The BBC's Katty Kay Shuts Down Men Who 'Tell Me to Shut Up'

The BBC's Katty Kay Shuts Down Men Who 'Tell Me to Shut Up'

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because there's an art to knowing what to show and what to tell.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Katty Kay, the British broadcaster and journalist, started out in life thinking she was going to go into economics, and, after a chance meeting in Zimbabwe, decided to go into news and has never looked back. Stopping by The Carlos Watson Show, she and OZY’s co-founder and CEO — and podcasting partner on When Katty Met Carlos — cut it up over media, politics, and why she’s better at dancing than boxing. The following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation, which you can find on the show’s podcast feed.


Carlos Watson: Who has been the most difficult interview you’ve ever had?

Katty Kay: Well, Ben Carson, who is President Trump’s secretary of health? No, no, of HUD, Housing and Urban Development. He told me I should have my microphone turned off on air, so that didn’t go down so well. John Bolton once told me I should be fired, on air. That wasn’t so great either. I’ve had a string of, often men, all the men tell me to shut up, basically. Politicians.

So I don’t know what … I’m a nice person. I’m nice. And I don’t like those interviews. I’m not a very confrontational person. I kind of don’t like those “gotcha” interviews. I never have a sense of satisfaction when I … I like being forensic in my interviewing. But I don’t like putting somebody in a position that I feel is a bit unfair. So sometimes those were a bit awkward.

But the hardest interviews are always when you interview somebody who’s in pain. I mean, the single hardest story I’ve ever covered was Newtown. I was up in Sandy Hook the next day and we stayed up there for a week and we did the show from there. And, really, I just felt I wanted to go. I mean, I wanted to leave. Not because … It was very hard, my youngest daughter was 6 at the time, so she was the age of those children. So on a personal level, it was very emotionally draining. But I felt they didn’t want us there.

That town, in that moment, did not want the world’s media there. And I was trying to get us away as soon as I could, because I just felt it. They were dealing with so much, and to add to that pressure. And for the first few days, people were very welcoming. And then it was very clear, after about five or six days, they were done. They wanted us out of there and they needed to get to process, as a community, of helping each other. And we weren’t helping.

CW: Do you ever see people, when they’re in the midst of being interviewed by you, that something clicks or they realize something or something really hits home?

KK: It makes me sound like a bit of a therapist. Sometimes, maybe. Sometimes you feel somebody comes to a realization. Or sometimes somebody will say something, which is more honest than perhaps they intended to say, and they realize they’re saying it. Now that can happen with … In fact, it’s happened quite recently. I was interviewing somebody just a few days ago, this week, who has been quite close to President Trump. He’s somebody who I talked to quite often on a back channel, and he was on my program.

And he suddenly came to the realization as we were talking, because I pushed him to say, “Well, have you been one of the people around President Trump who could have said, perhaps more than you did, about the election not being stolen?”

Then he kind of said on air, “Oh, my goodness. If the president is watching this, he’s going to think I’m disloyal too.” And you could see him kind of going through, “Well, I’m going to do it because I don’t think the election was stolen. And this is what I believe.” But you could see he was in a difficult position. It’s not quite what, I think, you’re talking about, which is about emotional realization. But it was an interesting sort of insight into … I just love that moment in interviews where you see somebody’s brain working. Where you can literally see the cogs turning and they get to a position, or they come up with an explanation. I like that moment.


CW: Who’s the most talented person you’ve ever come across, whether you were interviewing them, working with them, saw them speak — what have you?

KK: So somebody I’ve always hugely admired, and I’ve interviewed several times, both for my BBC job but also for all the work I do about women and women in business, is Christine Lagarde. I don’t know if you know who she is. She used to be the head of the International Monetary Fund. She was the first female head of the International Monetary Fund. And she’s French. And I love her because she’s insanely competent and smart and at the top of her game and impressive, right? So she’s very professionally impressive. And she’s the managing role. Was, until recently, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund. So she has this grand title and security and limos, etc.

A lot of people I’ve interviewed in that kind of position, and I think men in particular, carry with them a sort of aura of omnipotence. And they’re puffed up often, and you have to treat them with a sort of certain amount of deference.

She is totally the opposite. She’s super warm. She’s really nice. She listens. She’s regular. And she’s not just like that with me because I’m a journalist and she might be thinking, “What’s she going to say about me?” She was like that with every single person in the room and on the set and with my crew. She was just nice and regular. And she’ll kick her shoes off and put her feet on the sofa. And she’ll do it with anybody.

