She is one of the most recognisable women in Britain, the face of seven years of political turmoil as the BBC’s political editor in her bright coats outside Parliament. Last week her eponymous political show, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, returned, with the Chancellor in the hot seat. It’s her job to break stories, and set the agenda for the coming week, with her 25-minute long-form interrogations of the most powerful people in the land.
But Kuenssberg insists she never wanted to be famous. Her ambitions lay firmly behind the camera, not in front of it.
“My dream job was being editor of Panorama. I never wanted to be on air. You’ll never catch me wearing sparkly pants on Strictly Come Dancing, much as I love watching it. To be honest, this bit of it [she points to my recording device] I find kind of ick. Yeah, I hate it.”
By “this bit” she means being interviewed herself, and being probed the way she professionally probes others. Ask her about politics (“we’re on the runway to the next election”) or Brexit – she’s just spent the summer interviewing key players for a landmark documentary called Laura Kuenssberg: State of Chaos airing on Monday September 11 – and she will talk, fluently, forever. Push her on her family, husband or even where she lives (England or her native Scotland) and it’s radio silence. In fact, her press officer sternly warns me off even asking such questions as we walk through BBC Broadcasting House to the frosted office where this interview takes place.
Kuenssberg has had a tricky week. On Sunday, a paper claimed her ratings are down to 1.2 million – two-thirds of Andrew Marr’s, the former incumbent. “That’s just not true,” she says firmly. “I’m happy to set the record straight. The numbers are in rude health, we’re in great shape – in fact if anything we are up in terms of audience. The average viewing figures for Andrew Marr were 1.45 million in 2019, 1.36 million in 2018 and 1.5 million in 2017. The average since I took over is 1.5 million, which in a time of fracturing audience figures is bucking the trend. And it’s a whole ecosystem: I write a column that gets a million views, I’m doing a new weekend Newscast podcast, the reach including social media is sometimes over three million. We’re reaching a broader, more female demographic. I’m happy with where we are at but I am not going to relax.”
In person, Kuenssberg is sinewy, smiley and surprisingly Scottish. She’s sporting a sparkly red sweater tucked into a pencil skirt and immediately tells me how much she loves my gold Air Force trainers. “I’m a magpie for anything shiny,” she says, all sisterly banter. She’s a great advert for women coming into their prime in midlife, happy to be 47: “I love being a Queenager,” she says.
I circle back to the fierce warning from her PR. Isn’t it a bit hypocritical to put so much off limits when it comes to her own life when her job is to ask prominent people tricky questions? She laughs, this time nervously. “I’m not seeking election. I’m here to do my job, to hold politicians to account, to poke holes in their arguments and I think the work doesn’t require it… I don’t seek the spotlight beyond the actual job.”
I point out that Sir Trevor Phillips, 69, her rival on Sky on a Sunday morning, recently talked publicly about his immigrant parents and the death of his adult daughter from anorexia; while her predecessor, Andrew Marr, was very open about his stroke – surely the viewers have a right to know a bit more about her?
“Other people in your life don’t choose your work so why should they be the subject of anyone else’s attention?” she says firmly. “I made that rule years ago and I’m not going to break it now, however charmingly people ask…”
I have one last go. As one of the most high profile women in Britain, isn’t she a role model? Wouldn’t it be inspiring to other females to know about how she juggles her personal and family life?
“I think there are other ways that you can do that,” she counters. “I mentor young journalists. I have little electronic pen pals in sixth forms around the country. For me, that’s more meaningful than talking about how often I miss Pilates every week because of the job – which is not at all because I am too busy sitting on the sofa drinking wine!”
What has she sacrificed to do the job? “Sleep,” she says. But disputes the word “sacrifice”, countering: “It’s an extraordinary privilege to do the job.” I say she looks a lot less tired than she used to during Covid. Again a trademark self-deprecating response: “That’s because I have someone professional to do my make-up, it’s not just me in the back of a taxi or on the roof going up to Westminster any more!”
