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Etchingham on God, glamour and the joys of live TV news

The News at Ten anchor tells Matthew Bell that 20 years' of journalism belie her 'autocutie' tag

The first thing you notice about Julie Etchingham is the hair, a perfect bob that frames her face like a bonnet. It is several hours before she will present ITV's News at Ten live to three million people but she looks ready to go now, immaculately groomed and dressed. Everything from her posture to her voice screams "efficiency", and it's little wonder she is known to her co-host Mark Austin as "head girl".

In fact, Etchingham is 40, married with two children of her own and, according to a glass statue on her mantelpiece, Presenter of the Year. The judges of last month's Royal Television Society award praised her "range and authority", calling her "an extraordinary journalist with real star quality" who had "grown, in an extremely short time, into a key part of the channel's news team." Others have been less enthusiastic. Fellow broadcaster Fiona Phillips felt Etchingham was too young, at 38, to land the plum job as co-presenter with Trevor McDonald, then 68, of News at Ten.

Whatever ITV's motive, poaching her from Sky has been a success, with ratings steadily rising over the past two years. Even if her job involves reading an autocue and looking good, Etchingham insists she is more than the latest "autocutie". As a teenager, she collected newspaper cuttings and for much of the past 20 years has grafted her way from regional to national broadcasting.

She is also one of a handful of broadcasters who, as a Roman Catholic, is unembarrassed to discuss her faith. "Religion is an important part of my home life," she says, "If you have a faith, you are bound to be influenced by it. Would that ever show itself on air? I don't think so. The key place where my faith influences me is in how I hope to handle people." Although she believes religion "is not a work thing", she laments that ours is a "very secular" media, and that "Christians can be discriminated against", before carefully steering the conversation on to the joys of our multi-cultural age.

All the hard work has paid off, but it can't do any harm to look good if you want to get ahead in television, I say. "I would always want someone to be given a job because they're a good journalist," she says, "but let's face it, it's television. You've got to be reasonably inoffensive to the eye."

What of the work itself? Is John Humphrys right to say it's not exactly demanding? "It's not the most demanding job in the world," she laughs. "Some nights it's an easy job." But with live TV, things can and do go wrong, and she tells of a recent power cut which forced her to read the news from a scrambled studio in Millbank, with no autocue. "I had my scripts but I knew I had to know about each of the stories in case the films couldn't work," she says, "I would never want to sit in front of a live news camera not knowing about the stories I'm talking about."

Etchingham was the first pupil from her Leicester comprehensive to go to Cambridge, having had summer jobs at her local radio station. During her gap year, she taught English and French to Poles in a German boarding school. At Newnham College, she was a disciple of Germaine Greer and in her spare time worked for BBC Cambridgeshire, joining the BBC as a graduate trainee the minute she came down. Where does all this drive and ambition come from? "There was no possibility I could just drift around for a couple of years, financially."

The Eighties were also a politicised age, from newspaper production to pop music. Coming from a family of teachers, did she grow up a liberal? "It wouldn't be right to assume that at all. It wouldn't be right and it wouldn't be wrong. As you well know, I'm not likely to reveal my political colours here." That'll teach me to be impertinent.

She does, however, reveal a certain closeness with David Cameron, despite that memorable blunder in 2007 when she was heard to joke during his speech on immigration that the Tory policy was "extermination". Her then employer, Sky, issued an immediate apology and called the incident "regrettable". Etchingham was mortified. "It was not my finest hour. I apologised to Cameron personally." There is no animus between them now and Cameron even recorded a clip for her 40th birthday party last August, "taking the piss out of the whole thing".

Outside work, her interests are low key: shopping at LK Bennett, baking cakes and spending weekends at home in West London with her sons and husband, Nick Gardener, a producer she met on the children's programme Newsround. She doesn't go out much except for a regular girly lunch with her newsreader friends, Anna Botting, Anna Jones, and Jacquie Beltrao. Even during Lent? She laughs and confirms she has given up drinking, although she "had a glass of something" the other day. She's only human, after all.