On Gary O’Donoghue’s first day at the BBC, he was asked to bungee jump off Chelsea Bridge. That was 18 years ago, as a junior reporter on the Today programme.
Now a highly regarded political correspondent, O’Donoghue doubts if a modern-day producer would dare ask the same of a blind person: “Disabled people can be victims of our risk-averse culture. When I joined the BBC, I went to Macedonia during the Kosovo war. Although there was all sorts of training, I’m not sure it would be quite so easy now.”
The BBC – where he has spent his entire career, first at Today and then on the World Service – prides itself on its diversity and anti-discrimination policies. But O’Donoghue is the only blind broadcast journalist in the country. Already a familiar voice on radio, he is now presenting more for TV news as well as on the internet. Even for a sighted journalist, working across three platforms can be demanding, but O’Donoghue is unfazed: “The technology has come on a lot in the past 15 years. I used to have to beg researchers to read cuttings on to tape before going home to listen to them. I would always be half a day behind everyone else.”
Now he uses a piece of software on his laptop that interprets emails and text documents and reads them aloud in a synthetic voice. Inevitably there are still obstacles – as photographs of text, PDF files cannot be read, for example. But the internet has transformed O’Donoghue’s working practices. “When I started, press releases would come in on the fax machine, which is completely useless. I’m quite bullish about it now when bits of paper are handed out. Number 10 did it the other day and I just said, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t read it.’ They thought about it for a couple of minutes and then emailed it over.”
O’Donoghue was born partially sighted but had lost the use of both eyes by the time he was eight. Although mild-mannered and resolutely upbeat, he has had to fight his corner. Last year he was awarded a five-figure payout after complaining he had been unfairly discriminated against when a producer gave one of his stories to another correspondent to present on the Ten O’Clock News. He declines to discuss that episode when we meet, but speaks passionately on the under-representation of disabled workers in the media. “There aren’t many and there should be more. There is 66 per cent unemployment among blind people of working age. It’s an absurd figure.” Should quotas be set? “No, there is no interest in over-promoting people who aren’t up to it – that would be the worst possible thing you can do. But when you come across them then for goodness sake use them.”
One barrier to getting more disabled people into the workplace is a lack of confidence, and O’Donoghue recognises that his education played a large part in shaping his “yes we can” spirit. He comes, he says, from “quite a working-class background”, but was sent to a specialist boarding school for blind children in Worcester, and was the first person in his family to go to university, reading philosophy and modern languages at Oxford.
“The school was amazing; we did all sorts of things. It would not countenance the idea that things weren’t possible. Football, ballroom dancing – we even went skiing.” (O’Donoghue played football for the England blind team –“a very violent game”.) He continues: “They also taught us to drive. They would take us to a disused airfield in dual-control cars. It’s something you couldn’t get away with these days – four blind kids and an instructor in a car charging round an airfield.”
O’Donoghue’s father was a semi-professional footballer before becoming a taxi-driver, and his mother taught ballroom dancing before marrying. “She had quite a hard time of it when I was young because in those days there was not a lot of support for parents with disabled or blind children. You were expected to reinvent the wheel yourself the whole time. A couple of years ago she told me that when things got really bad, she seriously thought of killing us both. I think it’s a really brave thing to say to your offspring. I think it was quite a dark time.”
Now aged 40, O’Donoghue divides his time between a small London flat and Yorkshire, where he lives with his partner, Sarah Lewthwaite, and their seven-year-old daughter, Lucy. During his career he has covered stories in Africa, Asia, Europe and the US, but he seems most at home in Westminster, where he has been stationed since 2004. When we meet, he is about to do a pre-record ahead of presenting the Radio 4 show The World This Weekend for the first time, which he hopes to do more of.
“The thing about disability is that in many ways it makes life difficult, but it can also be an asset as it makes you stand out a bit. There are people who are prepared to take a chance with me. This is the job I wanted for quite a long time, and now I’ve got it. It’s up to me to make the best of it.”