William James on reporting the historical moment of Brexit
On Friday, the United Kingdom officially left the European Union for an uncertain Brexit future, the most significant change to its place in the world since the loss of empire and a blow to 70 years of efforts to forge European unity from the ruins of war. Reuters has been covering every twist and turn leading up to this moment, as the UK now moves into a no-man’s land of a transition period. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, UK Political Correspondent William James gives an inside look into how he’s been reporting on the story.
Q: How did you end up covering Brexit?
A: I’ve been covering British politics for nearly seven years now and when I started, Brexit wasn’t even on the agenda. Then David Cameron promised a referendum if he won an election, then he won that election, then we had the referendum and, overnight, I was a full-time Brexit correspondent. We all were.
Q: What types of reporting were involved?
A: The reporting has been hugely varied. I’ve covered big market-moving speeches, sending dozens of headlines straight to clients as words come out of politicians’ mouths in the race to beat other agencies. I’ve also travelled around the country interviewing ordinary people for feature stories that try to capture the mood of a nation. As the Brexit drama really ramped up in the last 12 months, the focus shifted to parliament where it was a case of trying to piece together an extremely fraught and fluid situation to work out what was happening, what was going to happen next and how to get that information out to readers faster than anyone else.
Q: What was the hardest part of the reporting?
A: The huge uncertainty. In a situation where the government has lost control of what happens next, everyone is trying to make out that they know what will happen, when really they are only telling you what they want to happen. When the story became entirely about the complicated and confusing legislative procedure, we found our way through by learning the rules and processes in parliament better than others. Laying out these facts for our readers in plain English allowed us to be completely clear about what could happen, and that then gave us solid ground for our reporting to then find out what would happen.
Q: Why was this an important story to tell our customers?
A: At more than one point the world’s fifth-largest economy was preparing for imminent civil unrest and shortages of food and medicine – it doesn’t get much bigger. The story mattered to financial clients because markets were fixated on events in parliament. So were the British public and most of the political classes in Europe, while media clients from all over the world wanted to be able to explain to their readers what was going on in Britain, and why.
Q: What makes you passionate about journalism?
A: I like to be free to ask questions, to challenge the answers I’m given and then to tell people what’s really going on. It doesn’t always have to be serious or worthy – one of my favourite pieces of the Brexit crisis was a step-by-step guide on how Members of Parliament actually cast their votes. No one could fully explain the detailed and arcane process to me, so I arranged to walk through it myself. We got rare permission to film behind-the-scenes in the two different corridors that MPs walk through to register their vote, and I interviewed one of the clerks who ticks their names off as they shuffle past her. It was a fun story.
Q: What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A: British politics is a huge beat to cover that can, at times, be overwhelming and hard to get a handle on. But, that also brings huge variety. I like the fast-paced environment of a political conference or a big vote in parliament as much as I like wandering the high streets of small British towns talking to members of the public about the issue of the day.
Q: Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A: I did lots of jobs before becoming a journalist: from working in a call centre ringing up people who hadn’t paid their internet bills to managing a set of fishing lakes in rural France. Journalism is the right mix for me – it has adrenaline pumping moments, moments that require deep thought and original thinking. It’s also a constant creative challenge to capture the broader significance of a moment in a single sentence or find the right words to convey the tone and nuance of a cagey interviewee.
Ask me at the end of a busy day though, and I might just tell you I fancy another crack at leisurely riding a lawnmower round a beautiful lake in France.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?
A: I’d really stress the importance of teamwork within Reuters. When it came to the crucial moments of a big story like Brexit, we won them because we had the manpower to break it down into manageable chunks and everyone knew exactly what they had to do. That required planning and organisation, of course, but it only worked because there was a team spirit.