Transcript for Leeds Voices podcast episode 12. Return to Naga Munchetty: Asking the right questions.
Hello and welcome to Leeds Voices, the weekly podcast brought to you by the University of Leeds. I'm Alex Regan, and this week we're joined by one of the most recognizable faces in the UK TV presenter and journalist Naga Munchetty. Since 2014, Naga has been waking up the nation on BBC Breakfast and since 2020 she's presented a mid-morning show on 5 Live.
Naga has most recently used her platform to shine a light on the lesser known condition. Adenomyosis cysts, a womb condition which can leave sufferers in constant pain. Naga also suffers from the condition, and her own reporting has prompted the government's women's health ambassador, Professor Dame Lesley Regan, to say the NHS is failing women. But to kick off our conversation, I started by asking Naga about her time on the Leeds student newspaper and whether she always harbored ambitions of becoming a journalist.
I think I got involved with the Leeds student my first year, and I think I was really struggling. I used to be a musician at school, so I always had orchestras and bands and lessons and I'd play at the Jazz Cafe and all sorts of stuff. And I had to give I gave up my music because I had to give up my trumpet.
Now I'll get to the point, I promise. I had to give up my trumpet to ILEA, the London Education Authority and my piano, which I was very fortunate to have, and I still was at home and I was obviously in Leeds, home was in London. So it didn't really - apart from my flatmates - I didn't have a thing to do and I'm supposed to be studying and all that, but I just didn't have an extracurricular thing to do and because I was doing English, I thought, okay, I'll look at the Leeds Student to see what's going on.
And I just kind of found my tribe, I think, and I'm really curious. That has never left me. And it just was I could just be curious about stuff and find stuff out. And that's why the Leeds student attracted me, not because I wanted to be a journalist, not because I ever harbored any ambitions to be a journalist.
I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just knew that I was good at writing and I loved literature and I didn't even realize I was curious until I started at the Leeds Student. So it's almost like it was it was because trying to find a tribe and just trying to find something that would keep me entertained.
And also part of Leeds student life, which is really is difficult to be a part of that when you've you've left home and you're with strangers. And yeah, that was the only reason. And then I just enjoyed it.
And you mentioned that your curiosity obviously to be a good journalist, you have to be incredibly curious and always asking questions. What for you was the best story that you wrote while on the Leeds Student?
You know, it wasn't a story I'd write. It was I had to go undercover, now why did I have to go undercover? I wore my dad's donkey jacket type thing, and I pretended to be a Sun reporter or a tabloid reporter at a baseball cap is just a very my favorite baseball cap. And it was only when I wore that and I had this donkey jacket with big fur collars and stuff. I remember doing this undercover report, and I genuinely can't remember what it was about, but that was the most fun I had because I remember just thinking; no one's going to believe I’m a Sun reporter. And they did. But I think it was just for me, I genuinely, there were there were lots, I kind of flitted in and out a lot.
I think it was more just learning about how universities operated because I hadn't thought about it. So it was just learning how institutions, institutions operated and whether or not and it was then that I think I found a way to channel, to channel my annoyance at injustice or what you perceive to be an injustice by the big institutions, so to speak.
So that was the thing I enjoyed and I was learning a lot. I learned a lot, but I will completely fess up. I cannot remember the big story, the favorite story. I just remember the feeling, the joy of being in there and knowing that I was part of something that was kind of raging against the machine a little bit.
And the how and how is that helped inform your journalism going forward then? Because obviously you're talking about, you know, punching up and holding big institutions to account.
Part of my job is to challenge, challenge those in power, hold those and hold those in power to account without fear or favour. And I do that to the best of my ability. But I think what my time at Leeds student did, it just it sparked the fact that I could do that and any of us can do it.
And the more it got me thinking about was; how do we write a story that matters to students? How do we write a story that could seem really dry on the surface? And students, you know, they're busier, too much, too busy having fun, And how do we make them interested? How do we make them care? So how do we tell them that this affects them?
