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Alison Mitchell on her childhood, women in media and the death of Bob Woolmer

Most young children invite their friends over to play with their toys. Alison invited mates around to reenact pretend radio shows. It seems from a young age, Alison was destined to succeed as a sports journalist. She’s a pioneer for women in the industry, one of the first females to commentate in cricket and a reporter who’s had to adapt to various different stories; some exciting, some emotional. This is a brief insight into the career and life of Alison Mitchell.

Alison grew up playing a plethora of different sports, from tennis to netball and even hockey. Despite her obvious love for sport, a career in journalism wasn’t obvious to her immediately. She opted out of taking A-Level P.E. in order to do English, German and Geography instead. When she first considered what career she could have in the future, journalism hadn’t even crossed her mind.

“Up until the age of 15 I was looking at veterinary options. I loved animals and was looking for work experience at the local vet, but I was never strong enough at Biology or Chemistry. When I look back, I remember I used to, as a child, make mock radio programmes, without any thought that this might be what I want to do when I grow up. Friends would come round, we’d plug microphones into things, and we would do mock shows. Then suddenly, doing a placement at 16 at a radio show, I absolutely loved it”.

Her main focus has always been in cricket, but where did this initial understanding and passion for the game come from?

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“Cricket was embedded in me. It was the sport of our family. We’d play in the garden, my dad would teach me the rules and how to score, and our trips to Australia to see my mum’s side of the family were a significant part of my childhood”.

Alison focussed on improving her knowledge of cricket, but it never stopped her reporting on other sports, something she’s very grateful she’s had the opportunity to do.

“I’ve always appreciated that I do cover other sports. I can leave cricket, even if it’s just for two weeks I can go to Wimbledon and take a small break from it, and when I come back I feel refreshed and ready to get back into it.

Covering various stories and going to amazing places through her career did come at a price. As exciting as travelling can be, it doesn’t come without its stress, especially as the natural length of cricket tours result in being away for lengthy periods of time.

“I’ve been largely single through my career. There have been times when I’ve been in relationships and I’ve gone abroad, and you don’t know whether that’s one of the main reasons why things don’t work out, and two months isn’t easy for keeping things going. Even logistically, preparing to leave for two months isn’t easy. I need to leave my flat, trying to think how things work when I’m away, even just stupid little things like realising my MOT is going to expire and thinking about getting that sorted. So there’s a lot of logistics to get your head around before doing long trips”.

This couldn’t be done if it weren’t for the relationships that Alison builds with those she works with. Spending so much time around each other meant they were the closest people to her. Alison, like many others in the industry, has had difficult moments in which she’s needed to turn to others in her team.

“We’ve all been away with colleagues when things have gone wrong back at home. I remember being at The Open golf when I got news that my cousin took his own life. But my colleagues were brilliant. They were like family and brothers”.

Alison has had to face emotional moments in sports news and had to completely switch her tone and stance in reporting to adapt to the situation at hand. The death of Bob Woolmer, ex-cricketer and coach and a man Alison had met many times herself, was a huge moment in her career as she had to report relentlessly on a very emotional and controversial story for the very first time. The incident which took place in Kingston, Jamaica was at one point considered a murder case, but later reported as a death by natural causes.

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“You are so in the moment of what’s needed, you don’t actually have the time to take in what’s just happened. With that story in particular, I knew Bob quite well. I met his sons and his wife, and then it happened and I didn’t even take-in the emotional side of it. I was in work mode. You know it’s terrible, and it’s all crazy. Your phone does not stop ringing, and I was on the air almost continuously throughout the reporting.

“The day he died, I was actually reporting on Ireland who had beat Pakistan, and that was the story. So I had gone across the north of the island to the big after-party, went to bed about 5am, and I woke up the next morning ready to do this all-singing all-dancing report about the Ireland post-match party and then this news came through. I had to ring it into the studios, and then I had to very quickly get back to Kingston, Jamaica, which I did”.

Alison Mitchell had been in the Caribbean reporting on the World Cup.

