A voice for the voiceless – with a Barra accent
Last week, he achieved recognition at the peak of his profession when he was named Specialist Journalist of the Year at the Royal Television Society Journalism Awards. “The winner”, said the commendation, “is a journalist who has devoted several years to pursuing and exposing appalling failures which wrecked many lives. Despite the emotional nature of his stories, the jury agreed this reporter never loses his focus and clarity”.
The stories which earned him the award were about the failures of maternity services in three NHS Trust areas in England – Shrewsbury and Telford, East Kent and Nottingham. They represented seven years of work, listening to the harrowing stories of people who otherwise would not have had a voice. “I regard it as the honour of my life to have done that story”, he says.
Failings in hospitals which cause permanent damage or death to new-born babies have “lifelong impacts on families” and Michael is deeply aware that, whatever their grief, these people want the truth to be heard. Time and again, he has ensured that their quest is not in vain.
“If there is one thing health authorities should learn”, he says, “it is to be open and transparent. Virtually everyone I have ever spoken to in these investigations accepts that mistakes can happen but when these are then covered up, and people are disbelieved or belittled, that is where the real harm is done”.
Over the past decade, much of Michael’s work for the BBC has been about drawing attention to official failings, deprivation and injustice. “I like to focus on areas and people who don’t often get the opportunity to be heard. I have tried to amplify voices you maybe wouldn’t hear elsewhere.
“There is a lot of criticism of the BBC, but if you get the story and the pitch right, you have the opportunity of a mass audience through which these voices can be heard. What happens next is beyond my control but once the story is out there, nobody can claim not to know that there is a problem”.
Michael is now resigned to being a BBC “lifer” after 30 years with the Corporation in diverse roles. He also traces his determination to be a journalist back to watching BBC television news when he was growing up in Castlebay, the eldest of four children.
“It was Michael Buerk and his reports from Ethiopia. As a result of what he was reporting, there was a fun run to Craigston and back to raise money for Ethiopia. When I reflected on it, I thought – here we are, on the edge of the Hebrides, raising money for Ethiopia simply because that guy has gone there and told the world about it. And I wanted to do that”.
Michael went to Castlebay School and then to the Nicolson Institute for his final two years. There were no journalistic opportunities on Barra but in Stornoway, he quickly found one – asking the Gazette’s editor, Kenny Maciver, if he could contribute occasional columns. The offer was accepted and while he doesn’t recall what he wrote, he does remember: “Just the fact I had my name attached to it was fantastic”. The bug had well and truly bitten.
He went on to Glasgow University and graduated in politics but did not get involved in student journalism. “There was a university newspaper and I went to a couple of meetings but I didn’t really fancy it. I suppose I was lacking in confidence”. However, Michael had another route open to him.
Just as he was about to leave university, a trainee reporter’s job at Radio nan Gaidheal in Inverness was advertised. “There wasn’t time for a lot of training but the support I got from Maggie Cunningham, who was running the station at that time, as well as the editors and presenters was fantastic.
“Not long after I arrived, they needed a reporter in Stornoway and I volunteered. I was completely new to the whole thing but there I was reporting council meetings and all the rest of it, trying to get Gaelic speakers to go on air. There was a lot going on and I was always very competitive to get the story first”.
One piece of advice he received at Radio nan Gaidheal and he is now passing on to BBC trainees was: “If you can’t tell a story in 20 seconds, it’s either not a story or else you’re not telling it right”. That requirement for precision combined with “a gut instinct for what’s a story” have always made him a good reporter and fine broadcaster.
After a year with Radio nan Gaidheal, Michael moved on to Eòrpa based in Glasgow. “Eòrpa was brilliant. It allowed me to experience all sorts of places and cultures. The story that made a huge difference for me was about the tenth anniversary of Chernobyl” – the scene of a major nuclear accident in Ukraine in 1986.
Michael recalls: “The more senior reporters weren’t keen on going. There were still some warnings about risks from the aftermath of the disaster, the closer you went to the reactor. I had been the researcher for the programme and for me it was a calculated gamble which turned out well. Les Wilson was an amazing director for the programme”.