One of three children, Kuenssberg comes from a family of high achievers. Her father Nick is a businessman, investor and academic, while her mum Sally was awarded a CBE for her work in children’s services. Her paternal grandfather co-founded the Royal College of General Practitioners, while her maternal grandfather Lord Robertson was a judge in the Scottish High Court. Born in Italy in 1976, Kuenssberg went to Laurel Bank, a private school in Glasgow, before studying history at Edinburgh University where she was awarded a First, and then doing a postgraduate journalism course at Georgetown University in Washington. During her time there, she worked on an NBC News political programme.
Upon her return to the UK, she worked for local radio in Glasgow before joining BBC North East in March 2000.
She was named Most Promising Newcomer by the Royal Television Society in 2001 and in 2009 became chief political correspondent for the BBC. She is known in Fleet Street as a newshound, a great story breaker; her motto is “always make another call”. Is she a workaholic? Another pause.
“Probably… It’s no secret that the way you get on in this industry is by working damn hard. One of the stories in the documentary is how, on the night before the prorogation of Parliament, I was on holiday but I got a call from an MP saying ‘Jacob Rees-Mogg is going to Balmoral tomorrow. It is an outrage.’ I was on holiday. But the news comes first. That’s the job as BBC political editor. You can’t, in that role, say: ‘Sorry, I’m having my nails done.’ Or I’m hanging out with my family. In big high-pressure jobs, that’s the deal.”
She says that she only wanted to do the political editor job with its daily early starts, speaking on the Today programme, and late finishes, after the News at Ten, for five years. “But I got on the rollercoaster – Corbyn became leader, then there was the referendum, and three more prime ministers and Covid. I couldn’t leave in the middle of a national emergency… It was like winning the golden ticket – not just the Oscars, but the Wimbledon final, the World Cup, everything rolled into one. I just love live broadcasting. It was high drama every night. I remember when I first went into politics we used to have endless conversations about how to make it more interesting!” She laughs again.
Typically, while most of us have been having a summer break, Kuenssberg has been hard at work. “I went to Corfu for a week and the skies were red with the fires; we were almost evacuated!” The rest of the time she’s been working on her Brexit documentary. “What journalists do every day is to write the first draft of history. This series is more like the second draft but with some staggeringly good footnotes.”
She says she was surprised while making the programme about how genuinely traumatised many of the main actors in Brexit and the pandemic still are. “Many of the interviewees said that talking about it now was therapy for them. Going back to those moments of stress and aggression brought many of them to tears; many of them lost friendships – there is a sense of ‘what was that all about?’
“In the documentary I am looking back, starting with the day after the referendum in 2016 to the fall of Liz Truss – all these different casts of characters and careers that fly and spark, explode and then disappear, at an astonishing rate of knots over the last few years.”
She has always had the knack of a great turn of phrase. It has taken her from local news in Scotland to become the most powerful political interviewer in Britain, the first woman to step into the footsteps of broadcasting legend Sir David Frost – not to mention a salary of around £300,000.
“The story of the last few years has been about how all the links in the chain became fractured. The Tory party which likes to think it was born to rule smashing itself up. Parliament, which likes to see itself as the most sophisticated legislature in the world, being challenged. The Civil Service. Then there was the pandemic and partygate and a PM where many people can’t believe what he says. And particularly after the downfall of Liz Truss it felt pretty wobbly. I remember thinking: I didn’t think we were THIS kind of country. In the documentary, someone says: ‘What would a revolution look like in a peaceful country?’ I thought: this is it.”
She asked all her interviewees to sum up the past seven years in one word. “Chaos” was popular, and “tumult”. Others said: “We lost our minds.” William Hague put it best. He said: “It was the end of normal.”
