Sophie Raworth: The autocutie with brains

Anna Ford's successor is a nice public-school 'head girl'. So why is she always making headlines?

Hermione Eyre
Sunday 19 February 2006 01:00

There is something remarkable about Sophie Raworth. Not the fact that in April she will take over from Anna Ford to present the BBC's One O'Clock News. Not the fact that she has a husband, two small daughters and what is considered the most prestigious job in television news, all before she is 38. Not even the fact that once, when she was presenting the Six O'Clock News, she was described as resembling "a talking boiled egg". What is really unusual about her is the fact that this is almost the only time that anyone in the public arena has ever made any bitchy comments about her.

For a female newscaster, this is unique. They are either too silly - Angela Rippon was never allowed to forget her high-kicking spree on Morecambe and Wise. Or too serious - Fiona Bruce has been parodied thus: "Good evening. I'm Fiona Bruce. Pay attention." They are either too sexy - Natasha Kaplinsky was called, rather demeaningly, "ratings Viagra". Or too prim - Moira Stewart received complaints from viewers who thought she wore "frumpy" blouses. And Raworth's predecessor, Anna Ford, has had to endure a variety of abuse, from Sir Robin Day's comment that all men wanted to sleep with her, to Private Eye's appraisal of her as a "talented Autocue reader".

But Raworth has, to date, taken little flak. The only dirt flung her way came from the newspaper columnist Amanda Platell, who grouped her in the "glossy posse" of female newscasters who have been promoted due to looks rather than experience. Because Raworth has been working in news broadcasting since she joined the BBC as a trainee in 1992 and is, to be honest, no glamourpuss, this muck failed to stick. And perhaps Raworth also escapes criticism because she is of a different generation to Anna Ford. Surely in this day and age a female newscaster can go to work without having to wear anti-backstabbing armour?

Not exactly. The term "autocutie" - denoting a newsreader who, employed for appearance rather than talent, relies on their Autocue - is so current it was admitted to the Collins Dictionary as a neologism in 2003. And in September last year, BBC News 24 presenter Kate Silverton had to cope with bad publicity when her co-presenter Philip Hayton resigned after 37 years at the BBC citing their "incompatibility". He made it clear that at the heart of their clash lay the issue that he had long experience of reporting from war zones, while she had worked as a corporate financier and then presented shows such asBig Strong Boys and Housecall. This, twinned with the Strictly Come Dancing antics of Six O'Clock News presenter Natasha Kaplinsky, lead to a deluge of pejorative comments about female newscasters, the theme being that they were under-qualified, over-glamorous and overpaid.

But none of this can be said of Raworth. Her credentials are impeccable. Born to a florist mother and a businessman father in Surrey, she attended the private London girls' day school St Paul's (where she was not in fact head girl, though many have ascribed that quality to her). She then studied French and German at Manchester University. Next up was a postgraduate degree in broadcasting journalism at City University London, where she was said to be "rather quiet". "I certainly wasn't loud, and am still not," she has said, adding, with characteristic good grace, "I've definitely grown in confidence over the years, but I'm sure that happens to everyone."

Raworth plugged away, reporting for the Corporation from Manchester, Brussels, Blackpool and Leeds. She was then promoted to BBC Breakfast. Here she co-presented with George Alagiah, who has nothing but good to say about her. "Sophie was the ideal on-screen partner. Absolutely professional in front of the camera, and supportive and generous when the on-air light went off. I'll miss the little wink she gave when something went wrong and that beaming smile when we were on top of our game."

Not for Sophie the embarrassment that Kate Silverton had to endure. Raworth is living proof that bias against women is not endemic in the industry.

But then there is also the fact that Raworth is, quite patently, a good egg. On-screen she has a straightforward, old-fashioned quality. This has led to her being parodied on the sketch show Dead Ringers as a golly-gosh Enid Blyton type - but in her professional work on TV, Raworth rarely grates. Rather, she comes across as a bit of a trouper and a good sport.

This was borne out when, in 2003, she caught the public's attention when Anna Ford had a coughing fit. In her own words: "I happened to be the unlucky presenter sitting in the newsroom when the editor came running out of the gallery and asked me if I could get into the studio as soon as possible. I had no make up on and my hair wasn't groomed, but suddenly I found myself on air... The next day it was in all the papers with headlines like 'this is Sophie Raworth on the BBC news with no make up and greasy hair'. Charming!"

Given that this is one of the most dramatic moments in her whole career, you might think Raworth had had it easy. Or that she was perhaps a touch boring. She has only had three steady boyfriends, and married an old friend, Richard Winter, an estate agent. She has never been embroiled in scandal or really stuck her neck out. When she appeared on Trinny and Susannah's programme What Not To Wear, the pair had to work flat out to get her to wear a pink Ben de Lisi ballgown, which was clearly too outré for her sensible tastes (she prefers black for evening).

Anna Ford, by contrast, lives far more dangerously. She has been sacked, threatened to leave the country, had her stalker put in jail, tangled with the Press Complaints Commission over long-lens photographs of her on holiday, married an astronaut ... and thrown a glass of white wine over Jonathan Aitken, of course. Given all this, her successor seems a little tame.

Yet Raworth's steady, wholesome qualities should not be underestimated. She has distinguished herself on difficult assignments, reporting from Los Angeles on Oscars night, covering Bill Clinton's impeachment in Washington, filming a half-hour investigation into altitude sickness in Bolivia, and doing walkabout interviews during the royal wedding in 2005. But we all make mistakes. Hers was asking a flag-waving royal wedding bystander, "So, what brings you here?". All these assignments mean Raworth can defend herself when critics, such as Michael Buerk, write off newsreaders by saying it is "the only job on TV which actually requires no talent at all".

In fact, Raworth may well be setting the news as well as reading it: there is a trend for newscasters to do more analysis in their bulletins. And Amanda Farnsworth, BBC daytime editor, asserts: "Sophie will bring her great journalistic experience to bear on the programme and be a real editorial force, shaping the agenda of the show." All in all, you might say this of Sophie Raworth: cute, but no autocutie.

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