“I reported that story single handedly, when the police announced his death was suspicious, and then murder. It was a whirlwind really. After I was allowed to go home, it was at that point that I allowed myself to realise what had happened and I was sobbing in my hotel room. The release of a week of non-stop reporting on the story, not sleeping much – I just had a good old cry at that point. It was very intense”.

Alison’s work was recognised by the BBC and all who had tuned in, relying on her to report an accurate story to those demanding answers.

“It was very significant in my career – I walked back into the television centre when I did fly home and went into the office, and I got applauded when I went into the newsroom and I’d never had that before.

“I guess I’d obviously done a good job and covered this story which was so intense and difficult, and I think in terms of my gravitas within the BBC it showed I could handle the big stuff, because I was only 27 at the time and trying to prove myself. I showed I could handle the hard news”. 

In 2014, the death of Phillip Hughes, an Australian cricketer, was another emotional moment in which Alison had to report on the story as professionally as possible. Phillip Hughes was hit in the neck by the ball as he was batting for South Australia against New South Wales, with his score at 63 not-out. 

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“The other difficult story I had to do was Philip Hughes’ death, who was only 26 when he died. That was the only time where my voice did break on radio reporting that because I had to watch his funeral. I was in Melbourne where a big screen was showing it and I had to Vox Pop people afterwards. I was really quite emotional. 

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘pull yourself together, you’ve got some people to interview and you’ve got to go on air’. It’s important to do it with a bit of genuineness and make an effort to connect with people. What caught me unaware was when I then did go on live, they didn’t tell me they were going to play part of Michael Clarke’s speech before coming to me, and it totally got me. So they played these words and I only just managed to hold it together”.

Alison’s achievements in sport journalism are nothing short of inspirational. While she’s proud of everything she’s achieved, she believes there needs to be a conscious effort to help females in media by offering opportunities.

“It is still male dominated, whilst there are way more women in broadcast roles. It has grown and people are more conscious of it. I think really, women just need to be asked, and shown that there is an opportunity and that it’s something they can do.

“When it came to cricket, I physically went to every female journalist I knew and said, have you ever thought about commentary? For some people it had never crossed their mind. Now on the back of that some are doing county commentary, but they just needed a bit of a nudge.

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“Sometimes people just need to be encouraged and showed there’s a door they can go through. I’m a big believer in giving opportunities and those who are good will rise to the top. People can’t be there just to tick a box, they have to be good enough. But, they’ve got to be given this opportunity to show they’re good enough”.

Alison has adapted herself to many completely different sports, but also to completely different roles within journalism. She’s an inspiration not just for women, but for anyone striving for a career full of adventure and unpredictability in a highly competitive industry.

She sums it up perfectly herself, saying: “Sport takes you to places, and give you experiences in different cultures that you would never get otherwise. Some of the people we’ve met and the access it gives you really opens your mind and it’s massively enriching”. 

Alison Mitchell has travelled the world, adapting herself to different sports, environments, but most importantly different stories – some action-packed and exciting, some incredibly emotional and moving. But what never changes is the professionalism Alison shows in approaching every story. It was clear that she still, after everything she’s achieved, has a love for what she does and hunger to continue to build on her glittering career.

James Bayliss
James Bayliss, 23, is half Italian, half English and raised in London. He grew up in the capital doing several languages at school including French and Spanish before taking a degree in Italian and Business at the University of Kent. His studies at university started to shape his path in journalism as well, as his final year dissertation explored the relationship between football and Fascism. James first discovered his passion for journalism after a week of work experience at the Trinity Mirror and has gone back for work experience twice more since, having some articles published online. The work inspired him to create his own blog which he has been running for three years. He’s conducted interviews with some of the best journalists around in Alison Mitchell and Matt Dickinson, and has worked with Walking Football England captain Spencer Pratten on promoting the sport ahead of the upcoming inaugural Euro’s and World Cup. All this time dedicated to journalism has led him to doing a masters and NCTJ diploma at St Mary’s University Twickenham where he continues to learn and be mentored by some of the best in the industry.
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