My Life In Media: Sue Phillips

'I've worked behind the scenes for years making other people look good, so I would love to do something on air. But it is an ambition I doubt will be fulfilled'


Sue Phillips, 54, is the first female network director of the international broadcaster Al Jazeera. Originally a successful radio and television producer, Phillips, who is English, worked in America, Canada, Italy, Russia and the UK for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), before accepting her new role as Al Jazeera English director of foreign bureau and development in Doha, Qatar. Phillips, a founding member of the Frontline Club, lives in west London with her son Charles, 19, and her daughter Melissa, 23. She moves to Doha to take up her now role this month.

What inspired you to embark on a career in the media?

It was quite by fluke that I embarked upon a career in media. I joined the London bureau of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a bilingual receptionist and became fascinated with the CBC French network and broadcasting. Luckily for me, within six months a researcher's job came up and I went on to work in radio with CBC for another eight years. I found what I wanted, what I was good at, and it has proved something that has kept me occupied ever since.

When you were 15 years old which newspaper did your family get, and did you read it?

My parents read the Daily Mail and wouldn't dream of reading another newspaper unless I'm in it. I can't actually remember reading it as a youngster; I was far more interested in languages and travel.

And what were your favourite TV and radio programmes?

When I was young, I loved travel and wildlife shows and watched pretty much anything with David Attenborough in it. I'm an absolute wildlife nut to this day. Later, I listened to a lot of pop music on Radio Caroline, the pirate station.

Describe your job?

Most recently it's been my responsibility to set up the entire broadcast centre for Al Jazeera in our London bureau. We have more than 200 employees, so I manage a variety of departments from news to programming, to operation and technical, as well as all the administration and finance. I represent the company and I do a lot of PR. I'm still very involved in the actual day to day managing of the newsroom itself. Though I tend to be more involved in the overseeing these days rather than the intricate editorial decisions. In Doha I will be more concerned with development and the integration of Al Jazeera English and Arabic.

What's the first media you turn to in the mornings?

The first thing I do every morning is turn on Radio 4 and the Today show. It's almost like I have an intimate relationship with the presenters; I talk to them every morning.

Do you consult any media sources during the day?

I'm glued to Al Jazeera throughout the day, although I also read The Times and check BBC News online, as well.

What do you tune into when you get home?

Al Jazeera again, I'm afraid.

What is the best thing about your job?

We have such excellent staff and we share a sense of freedom and excitement in being the new kid on the block. We truly do cover the world globally and that in itself is a thrill. Five shows come out of London so we have a constant flow of people coming through for interviews. And that is exciting because you never know who David Frost is going to have on his show any given day. It could be Tony Blair, Prince Andrew or a national president or prime minister. I've been lucky enough to employ half the people at Al Jazeera, and I'm so proud of them and what we have all achieved together.

And the worst?

The road works on my way to work.

How do you feel you influence the media?

As a part of Al Jazeera, I hope we have brought something different to the media.

What's the proudest achievement in your working life?

Meeting Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela. In the media you meet and speak to so many famous or important people but there are certain people that inspire you more than others.

And what's your most embarrassing moment?

When I was a television producer in Washington for The Journal on CBC, a very important senator, whose name I probably shouldn't mention, came in for an interview and one minute away from going live I noticed he had a rather sweaty patch on his bald head. I thought a quick dab of concealer would do the trick, but I tripped over the edge of his chair and left a third of a pot of powder all over his head. It was mortifying.

What is your Sunday paper? And do you have a favourite magazine?

The Sunday Times. I tend to try and read some travel magazines or Vanity Fair at the weekend.

Name the one career ambition you want to realise before you retire?

I've worked behind the scenes for years making other people look good, so, for once, I would love to do something on air. But it is an ambition I doubt will ever be fulfilled.

What would you do if you didn't work in the media?

I would have loved to go into wildlife PR or fashion PR. I don't know which; sometimes I'm all over the place.

Who in the media do you most admire and why?

Peter Snow. Whatever he does, whether it is the swingometer or one of his documentaries, he brings such energy and enthusiasm to the screen. He is a delight to watch.

The CV

1976 Joins London bureau of CBC as a receptionist. Becomes a radio researcher and then a producer

1984 Moves to Moscow as a satellite coordinator for CBS Television

1989 Graduates to television as a senior producer for CBC in Washington

1995 Returns to radio as head of news and current affairs for CBC in London

2000 Leaves CBC to become Managing Editor of News World International

2004 Joins Al Jazeera as a consultant

2005 Made bureau chief of Al Jazeera London broadcast centre

2008 Heads to Al Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar as the head of foreign bureaux and development

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