On Monday 30 January, The Spark held a guest speaker event for students interested in journalism, foreign affairs, and life at the BBC. It was with great honour that I, alongside many budding journalists and writers, could attend this event and have a sneak peak into the truly incredible life of Mike Wooldridge OBE.
As many readers may already know, Mike Wooldridge has had a long and storied 45-year career at the BBC, mainly working overseas as a foreign and religious correspondent. In this time, Mr Wooldridge has reported on some of the most important events of the 20th century, including: the death of General Franco in 1975, the 1984 Ethiopian famine, and – arguably the most memorable – the release of Nelson Mandela on the 11th February 1990, all of which Mike referred to extensively throughout his talk.
Wooldridge reminisced of successfully for his first journalist job at his local newspaper in East-Anglia upon finishing school. After this, he travelled to Uganda with the Voluntary Service Overseas organisation, before applying for a position at the BBC in 1970. It wasn’t until 1982 that Wooldridge became the BBC East Africa correspondent, resulting in a move to Johannesburg only a year before one of the most important stories of his career.
Mike spoke briefly of his interview at the BBC for a position as news sub-editor, and despite the fact he arrived with a bloody bandage wrapped around his head as a result of a car accident, this seemed a very fond memory. Mike expressed how he believed this helped his memorability as an applicant, referring to himself as “the bloke with the bandage,” although, “this should not be taken as interview advice!”
The most stand-out and mesmerising moments of Wooldridge’s talk, for me, was the jaw-dropping hourly account of the 11th February 1990, and the night before, with Nelson Mandela’s release. As it has been almost 27 years, to the day, since Mandela was freed of his 27 years in prison, the detail that of Mike’s story seemed especially fitting. With incredible detail, Mike shared a story that included: an announcement the evening before, a speedy drive to the airport, a missed flight supposed to fly him 800 miles before chartering his own flight, a 40km countryside drive, the hiring of an Africana telecommunications engineer for 24 hours, tapping into an overhead phone line and live broadcasting Mandela’s release from the roof of his rental car.
After his personal account of the horrific 1984 Ethiopian famine and the many months leading up to the disaster that killed over one million people, Mike finished his talk and concluded with a quotation from 5th century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu. This read:
“Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say, ‘We have done this ourselves.’”
Again, on behalf of all students that attended and The Spark committee, I would like to thank Mr Wooldridge for coming in and sharing his experiences. It was truly fantastic to attend, and definitely opened my eyes to a career in journalism.