It was, he thinks, the first Gaelic programme to win a Scottish BAFTA and it did Michael’s career trajectory no harm either. He had always wanted to work in London and after four life-enhancing years he left Eòrpa to work for the BBC World Service and from there his career continued to advance.
He says that his former colleague at BBC Radio nan Gaidheal, Norrie Maclennan, insists that Michael once told him in a pub that he would get himself to Washington by the time he was 30 and that schedule was pretty much adhered to. Michael joined the BBC’s Washington news team in 2002.
“Washington’s a small city”, he says, “but it’s a capital city. It was a great place to be and there was a lot going on at that time. I was very much the junior reporter and that meant doing the breakfast shows and morning outputs but it increased my profile and, particularly around the time of the Iraq War, it was often the lead story of the day”.
Michael and his wife, Jennifer, were able to travel all over the United States and his work also took him into Latin America. He recalls being flown in an open-doored Colombian air force helicopter over territory occupied by drug barons to do a story for radio. “It was one of these moments when I remember asking myself – how did I get from Barra to here?”.
Michael travelled worldwide as a BBC correspondent and whenever asked, he would report on his experiences for Radio nan Gaidheal, greatly broadening its international reporting capacity. “I owe them such a large debt”, he says. “If I can do something for them, I always will” – and he is still always on the lookout for Gaelic speakers to put on air.
“I’ve only been in Afghanistan twice”, he says, “but both times I ended up having conversations in Gaelic. The first time, an adviser to the UK government on how to develop Helmand province was the son of a woman from Uist so we spent a couple of hours discussing the future of Afghanistan in Gaidhlig. On my second visit, I bumped into a couple of soldiers, again from Uist, and we chatted about their deployment a little but mainly about the Uist and Barra football league”.
With a young family, Michael reverted to being London-based more than a decade ago. He worked for Radio 4 on the Today and PM programmes and gradually developed a specialism in the kind of journalism that painstakingly pursued scandals, particularly in health and social care where ordinary people faced barriers in getting their stories out.
His initial focus was on mental health and learning disabilities. In 2016, he was recognised by MIND, the mental health charity, for his work on exposing the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, one of the country’s largest mental health trusts which had repeatedly failed to investigate causes of death. For those with learning disabilities, the figure was just one per cent.
For the MIND award, the judges’ citation said: “BBC News at its absolute best. Michael has a story and he keeps going back to it. His coverage of Southern Health is really powerful and important”.
“Going back to it” has become the trademark of Michael Buchanan’s work. He does not dip into stories of significance and then move on. Rather, he pursues them until the facts come out, the voices are heard and it is in the hands of others to act.
Similarly, he would not dream of turning up in a place he did not know anything about, doing a piece to camera which probably only reinforces stereotypes and then clearing off. Maybe he had seen too much of that kind of thing in the Western Isles!
Instead, when he embarks on one of his longer term projects – like trying to understand the causes of low life expectancy in Hartlepool - he studies the data, goes to the town repeatedly, spends time getting to know the people and their view of the issues they face, before presenting reports which the community will recognise about itself. Then he goes back, again and again.
Scotland too could use more of this kind of journalism. Michael says that his BBC remit is UK-wide but he has done less than he would like in Scotland partly because “a lot of the areas I look at are devolved – but I do think there are stories I could and absolutely should be doing in Scotland”.
Recently, however, he did manage to use his BBC pull to put on air a Scottish story very close to his home and heart – about the ferry scandal and how it was hitting the viability of island life. As far as the UK-wide audience is concerned, it was another form of giving a voice to the voiceless.
He maintains close links with Barra where one of his sisters still lives. Michael and his brother Raymond have renovated their grandmother’s old home in Ardveenish and two weeks each year are mandatory, at Easter and in summer. For the rest of the year, Tottenham in north London is home for Michael, Jennifer, who is from Cardiff and an NHS podiatrist, and their three children, Cerys, Hugh and Flora. “At Ardveenish”, he says, “we refuse to instal broadband”.
For Michael, Barra is where it all began and you can’t help feeling that his persistent mission to give a voice to the voiceless is rooted deep in that background.