I think that’s … It’s disarmingly powerful to be that way because she comes across as somebody who is very competent, very effective, very impressive. But also really warm and friendly. And there aren’t many — men in particular — in that kind of position of power who let themselves be that intimate and regular. I’m a huge fan hers. And she has been a real role model for me because of that.

CW: Flip it to the other side: When you think about people who, for whatever reason, have strayed off the path of humanity, who’s on that list?

KK: Numerous politicians who I’ve interviewed over the years, particularly … I’m not going to name an individual because I’m not sure that’s very fair, and it would put me in a position of slamming somebody I don’t know that I would feel comfortable with. But untold numbers of politicians, from both parties, who seem to have lost some sense of humility.

I think, for me, the real tell when I’m interviewing somebody is if they’re arrogant. I have very little tolerance for arrogance or pomposity. And you come across it a lot, not just actually in politics, you come across it in business. You certainly come across it in the media, where people’s egos can get very inflated.

I think that’s what I … I have very little tolerance for people whose egos are inflated and who have lost their sense of curiosity about other people. Or have a sense that they don’t need to be curious about the people they’re talking to. An assumption that they’re better than them. And you know this, Carlos. I mean, unfortunately, we come across it too often, right? I mean, it happens.

Maybe it’s a function of the fact that we are in a business where we speak to people that have a certain amount of power. And that’s why it’s particularly refreshing, I think for me, when you meet somebody who has power, but who is humble and curious about other people and other things in life.


CW: How did you choose journalism? Because neither of your parents were journalists.

KK: I didn’t. I swore I was never going to be a journalist. When I was at university, almost every single one of my friends was going to leave university and join the BBC. So I decided I was never going to do that. I was going to do almost anything but that. And actually, straight out of university, I went to the Bank of England. What I wanted to do was become a development economist. I wanted to work in developing countries.

My dad had been a diplomat and we’d traveled all over the world, lived in the Middle East, and I knew I loved living abroad. I particularly loved living in emerging economies, in developing countries. So I had a real affinity for that. That felt like home for me. And I wanted to work in that field, but I didn’t want to be a diplomat.

My dad had done that, and I was intrigued by people who were working in development. That seemed like something I would be interested in. I had some sense of calling for it. So I went to join the Bank of England thinking I could learn enough economics that I could read the Financial Times. Then I could apply to post-grad school and get a degree in development economics.

Remember that I had done my undergraduate degree in medieval Italian literature. So that was kind of a job to go and become a development economist. And then I happenstance I ended up in Zimbabwe working for an aid agency. And while I was working in Zimbabwe for an aid agency, a friend of mine who did work for the BBC came out and said, “My God, Katty, this is crazy. There are so many good stories here. You should be telling these stories.” He had brought with him a little tape recorder, and he literally said, “Now this is the record button and this is the play button, and you push them at the same time.” That is how I started doing journalism.

CW: And you loved it right out of the gate, or did it take a moment before it really clicked for you?

KK: No, I did. I liked the process of telling stories. Yeah. I’m curious. I’m nosy. I like asking people questions about themselves. And it always amazes me people talk to journalists. They tell them stuff about their lives. I’m an uptight Brit, I don’t tell people stuff about my life. But I’ll go and talk to people. And there I was in Zimbabwe and I have this little microphone, I’d walk up to people and we’d talk about land reform or the independence process in Namibia, or I don’t know.

It was the period of the height of the AIDS crisis in Zimbabwe. And I’d go around and talk to the kind of people who were known as witch doctors in markets, and they’d be telling me that you could cure AIDS with this little thing that they had, and that it was absolutely true that you could definitely cure AIDS.

I just found it fascinating to talk to people and find out how people think and what makes them work. Maybe I should have been … If I hadn’t been a journalist, I think I would have liked to have been a psychologist.

CW: Love it. Or would you be a better boxer or a better dancer?

KK: A better dancer. If I hadn’t … I nearly went to ballet school. Another thing you didn’t know about me: At the age of 12, I applied to ballet school in the U.K. and I applied to three, including the Royal Ballet School, which was the top ballet school. I got through the interview process, but I didn’t get into the Royal Ballet School. I got into the next two. If I had gotten into the Royal Ballet School, I would have gone to ballet school and become a ballet dancer.