I'm OK - shame about British politics

Doctors thought Sheena McDonald may never recover after suffering severe head injuries. Now she's back at work, and back to her old self - it's political broadcasting that has changed
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The Independent Online

Going back to work after a voluntary career break can, I know, be a wrench. Going back to work after an involuntary and unexpected career break can be a real challenge. Less than 18 months ago, I suffered a severe bang on the head in a road accident. I was lined up for all manner of work, and had to be summarily replaced, while I was being treated in three hospitals.

Going back to work after a voluntary career break can, I know, be a wrench. Going back to work after an involuntary and unexpected career break can be a real challenge. Less than 18 months ago, I suffered a severe bang on the head in a road accident. I was lined up for all manner of work, and had to be summarily replaced, while I was being treated in three hospitals.

There was fair degree of press coverage of the incident, and it was fairly bleak. This was not because the press were sensationalising what had happened - I was knocked down by a police van travelling on the wrong side of the road - but because anyone who had suffered the kind of injury I had was, typically, not expected to make much of a recovery.

Yet, despite all expectation (barring that of my partner and my mother), I did recover. There is a way to go. I still get very easily fatigued - again, a typical consequence of brain-injury - but I am able to do what I used to do as well as I ever could.

I was a freelance broadcast journalist, working for the most part in radio and television, and doing intermittent print press work. Somewhat miraculously, I still am, thanks not least to the combination of ignorance and faith in those who have hired me since the accident.

I do not use the word "ignorance" in any derogatory way. Many people suffer brain injury every year, but it is little talked about or understood. Even the experts can make too gloomy a prognosis, as in my case. Lay citizens are given very little information about the nature of the injury, or its likely consequences, with the result that it is scarcely surprising that nervous radio and TV producers shy away from previously trusted employees who have now become unknown quantities.

Add to that the fact that the world of communications is ever-changing. You may drop out of the ceaseless dawn-to-dusk work round with an almighty splash, but the ripples quickly disappear, and the surface is serene and calm again, as if you had never been there. (Listen carefully, mind you, for the sound of ever more frantic paddling beneath the surface. No one has a guaranteed shelf-life these days.)

I therefore have huge admiration for old and new friends in the BBC, who approached me from relatively early in my recovery, and offered me familiar and new work. First out of the trap was the World Service, one of whose producers rang over a year ago. "Will you be all right to go to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting at Durban in November?" "Oh yes", I replied, groggily. So I was, and did what I was asked to do - a panel discussion with five Commonwealth Foreign Secretaries, including the British incumbent, and was judged to have performed satisfactorily.

Non-broadcast work was also offered to me, and accepted: presenting the Gramophone Awards in the Royal Festival Hall, and the Whitbread Awards.

Even Channel 4, currently going through a cultural sandstorm, dared to give me a couple of programmes, one of which had nothing to do with brain injury (unless you count interviewing politicians as a highly questionable activity).

Then my partner, himself a BBC employee, bumped into the producer of A Week in Westminster, one of my long-standing Radio 4 favourites. "Would Sheena be interested?" she asked. It was a fair question. Although I started my working life in radio, and have remained faithful to it, as a listener and a contributor, over the years while dabbling fairly energetically in television, I had never worked with this woman, and judging from what she might have read about my injuries, I was a long shot as a possible presenter of a programme I had never worked for.

Add to that the effect of the inevitable memory loss that every sufferer of brain injury endures. Would I be mentally and intellectually proficient enough to do a specialist programme?

The short answer is: Yes.

I remember that when, after weeks of post-traumatic amnesia, I finally became aware of the world about me and my situation, Britain appeared to be at war. As I gradually re-adopted my old news-junkie ways, several things struck me: football and the family had become politicised. The spin-machine that had helped bring this Government into power (I know, I know - governments are lost by the incumbents rather than won by the rivals, but Labour did indeed present a shiny new image) was, like yesterday's computer, already looking creaky and obsolete, and the substance of the Government's activities over the previous three years was being overshadowed by the media's, and thus the public's, obsession with the spinning trick that Labour had introduced; above all, that Tony Blair was looking much wearier than I remembered him looking. If I also say that a lot of political coverage seemed unnecessarily trivial to me, it will seem that I am dismissing the efforts of erstwhile colleagues and employees. Suffice it to say, I am Reithian in approach: if there's no news worth broadcasting, then don't bother.

Anyway, my short answer was accepted, and I found myself working on a show which gives the contributors (mostly working MPs) time to express themselves far more fully and intelligently than most soundbite-broadcasts allow them to. Oh, we may mock our poor Members for fashioning soundbites with which to answer difficult questions, but we in the media obliged them to do so.

Thus we come to the so-called "silly season", which this year is being taken seriously by Radio 4. In the Week in Westminster slot on a Saturday morning, they are running a programme called Talking Politics, which Dennis Sewell and I are alternately presenting, and which I think promises to be a treat for listeners and participants. Since Parliament is not sitting, no holds are barred. We can talk about whatever contemporary political issues we feel are of most concern to the British people.

I'm really looking forward to it. This is somewhat ironic, since I gave up daily television coverage of Parliament just before the last election, anticipating that politics would become predictable and less interesting thereafter. You will have your own opinion on the first couple of years, but now I feel there are issues of extreme interest.

Was the retiring Speaker right when she spoke of public cynicism about and alienation from the democratic system? Will the Government plump for a spring election, or will it go all the way? Is news itself going through a terminal doldrums? Should newsgatherers personalise their reports, and provide ever-more entertainment instead of factual information, or should it stick to its relatively recently-won impartial guns?

Our aim on Talking Politics will be simple: to give you something fresh and intelligent to think about. And my aim? To get enough sleep, to do my best and, better, to love life, which was almost snuffed out in a cruel second but which was miraculously restored. However intelligent and relevant we may be, some things are beyond understanding.

Sheena McDonald presents 'Talking Politics' on BBC Radio 4 at 11am on Saturday

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