‘I don’t need more than five hours of sleep on the trot’: Naga Munchetty on BBC Breakfast, being herself and the toughest stories of her career

As the corporation’s flagship morning show turns 40, the presenter tells Ellie Harrison about the ‘buzz’ of live television and why you have to laugh when it doesn’t quite go to plan

Monday 16 January 2023 19:16 GMT
‘In my job I get to ask questions that I think our audience wants to ask. And I will keep asking those questions’
‘In my job I get to ask questions that I think our audience wants to ask. And I will keep asking those questions’ (BBC)

It’s 10.25am on a Friday morning and I’m starting to worry. I was supposed to start interviewing Naga Munchetty, the matter-of-fact, pixie-haired star of BBC Breakfast, just under an hour ago. But no one can track her down. Between 6am and quarter past nine, her face was beamed into living rooms and kitchens across the country; now she’s nowhere to be seen. At 10.29am, the publicist emails me. I’ll be on the phone with Munchetty in 10 minutes. The presenter comes on the line apologising profusely: she left her phone, with all her appointments on it, on her hall table when she left for the Salford studio this morning. Mystery solved. I had started to fret a little. “Oh no, I’m fine,” she says, laughing. “I’m just stupid.” She says sorry. Again. “There’s nothing worse than flaky interviewees not turning up.”

The 47-year-old journalist has dealt with her fair share of flakes over the years – but the difference is she’s often had to do it on live television. Munchetty first learned to roll with the punches when she started out in newspapers as a financial journalist in the Nineties, before moving into TV at CNBC Europe, Bloomberg, Channel 4 News, and then the BBC, in that order. She joined the broadcaster in 2008 to present the business show Working Lunch, then switched over to BBC Breakfast in 2014 as the replacement for Susanna Reid – who had left to host ITV rival Good Morning Britain. As BBC Breakfast celebrates its 40th anniversary, today, it is the UK’s most watched morning news programme. Some 1.2 million tune in live each day to see Munchetty and Charlie Stayt (her co-host, whom she speaks warmly of and describes as a “friend”) on the red sofa, reporting on everything from ambulance wait-times and the cost of living crisis to Mel C’s new dance show. When you add in the numbers of those viewing the programme on iPlayer, its reach soars to five million.

After nearly 10 years in the job, Munchetty is still exhilarated by it. “I am always buzzing,” she says. “I’m buzzing before I start the show, because you have to go in with that energy.” Her vim shows on screen – she never looks tired or crumpled. Munchetty sets her alarm for 3.45am every morning that she’s on BBC Breakfast – Thursday to Saturday. “I don’t actually need more than about five hours of sleep on the trot,” she says, conceding that she will sometimes treat herself to an afternoon nap. She’s also a big believer in the snooze button. When’s bedtime? “It varies. It could be half eight if I’m really tired, but it could be later. As long as I get my block of five hours, I’m fine… I’ve timed my routine to 16 minutes. Everything is laid out: face moisturiser, hair wax, body moisturiser, deodorant – it’s all in the same order every single time.” She doesn’t drink caffeine – just a decaf coffee will do. And no radio, either. She’s too busy reading her briefs.

Munchetty gets a rare insight into the world before dawn. When travelling into the studio on a Saturday morning, she’ll often cross paths with “the revellers” en route home from nights out. “I always feel a little bit, not envious, but a bit nostalgic about the time when I used to live that life,” she says.

After the show, there’s a debrief. “Those poor producers,” says Munchetty, “they’ve been in there since 10’o clock the night before. They’re all shattered, understandably, having worked through the night and been dealing with live news.” How does she decompress? “I go to make-up and take it all off,” she says. “I hate make-up, especially the amount we wear on telly… then I head home and plan my day, see if there’s anything I need to read.”

When she’s not working – on BBC Breakfast or on 5 Live, where she hosts the radio station’s mid-morning programme Monday to Wednesday – Munchetty might be found at the gym, playing golf with friends, or settling down to do a jigsaw. “I’m quite happy in my own company doing that kind of thing,” she says.

It’s easy to see the appeal of such a quaint pastime with a career like Munchetty’s. In the past few years, she’s covered the Grenfell Tower fire, war breaking out in Ukraine, the Covid pandemic and many other tragedies. “You have to deliver that news as well as you can – responsibly, calmly, reassuringly – even though you’re just as petrified as anyone hearing it for the first time,” she says. She is most moved when ordinary people share their personal stories with the programme. “People open up to us who’ve been through such pain and want to do good things,” she says. “People who’ve lost family and want the systems to be fixed.”