What about now? “Well we now have two leaders who don’t have it in them to pick controversy.” Is that her diplomatic way of saying Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are both desperately trying to be as boring and steady-as-she-goes as possible? “Well, there’s an argument there about whether anyone who wants to be a top-flight politician could possibly be defined as a normal person…”
She doesn’t hold politicians in great esteem, admitting she doesn’t socialise with them off duty: “They are not my world, they are not my friends.” I say Marr regularly spent weekends at government ministers’ country houses; some were his best pals. Kuenssberg insists she is a different kind of political reporter. She doesn’t want to stand “outside the big black door pontificating about what might be going on inside, I want to open the door so the viewers can see it for themselves”.
But back to Sunak and Starmer – what does she make of them? “Someone in a rival party said they were Dull and Duller. They [Dull and Duller] definitely have a different hard working, responsible tone. The crowds of screaming people are gone from Westminster now.”
Have the abuse and the death threats she received online also calmed down? At one point it was so bad Kuenssberg attended the Labour party conference with her own private security detail – an understandable reason to keep her family life secret.
“My solution was just not to look at it. It’s an ugly side to public life, particularly if you are a woman. It is awful when the online threats become threats in the real world. It’s horrific that it became normal for me to chat to MPs about death threats, their security and the bars they’d put on their windows. That shouldn’t be an assumed cost. And then we went straight into the pandemic. That time in Westminster was so dark and scary.”
Was she scared? “I sound like a Girl Guide but I felt a massive heavy sense of duty covering the pandemic: It was genuinely working for the national broadcaster during a national emergency. Those 5pm press conferences had 30 million views. The public were hanging on our every word. For the documentary we have gone back to Downing Street insiders, Cabinet ministers, civil servants who haven’t spoken before about how difficult and toxic it became in government, with an administration who wanted to make big changes in Whitehall, and doing all of that in the middle of a huge crisis.
“Defenders of that regime would point to the vaccination programme as a brilliant outcome… or not, as the case may be. But Covid affected us all. And particularly for those who lost relatives, when they were on their own not to have those rituals, that fury was very real. A lot of political damage had been done to Boris by then… and Boris Johnson’s very complicated relationship with the truth played a very significant part in his downfall.”
Aaah. Truth. We talk about the new media landscape, the advent of Fox News style opinionated news in the UK, GB News with its serving Conservative MPs hosting shows (she confides she’s been told that some are finding the presenting rather harder than they thought). Does she think that more polemical kind of news is a threat to the BBC?
“No I don’t. I think the news landscape is noisier. But the important thing about the BBC is, it is where people know that what they are getting is the best possible attempt in the world at fact checking, verification, explanation. Information you can trust. That makes us more vital than ever before.” I ask her who is the hardest politician to interview. “Theresa May because she didn’t like it! It’s hard to interview someone who would rather be chewing her own foot!” Tell me about it!
I wonder what she would have done if she hadn’t been a journalist. “I was a waitress in Paris when I was 19. I loved working in bars and restaurants. I love making everyone have a nice time. It’s like that on Sunday morning. The guests arrive a bit grim or nervous, but I want them to feel it’s going to be great, like a really weird Sunday lunch party. You’ve got say the Chancellor, a TV chef, a young activist, Kate Winslet, the Archbishop of Canterbury and everyone’s gonna party!” That is not quite how it appears from my sofa, but it’s true that the post Sunday show breakfast is an institution.
She’s changed the format of the programme so that the main interview is at the beginning and can be analysed by the other guests afterwards. Another string to her bow is a new weekend Newscast podcast for BBC Sounds with Paddy O’Connell “which will bring a bit of that after-show chat and analysis, the green room, the breakfast” to the public. It’s all about giving us a glimpse behind the scenes, apparently. Letting us all see what makes our leaders tick.
In person Kuenssberg is intelligent and gossipy, warm and entertaining; if she’s going to boost those ratings, we need to feel and see more of that on a Sunday.
Laura Kuenssberg: State of Chaos starts on Monday September 11 at 9pm on BBC Two. Listen to Newscast on BBC Sounds.
Eleanor Mills is the founder of noon.org.uk – a platform for women in midlife