And that message doesn't change every time I interview a politician. Best compliment last week; so someone came up to me and said - two people did on the same day actually - and said; “thank you for asking those questions. We were screaming at the telly. You always ask the questions we want to ask.” You serve your audience. And that's the joy of it. It's finding a story, taking your curiosity and infecting others with that curiosity to show them why it matters, why it cares, and how it affects them. And that's what I learned. So just because we were, you know, a narrow audience, you know, in comparison to what I do now, the students and also when you got the the hierarchy listening, it was always it was always sort of like an achievement.
But yeah, that's it. That's the lesson. But serve your audience is it was really important to me. I went to a Saturday music college and I had done so since at the age of nine. So and I played the trumpet in the piano. And what I loved about, you know, once you become a certain standard, what I loved was I was playing in orchestras, I was playing in bands.
And although I had my private school, you know, my really good friends in all sorts of areas, music was definitely a big thing in my life. And I've always enjoyed, even though I have a cool group of friends and I studied at uni, I've always enjoyed having my own thing. I suppose what we know is if I were to have my own thing now it's like golf, which I only started about 14 years ago, 13 years ago, but it's having something that's all yours.
That is your personal development. And that's why I missed music and that's I think why I ended up – and I don't have a trumpet anymore. Nope. Not picked one out since I was 19. I think I tried one when I was in my late twenties, early thirties. My ambitions completely changed, so it's never going to sound good. And once you've been good at something, you will never go back to it if you can't be good at it again because you're too frustrated. I still have a piano at home, which I do tinkle on and I'm not as good as I was. But I think about it and then get frustrated and step away from it and then go back to it. And I do have joy when I can play a piece of music I love well, again. But involves making time to practice, of course. But so it's not out of my life. And obviously I love listening to music when I dance and sing and all, but I think now, especially now, I've got golf, which I know you didn't kind of want to go to that area, but now I've got golf. I realize I need to be selfish in at least one area of my life.
I need to have something for me that is just for me, that makes me feel good, that I can do something well or I've done something well. And it brings me personal joy. Personal development, I think is important is for me.
I haven't looked into it, but I'm not sure that there's a podcast where a journalist just interviews someone about their day to day life while golfing. And I wonder, would that be something that you'd consider doing?
I'd love to do something like that. You know, there was something called Around with Alliss with the late, great Peter Alliss, and it wasn't a podcast, obviously, it was a programme and that's tried to be got off the ground. I would love to do something like that or a podcast, and I think it would be one of those podcasts – I don't know how you listen to podcasts – I listen to them in all sorts of ways, but I often fall asleep to podcasts and it would be lovely, or if you were on a long train journey, but you can just look out the window and just listen to an ambling conversation and just see where it goes.
The only problem with that is when you play golf with someone; so I played with someone just yesterday afternoon who I'd met a few months ago and just really clicked with, which is quite a rare thing. The older you get, you don't click with as many people because you kind of have a group of friends. And we had a great round and got to know each other. The only problem with that is that you tell each other things you wouldn't want out in the public, not because they're bad, but because they're so personal.
So I don't know if you'd ever for a podcast ever quite get that insight. Do you know what I mean? That unguarded insight that you get on the golf course, you know, the conversations where they they go from? Oh, yeah, you know “what you making for dinner tonight or where you're like going out for dinner” to “I'm really struggling at the moment. I've really struggled with this and I just hadn't thought about it,” you know, something like that. I don't know if you'd get that on a podcast.
I wanted to actually ask you a little bit about you putting some of yourself out there as well. Very obviously, you've now become quite a public voice for women who suffer with Adenomyosis.
Well done, in pronouncing it correctly.
But that took a couple of tries.
“A denim meiosis” as some people say. Either way, as long as we're talking about it again.
So I heard the clip of you announcing your own diagnosis on the 5 Live show. And the thing that I found really powerful about it was you just setting out your stall and saying, I am here now and I am in pain and it shows it's something that you put out there that I guess as a journalist you wouldn't traditionally, you're usually the person who's scrutinizing and and asking people questions.