Munchetty has strong memories of covering the blaze at Grenfell in 2017, in which 72 people died. “I remember coming in that morning and being very, very upset,” she says. “I’m a Londoner, and I know that area well. I remembered 9/11, and those images of people jumping out of the building. With Grenfell, I was sitting there, trying to hold back waves of emotion, and imagining how scared people were in the tower. And because this was rolling news, so you take footage and pictures live, I couldn’t help but think, ‘What if someone jumps?’ I was so conscious that we were broadcasting to a breakfast audience, where children are watching and getting ready for school. Actually, it doesn’t matter if they’re even children watching, just people. And I remember being petrified about that. It wasn’t about me or what I would see, it was about how we would take the audience through something live and traumatic. When news like that happens – 9/11, Grenfell, war in Ukraine, the pandemic – the BBC is a trusted brand, it is what you go to. And that’s where my sense of responsibility is heightened.”

Early risers: Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty (BBC)

Live TV brings many challenges for its presenters, whether it’s the need to blink back tears or stay on the pulse of developing stories. Another part of the job is dealing with unpredictable interviewees. “I love them,” says Munchetty. “I absolutely love them. As much as there is a persona you have when you are on telly as a host, you have to be human.” Scottish musician Lewis Capaldi – a notoriously naughty interviewee – recently made headlines after bringing up the subject of rimming on the show, before 9am on a Saturday morning. “When Lewis said that it was just really funny,” says Munchetty. “But you also have to be mindful of the sensibilities of your audience. So you also acknowledge that it was a bit rude. Our audience is smart, they get that it’s live TV.”

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I think it’s really important that young people know that all of us on telly don’t look like that in real life

Another headline-making incident was a baby breaking wind on air. “I can’t do anything about a baby parping, but you don’t ignore it or be po-faced about it,” says Munchetty. “Imagine how nervous those parents were… if a little baby parps on the sofa, I’ll acknowledge it, laugh about it, and try to make the parents feel, as much as they can, that they’re somewhere comfortable, so they can relax about being on telly.”

Munchetty is unafraid to be herself – on-air and off. She’s frank. You know where you stand with her. The week we speak, there’s a light-hearted debate on BBC Breakfast about British politeness, and whether it’s OK to tell someone if the meal they serve you is cold. The guests and Stayt say they’d be unlikely to complain. Munchetty, meanwhile, says she would get up, walk over to the microwave and put the plate of food into it, so she can just get on and enjoy her meal. Last year, Munchetty replied to a critic on Twitter who said they hated her with a passion, telling them, “Ooh. You are passionate about me… Am taking it. X.” Over on Instagram, her profile is full of sweaty post-gym selfies. “I think it’s really important that young people know that all of us on telly don’t look like that in real life,” she says.

She’s also a dogged interviewer, and holds power to account. “One thing I never forget, is that in my job I get to ask questions that I think our audience wants to ask,” she says. “And I will keep asking those questions.” She was praised last year for a particularly zealous grilling of former health secretary Thérèse Coffey.

Keen golfer Naga Munchetty in action prior to the JCB Championship in July 2022 (Getty)

Munchetty’s principles and politics have landed her in a spot of trouble with her employer in recent years. She was rebuked by the BBC in 2019 after commenting on Donald Trump’s call for a group of female Democrats to “go back” to their own countries. Munchetty – the daughter of an Indian mother and Mauritian father – had said, “Every time I have been told, as a woman of colour, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism. I’m not accusing anyone of anything here, but you know what certain phrases mean.” The corporation initially ruled that the presenter had breached editorial guidelines, but the then director-general Tony Hall later reversed the decision. In 2021, Munchetty was forced to apologise for liking “offensive” tweets about a Tory MP having a Union Jack flying in the background of a video call. These topics are off limits in this interview, but Munchetty has previously said that, after the Trump fall-out, she and Hall had “very robust” conversations, adding, “We’re learning all the time – the BBC learns, I learn, move on.”

After all, Munchetty is very well-behaved compared to her former Good Morning Britain rival Piers Morgan, who left the show in 2021 after an on-air row about Meghan Markle (his obsession with her continues; earlier this month he ranted on Twitter about the duchess and her husband, Prince Harry, while asking for his job back). What does Munchetty think of the idea of his return? “Do you want my honest opinion?” she asks. “I don’t think about it.” It doesn’t keep you up at night? “No, I’m sorry. Should it?” she says, stifling laughter. “You know, I like Piers. Good luck to him. He’s a very good broadcaster but what he does is his business and is not of my concern.”

Munchetty relishes the competition, too. It might help that she’s winning this one – in 2022, Good Morning Britain had an average consolidated viewership of 2.3 million, half of BBC Breakfast’s. “Good luck to GMB,” she says. “Competition is great. Bring it on!”

‘BBC Breakfast’ airs at 6am daily on BBC One

An ITV spokesperson told ‘The Independent’ that in 2014, the launch year of ‘GMB’, the programme achieved an overnight volume equating to 38 per cent of the BBC audience. For 2023 so far, that figure has increased to 55 per cent

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