaign begun, after all, by black female activist Tarana Burke and goes beyond Hollywood’s dripfeed of scandal. “That’s true. But what I meant about #MeToo being divisive is that we have to get men on board … it goes back to Jordan Peterson. Young men, in particular, are feeling disenfranchised and I’m interested in how we win them back in the debate. What are we missing that they find appealing about Peterson?” She talks about being stopped in the street by these men, who enjoyed her interview “and not once has someone been rude to me offline”.
Newman is no-nonsense in lots of respects. She thrives on doing big political interviews – Peter Mandelson, Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Jeremy Hunt among her most watched – and retains an appealing home counties jolliness. She loves proper time for a meal and TV with John (“We loved McMafia”) and a spot of karaoke – “once I get going on Whitney Houston or Diana Ross ballads, there’s no wrestling the mic off me!” She is also, by her own telling, highly competitive, but she resents how much time this means she spends online. Her nine-year-old is always telling her to put her phone down, and so: “I tweet much less than I did and I think very carefully beforehand because I just think it’s too dangerous.”
Two years ago, Newman tweeted: “Well, I just visited Streatham mosque for #VisitMyMosque day and was surprised to find myself ushered out of the door … I was respectfully dressed, head covering and no shoes but a man ushered me back on to the street. I said I was there for #VisitMyMosque … But it made no difference.”
Tommy Robinson and the far-right helped to make the story go viral. The mosque was inundated with abuse and death threats. Two days later, CCTV footage emerged in the press, showing her walking in and out of the building – which turned out to be a mosque not taking part in #VisitMyMosque – with no ushering to be seen. Newman then unreservedly apologised for the misunderstanding, alongside the editor of Channel 4 News. Did she worry at the time that the affair would undermine her credibility? She is mortified at the memory and sinks back into her chair.
“I mean, it was stupid. It was a stupid, stupid tweet; there was a horrible misunderstanding.” Was it not, I ask awkwardly, a bit of a lie? “No. It was a misunderstanding, because I turned up at the wrong mosque, the man thought I was asking for the church and I was shown the door.” The oxygen seems to have been sucked from the room as we both sit embarrassed. “It was awful.” But she must have realised how inflammatory it would be? “But that’s what happens with a tweet – you don’t look far enough ahead. It was spontaneous and it can be taken out of context and misconstrued and feed an agenda you want no part of. I didn’t think far enough ahead. I apologised at the time, and hopefully I wouldn’t do it again, but we’re human. That’s the problem.” She laughs, half in exhale. We move on to journalistic small talk: “The weeds of policy” that get in the way of making Brexit an interesting story, and speculation on how the prime minister is doing. “I think Theresa May must get up in the morning and think: ‘God, it’s another clusterfuck. What do I do?’.”
Newman, understandably, is most herself – confident, commanding – talking about the news rather than about being it. The last couple of years, I say by way of sympathy, have taken a toll on many news journalists; the barrage of terror attacks, two referendums, two UK elections, Trump – it has been relentless. “It’s been incredible,” she says, brightly. “Usually, there would be quiet summers where you would put out stories that wouldn’t normally make it, but it has been a rollercoaster. It’s brilliant – fascinating.”