Sonja McLaughlan has had a long and distinguished career as a rugby reporter for the BBC and she hands down some tips for aspiring journalists...

The Forward Pass Podcast – Sonja McLaughlan

Welcome to The Forward Pass, a series of conversations with leading rugby union journalists, broadcasters, presenters and photographers who will offer the next generation of media professionals – and fans – an insight into how they cover the sport.

Sonja McLaughlan has covered many sports for a variety of media outlets in a career spanning more than 25 years. However, it is her work covering rugby union on radio and TV that will be familiar to most having been a pitch side presence for much of her professional career.

She joins Graham Jenkins to offer an insight into her career path, her approach to her job and how she deals with the challenges of her role.

Where did your journalism career begin?

“I did a sports degree and sport has always been a passion, but I was really hankering after a future in journalism. I worked at the Surrey Comet during my holidays to see if I could cope in a newsroom.

“Then midway through my first teaching post I saw an advert in the Media Guardian for a BBC training scheme, it was called the Local Radio Trainee Reporter Scheme, you didn’t have to have a degree or worked in the media they just wanted people with a personality and an interest in their local community.

“I applied for a place, and so did about 5,000 others apparently, and they took on 20 of us. That was way back in 1988.”

You were the first woman to be appointed the rugby union producer for BBC Radio?

“It was a shock to me because a woman hadn’t done it before. This was after the Rugby World Cup in South Africa back in 1995. Nick Mullins had done the job before me and had move to become a broadcaster, they needed a new rugby producer and the senior editor was looking for someone who had the sort of personality who could work with Ian Robertson, who was a well-known character in rugby, and someone who had the strength and presence of mind who could help take the sport to a new level as it went professional…and they said do you want to be the new rugby producer?

“I promise you that I knew nothing about rugby union. I went out and found a book that was something like ‘the idiot’s guide to rugby union’, I was looking at all the positions and I was thinking how does this game work?


Predecessor: Sonja took over from Nick Mullins as at the BBC

“I thought someone would work out that I was a fraud, but you learn quickly and learn on the job and I was very lucky that I had great support from the BBC who wanted to put me into that position. You are also working in a sport where fellow journalist, coaches and players were all very amenable to this woman turning up. These were the days where you would go to a press conference at Twickenham and you would be the only woman in there who wasn’t serving coffee to the assembled media!”

Did you experience any resistance?

“I would like to be to regale you about all these stories about sexism in a macho world but it just never happened. I was always going to just get on with it, get the job done, and the bottom line is that every move I’ve made in my career whether it was a rugby union producer for BBC Radio or on the touchline for BBC TV or presenting rugby programmes on BBC Radio 5 Live, it’s because I’m the best person for the job and I think that pretty quickly that was apparent to people with the way I went around my business.

“The important thing is to do your homework, if you go into any interview with a player or coach, you don’t wing it, you do your homework, you know what you are talking about. That’s the one thing I would say to anyone who wants to get into this job is do your research, be rigorous with your prep, it’s about creating that credibility and that’s what I have always tried to do by being thorough in my approach to the job.”

You have since moved into a pitch side role, what do you see as your primary objective in the immediate aftermath of a game?

“Sometimes it is about the human interest. When I talked to Greig Laidlaw after the Argentina game, he’d missed a penalty that might have won the game, then he gets another crack at it and slots it. So your first question is, you must have been nervous in that moment? What was going through your mind?

“Then sometimes you have to be more direct and ask the tough questions. Scotland were ahead for 77 minutes of their match against Australia and six points clear with 10 minutes to go but they failed to close the game out just like their World Cup meeting. So you have got to say, have you got a problem with closing close games out?

Warren Gatland

Difference of opinion: Warren Gatland and Sonja had a well-documented post-match exchange

“I famously got in a little hot water for asking Warren Gatland whether he felt under pressure after another defeat to a southern hemisphere side and he didn’t take too kindly to the question and a bit of a rumpus blew up for about a week.

“But I am not there to be friends with the players and the coaches, that’s not my job, I’m there to ask tough questions if I have to. But that’s not always my objective, it not always about asking tough questions, the game doesn’t lend itself to that every time.

“I sometimes get criticised on social media by people saying I don’t respect the players but they have no idea how difficult that 10 minutes is – it is really difficult….but I love being in the heat of the battle. It draws on all your 20 years of experience as a broadcaster to get it right in that moment and it is not easy.

“But it’s my job to get it right and I think at the moment too many people with a microphone are too lazy and don’t think about the questions they are asking – they just make statements and expect players and coaches to respond to that and I always think where is the question in that? What were you trying to say? I do pride myself on trying to think very carefully about what I ask.”

Did that run-in with Wales and Gatland leave a mark?

“That was a really tough week for doing what I thought was my job. To buy a newspaper and find pictures of yourself because Wales have got cross about what I’ve said to Warren Gatland…that’s difficult. You do question your approach and maybe that was why Wales made a fuss because they thought she might not ask that kind of question again.

