Opportunity knocks, from Boston, Mass. to Broadcasting House, W1A 1AA

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The Independent Online
Phillipa Thomas was an unknown rookie reporter in the BBC's US office. But the trial of a certain British au pair in Massachusetts has changed all that, says Rob Brown.

A media star has been born in Boston. No, not Louise Woodward, although we'll obviously be seeing a lot more of her on the small, and maybe even big, screen. But Phillipa Thomas, the young BBC reporter who was pitched from anonymity into covering one of the biggest running stories in recent years for round-the-clock TV news bulletins.

Thomas acquitted herself so well that she is now being touted back at Television Centre in West London as the next Kate Adie.

Adrian van Klaveren, news editor at the BBC's newsgathering division, said: "Phillipa rose superbly to the challenge of covering one of the year's biggest stories. She has huge talent as a broadcaster and will undoubtedly be a star correspondent for the BBC in the coming years."

Thomas is now back in the BBC's Washington bureau recovering from her exhausting six-week assignment in Massachussetts and slowly coming to terms with what she recognises as a big career break.

"I don't think anyone realised how big a story this was going to be when I was sent to Boston," she said, pointing out that she was dispatched because it was her turn on the taxi rank. "I'm now just taking it in and beginning to realise how much I've done."

There were two moments in the Massachussetts court which she found particularly harrowing: when Deborah Eappen spoke of watching her baby die and when Louise Woodward gave out a terrible cry after she had been declared guilty.

"It was only half an hour to transmission, so I slapped down the pictures and the commentary," she recalls. "It was only when I filed that I really felt the emotion on both sides."

But throughout, when the tabloid press was pandering to its basest form of patriotism, she never allowed any of her own personal feelings to slip into any of the pieces-to-camera she filed from the Massachussetts courthouse.

"When you work for the BBC you don't get emotional on air," she says. "And you certainly don't take sides."

It wasn't, she quickly stresses, a case of being thrown in at the deep end. Thomas had already done heaps of live work on BBC World, the TV version of the World Service, before she joined the US staff in June.

But the Woodward trial was the first time her proud parents had a chance to watch her on the box. Her father is a pilot so they live in a village near Stansted Airport called Little Dunmow.

Phillipa Thomas, 31, was raised in Wakefield in Yorkshire. She studied at University College, Oxford, where she gained a first in PPE (Politics, Philosphy & Economics).

Her fascination with politics soon led her into the corporation's politics unit, where she became particularly interested in the Northern Ireland imbroglio.

But she had always been eager to work in America and was delighted to be posted to Washington in June. Her partner, Richard Lister, is also based there, covering the State Department.

The BBC now has six bi- media correspondents in the US capital of equal rank. As well as servicing the main bulletins on BBC1 and 2, they have to feed dispatches to the BBC's new round-the-clock news service, News 24, and its global sister channel, BBC World. Its output includes USA Direct, a live show out of Washington and New York.

Thomas is keen to anchor that show and would like to do more presentation in general. She is also keen to cover the next presidential election in 2000 for the BBC.

"I am very ambitious, but I've taken it as I go along," she says. "The Woodward trial was a real dream assignment. It made me realise I'm not just a narrow politics specialist. I could cover a real human story in which every new twist was more dramatic than the last."

Her happy bosses back in London couldn't have put it any better.