How did it feel to, you know, show a little bit of vulnerability yourself? And do you think that that was needed to propel the story in the way that it has been propelled?
So I'll give you a bit background. I remember when I started on for 5, I also did something about the coil and how – my experience of the coil and coil insertion, and we actually changed guidelines for women being offered an anaesthetic for it and that came about from an article I read, Caitlin Moran had written about her experience, and I was ranting, as I tend to do in my morning meeting about “I just think it's outrageous” and “I had this” and they just went, “Would you talk about this”? Because it's obviously an issue. And it was so I put myself out there and was very, very nervous because a journalist, as you say, we want to tell the story. We want to explore the story. We never want to be the story.
So when we did this, Adenomyosis show programme and a lot of work that we've done and put into it, I did have a real wobble the day before because it was the weekend before it went out that we'd called the ambulance. My husband called the ambulance because I was in so much pain. And I've mentioned and we were planning to do it for this Monday. And then that weekend it happened and I just kind of mentioned it and I said, I'm not going to talk about that. That's too much. And I wasn't persuaded to do it, but it was said, “look, this is how bad it can get.” And the fact is, I do have a platform, very fortunate. I have a platform in terms of I am a BBC Breakfast presenter. I'm a Radio 5 Live presenter and you know, I'm known as a BBC presenter, journalist and my point was with that the although I gave my experience, it wasn't about, “Oh, woe is me, feel sorry for me, please look, I'm working and I've got this problem”. And no woman I've spoken to who has this condition ever speaks like that because you just put up with it as best you can until you know some kind of treatment is offered. It was more about and this is what shocks me if I am not getting answers and I'm someone who pushes for answers and trust me, when I was speaking to my gynecologist, that man was challenged every step away. Everything he said was scrutinized. And he's been brilliant. He's been absolutely brilliant. Even though there aren't- there are very few answers.
If I'm not getting the treatment I need, what about people who aren't as fortunate to have, you know, those interrogating skills to who has a more forensic attitude to information, who won't take no for an answer, who won't accept that the medical profession knows everything there is, just stubborn and who also has a platform like this. And I just thought if I can say, “Look, this is me who you may think is, you know, great job, runs, great life, you know, cats, plays golf, really happy, whatever. But I'm going through this crap now.” We need to shout about it to make sure that everyone's talking about this rubbish and not putting up with it. So yes, although I had to put myself out there, it genuinely was more about we need to give a voice, we need to kind of we need to empower people to speak up.
And for also not just the women who are struggling with it, but the men who want and their partners who want to advocate for them and know how to advocate for them.
What's the end goal then, in terms of the advocating for Adenomyosis, what what do you think needs to happen? Because I mean, even, you know, just thinking about my own partner and her issues with accessing women's health experts in the NHS, she feels that is chronically underfunded and that she she's been struggling to get the answers that she wants as well.
We've raised awareness. We have we interviewed Dame Lesley Reagan, who is the government's first ever women's health ambassador. Right. So I interviewed her and she has been talking about and she's also a gynecologist and she's been talking about setting up hubs. The problem. And your wife, I'm sure, and you are very well aware the problem with the way women access health advice and health treatment is the fact that it's so bitty in the UK.
So you can go to one, you can go to your GP, maybe the next time you go you see a different GP. They're catching up on your notes in a limited time slot and then you get referred to a scan. But then that scan is done about that and then you have to go somewhere else for a different scan or for the result, see someone else. You're not getting continuous treatment. So these hubs are being set up as a one stop shop almost where there are specialists so you're not being sent to a GP, for example, who may not have any idea about Adenomyosis. So we had GP's get in touch with us so that they didn't know what Adenomyosis was.