“I was very, very fortunate that the BBC backed me to the hilt, I’ve got an excellent rugby editor in Richard Hughes and he wants me to ask the tough questions if they are there to be asked and if it’s appropriate. So he was fully behind me as was Philip Bernie the executive producer of BBC Sport. I was due to go back to Wales the very next week and I was thinking were they going to take me off the gig because of what happened, and they were like ‘No, no, you’ll go back next week’. Warren’s got broad shoulders, he’s one of the highest paid coaches in world rugby and it’s his job to answer questions of that nature. His reaction in that moment in my mind was indicative of the fact that he did feel under pressure and to this day I stand by it.”

Do you believe your gender was key to that media storm?

“That’s a really interesting question and I have often chatted to colleagues about it. If a male reporter had asked the same question, if it had been Martin Bayfield or A.N Other reporter, would there have been the same fuss? I doubt it.

“I think it was something to do with the fact that I was a woman, do I know that definitively? Gatland has got form for being grumpy, so I’m not going to say categorically it was because I was a woman, but I do feel it had a part to play. But I have interviewed him since and it has been fine, we move on.

Ian Robertson

Influence: Sonja has had a long-standing working relationship with Ian Robertson

“But the fact that one question got as much coverage as it did – what is going on? Is that because in this day and age the people with the microphones are not asking the tough questions?

“The broadcast journalists of my ilk, the Alastair Eykyns and the Nick Mullins, are a dying breed because more and more ex-players have a microphone. I’m not saying that is a bad thing, not at all, they bring a different dimension to it. But the trained broadcast journalist, there are not that many of us. I lament that and it’s not the way forward for me – the broadcast journalist has a role to play and should be celebrated.”

You now juggle pitch side work with studio programmes for 5 Live?

“I was always viewed as a reporter but Mike Carr, my rugby editor at 5 Live, gave me an opportunity a couple of years ago and its developed and grown since then. I was presenting at the World Cup, and now I have this regular programme with Matt Dawson.

Matt Dawson

Partner-in-crime: Sonja now presents on Radio Five Live with World Cup winner Matt Dawson

“I love doing the studio stuff because in an hour and a half programme on national radio your personality can come out in a way that it can’t on the touchline where you might just have three questions to make your mark.

“In the studio you can be much more creative, you can have much more fun and get more out of your guests. I am just very fortunate to have fantastic variety when it comes to my job”

How does it compare with your work covering athletics?

“It is similar but very different. Rugby union is of course a team sport and everyone wins and loses together. Track and field is an individual sport and sometimes that post-race emotion is heightened. The post-race reaction is not the same as post-match because the margins between success and failure in track and field are so slender, you are talking hundredths of a second and as a results the emotion is sometimes magnified.

“I’ve also been privileged to live and work through a golden era for track and field. I was there in Beijing in 2008 when Usain Bolt burst through in Beijing and there’s also been Mo Farrah, Jess Ennis and Greg Rutherford. Being at the Olympic stadium in London in 2012 when three gold medals were won in 44 minutes for GB, was incredible.”

What are your fondest memories covering rugby union?

“Until last year I had never worked on a Rugby World Cup as the TV rights were always elsewhere, so last year, to work on a World Cup and have a full a role as I did for 5 Live while also working for host broadcasters ITV was one of my real highlights.

“To watch the All Blacks reclaim the World Cup and then be the first person to interview Richie McCaw knowing that I had to ask the question about his future… I knew I had to ask the question, ‘how can you walk away from this?’

Richie McCaw

Crowning moment: Sonja was privileged to interview Richie McCaw after his World Cup win

“He’s so eloquent and it was a lovely interview, and he gave such a lovely answer. You never think when you start in this job that you will get to where I currently am and I don’t take it for granted because you do have those ‘Wow!’ moments – when this whistle goes I’m the one who walks onto the pitch and talks to Richie McCaw and Steve Hansen.

“There have been plenty of those wet Friday nights but there are also those enormous moments and you know you are there because you have worked so hard to get there. You feel so much pressure as it was going everywhere on the world feed, so you’ve got to get it right, even though I’ve been doing this 27 years now, you still get nervous and have to remind yourself to breathe and that you can do this and that you know what you are doing. You don’t put too much pressure on tour self but you make sure you as the right questions.”

Sonja McLaughlan’s top tips:

+ Look close to home – “Local radio which is a fantastic training ground and I would always recommend it to anyone who wants to get into broadcasting. So many very good broadcaster that people listen to today like Mark Pougatch, Jonathan Overend, Nick Mullins – they have all come through local radio.”

+ Don’t wing it – “Do your homework. Know what you are talking about because if you do that then people are much more amenable to you as a journalist because they know you have that credibility.”

Bill McLaren

The greatest: Bill McLaren was a copious taker of notes

+ Safety net – “I never go to a Test match without doing my match notes. I write out the teams and all the salient bullet points relating to that match whether it is the form of the two teams or key players, injured players, a key player coming back. The context of the match is always really important in case you get brain fade on live TV.”

+ Think on your feet – “I scribble down some ideas for questions but sometimes but sometimes the situation takes me in a different direction when I am there and can assess the mood in the tunnel.”

+ Keep emotion in check – “Be careful with the language you use and the tone you strike. It’s not easy to suddenly wade in and ask tough questions but you’ve got to find a way of saying it so you don’t miss the story.”