Thye knew endometriosis, but they didn't Adenomyosis. So there will be specialist hubs because women's health I think I do think has been neglected and I do think we women have had lesser health treatment, lesser quality health treatment. So the ultimate aim is obviously for us to just be heard automatically treated as soon as practically possible. And we know the restrictions and the restraints on the NHS at the moment for it not to be some kind of lottery and for women to be able to be confident enough to know that when they say there is a problem, they are believed they are not just fobbed off. You don't start life as a 13 year old girl where the local authority is now coming down on you and your parents because you've missed so much school, because your periods are so heavy that you pass out and throw up, which is what I experienced in school.
People, women need to have that comfort. That's the ultimate goal. But I don't think it's just, you know, Adenomyosis, is it's about us screaming, shouting and demanding to be treated ultimately with respect and not just as these alien beings being told, “Oh, well, we don't know how to cure that so have a hysterectomy and not being expected to accept that nonsense.
It's currently graduation season and thousands of students are crossing the stage in the Great Hall like you will have done when you graduated. I wanted to ask you, how did you feel when you were graduating? What was it like back in 1997 when you graduated?
I was really excited about my hat and my gown and I was really excited about throwing my hat in the air like I used to see in the films. Does that sound really pathetic? I think, because by the time we got our grades, we'd had our summer and we'd kind of had our fun, you know, I kind of knew I could have done better, hadn't done better, probably had too good a social life at some points, you know, I, I remember feeling really pleased for my parents because I was the first child on my dad's side to graduate from university and I know what my parents went through and how scared they were, for one, sending me to university and being able to support me as much as they could financially. And uh, I've just been really pleased for them I think. And also, I think I just, I think it wasn't so much to the degree, it's just the fact that I'd done three years. I was actually wnating to do a post-grad back in London in newspaper journalism. But I think it was just the fact that – uni is the best time of your life, honestly, the best time, and you don't quite realize it until you really start working properly. I mean, had two jobs at uni – so it was, you know, is the best time. And I think it is just I think I was almost tinged with a bit of sadness that it was over because you have that summer just before graduation where you just party, don't you, if you're lucky enough. Oh, I was still working, but you just party and you stay up a bit longer at uni if you can, if at least allows you to, you know, just do the things where you can go out, have fun, still have all those great student nights that are still going on to the next year.
Yeah. Throwing the hat in the air, making sure iI didn't fall over and yeah, going out afterwards. It sounds really shallow, but I actually don't, I don't, I don't mind being that shallow at that age because there's plenty of time to not be and to think more seriously about stuff.
And getting on to the more seriously. Do you have a message for graduates who are graduating now, maybe some pearls of wisdom from from your time working as a journalist and having started that journey and continuing that journey into into the big bad world post-University.
Trust your gut; it will serve you well. It's all sound, really try, but just try to be the best you can. Don't do anything halfheartedly. It's just not worth it if you don't want to do it, don't do it. Don't do it half heartedly unless it's something really rubbish like having to clean the toilets or something. Do it, do it properly.
It's don't always do that. But you've got to. It's a necessary part of life. But when you're at work, speak up, find. And if you're not heard, this is what you will learn when you first start working right; you will go into a meeting room and there will be loads of people who talk utter nonsense and love the sounds of their own voices. And there will be others in the room who buy into their nonsense because they're just speaking to fill the void. And you will be sitting there going, Is it me? Or are they talking utter nonsense? Nine times out of ten they will be talking utter nonsense. But what you will be angry about is the fact that you didn't speak up with the contradictory point of view that you know is right and, you know that the meeting or whatever comes round to that eventually but you didn't speak up. Sometimes you will be wrong, that is okay. But be part of the conversation with something valuable to add. Don’t flimflam in the air for the sake of it. No one likes that. But think about being part of it, be present, be in there, partake in life as it should. So just be part of it. I don't know if that's a part of wisdom, but that's what I wish I'd been told and believed when I was younger.
Thanks very much for listening to this episode of Leeds Voices. It was written and produced by me, Alex Regan. Leeds Voices is brought to you by the University of Leeds Advancement Team. You can follow us on social media at Leeds Alumni or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.