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Riding into Kabul after the fall of the Taliban and facing Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath in the nets: Phil Mackie on his 26 years at the BBC

Phil Mackie has worked for the BBC since 1993, and since 1998 has been a network TV, radio and online reporter for BBC news, covering stories such as Fred & Rose West and the Cromwell Street murders, being in Kabul when the Taliban fell, and the Ben Stokes affray case.

He has managed to balance his BBC career with a 40 year stint playing for Worcester’s Old Vigornians CC, as a right-arm seamer, middle order batsman, and also often as captain.

SG: How did you first get into journalism?

PM: I was travelling, basically through University I paid my way by working in restaurants, and ended up managing a few restaurants in London. It was great fun, but I saw no future in it and I’d also got a degree in history, and I felt intellectually unchallenged. So I went travelling for a year, and during that time I thought what would I like to do.

When I came back I went and worked at BBC Hereford & Worcester for free for a month, and in those days you could just turn up and do that, and then they gave me some paid work which kept me going. I was working in a pub at the same time. Then as a result of that I got on the BBC local radio training scheme, which got me into local radio initially, and then through to where I am now. I quickly gave up on the sports journalism, although I have done sports news, because the same year that I was graduating from my training scheme they gave Aggers the cricket correspondent job, and Gary Lineker the football job, and it became clear that you needed to have been a professional sportsman and have reached the top of that profession.

SG: What have been the biggest changes in the media since you started?

PM: Technology is the biggest one, and obviously the diversifying from a handful of channels and radio networks to many more, and the digital revolution with online platforms coming in too, and the fact that the money has sort of dried up. There’s been a tightening of budgets across the media, and challenges from online platforms as well, and technology has changed the way we consume everything.

SG: What’s been the most interesting story you’ve covered?

PM: I don’t think there’s anything I could really single out, there have been so many different stories over such a long career. Criminal trials like Fred & Rose West when I was at Radio Gloucestershire, Gary Glitter when I was in Bristol, and I did the Ben Stokes case last year. I do a lot of court work, and a lot of terrorist cases as well, some big plots from ten to five years ago, a lot of them emanated from the West Midlands.

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The murders committed by the Wests at their house in Cromwell Street in Gloucester was one of the big stories Phil Mackie covered early on in his BBC career

Probably the most memorable for me was being in Kabul just after the Taliban fell in 2001. I was sent over there for 5 Live, and it was quite an effort to get into Afghanistan in those days, it wasn’t straightforward.

It was a crazy journey where I also had to carry $5000 in cash in for the BBC team to sustain them, so I had it secreted about my person as we landed at Bagram, and had to get through a Northern Alliance checkpoint to get into Kabul. The two and a half weeks there were incredibly memorable. That’s away from my day job really but there’s plenty of good stories I’ve covered in the Midlands and the West of England and down in London as well.

SG: Do you think people’s attitude towards the BBC has changed in recent years? Are people more cynical and perhaps less trustworthy of the BBC than they were?

PM: The BBC always comes up as very trustworthy compared to other news organisations, but I think that you’d probably find some statistics somewhere that show that we’re regarded with less esteem than we were, largely because of the anti-mainstream media and these fake news sites that pop up.

SG: Do you still get the same adrenaline rush from doing live reporting as you did when you started?

PM: I was a lot more nervous when I started, and I’m a little more relaxed now. It can be stressful obviously. When I first became a network reporter on 5 Live I was only working for them so that was a maximum of two or three live reports in a day. Now I work for everybody, I can hit 20 odd live reports in a day for different outlets and different audiences in different styles, so you have to script a lot of that, and that is really stressful.

SG: You spent some time in the USA recently, what do you think the USA’s media could learn from the UK’s, and vice-versa?

PM: Certainly vice-versa they could learn a lot! Their TV news reports were fairly facile, they’re slightly too obsessed with Donald Trump, so there’s not much else that gets on. So the network news there’s essentially a half hour programme of which 12 minutes is ads, and there’s very little news and 90% of it is about Trump and politics and they don’t really get out of the Washington bubble. They’re far worse I think than Britain is with the Westminster bubble, I think we do get out and about. They could learn a lot from the UK.

SG: Also their coverage of sport, did you watch much sport over there in person or on TV?

PM: Yeah we went to a couple of baseball games in April, we went to see the Tigers play in Detroit and we loved it, really loved it. But watching baseball on TV is really boring, you get a much better sense of fun at the match. Obviously I’m not an expert on baseball, but you could work out what was going on whereas if you follow the commentators on MLB on the TV there it’s hard to fathom out what they’re talking about a lot of the time, there’s so much lost in the jargon of the game.

SG: Moving on to your cricket career, how much of a challenge is it still to fit in playing cricket around work?

PM: Or work around cricket! I don’t play as many games as I used to, up until three or four years ago I would have played 25-30 games a year, maybe 30 if there wasn’t much rain and it was a dry Summer. Now I would play 20 max, probably fewer than 20 in a wet season. That’s because my body can’t do it anymore really.

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Netting with the 2003 World Cup winning Australians in South Africa was a particular highlight of Phil’s cricketing career

SG: Have there been any particular mad rushes back from an assignment to a match or vice-versa?

PM: The first game I played this season, it was our last day in America the day before so I flew back overnight, we landed at Heathrow at 6 in the morning, and at 10 in  the morning I was preparing the ground at Hawford (near Worcester), that was for the 1sts, and I ended up playing that day for the 2nds at Kidderminster. I hadn’t slept but we were one short and I was here so I thought I might as well play.

I was absolutely knackered and it was that really cold day, I had ‘Skins’ on under my shirt, three jumpers on and I felt like putting my hoody on top of that, and I hadn’t slept for two days. And it was gloomy and grey but we had a really good game actually, it went to the last over.

SG: What’s been the highlight of your cricket career?

PM: A couple I’d pick out, there was a game which was my 500th game, where our season was going horribly wrong, the 1sts and the 2nds were doing terribly, it looked like we would get relegated from the old Worcestershire League Division 3, and I went and played at Alvechurch & Hopwood (near Birmingham). I got a couple of wickets, they got 220 odd, we were about 100-7 when I came in, but with a bit of support from the tail end I got about 60* and we won the match in the last over. It was a great, great moment. I ended up playing for the 1sts for the rest of that season and scored a lot of runs, bowled well, took some catches, and we stayed up and the next season we were promoted to Division 2 where we stayed for a couple of years.

Also 2003 at the Cricket World Cup I was sent to cover it from the fans’ perspective. The day before England played Australia at Port Elizabeth, England were in very grumpy mood under Nasser, and no press were allowed. The Aussies didn’t even have a warm-up, they just invited the press to have a net session.

In the fast net were Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie, Andy Bichel, and Andrew Symonds who was bowling bumpers at you, and the slow net was Brad Hogg and Nathan Hauritz. It was great fun, I got a bruised hand off Brett Lee, I hit Glenn McGrath back past him out of the net, and I’ve got a picture of me with the fast bowlers as a result of that. It was Australia when they were the best team in the world by a long way.

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Phil covered the Ben Stokes affray case in 2018 for the BBC

SG: You mentioned the Ben Stokes case, did that present any particular challenges covering it?

PM: It did because it was really, really busy, it was a really complex case, and it’s one of those ones where you’ve just got to constantly keep refreshing your copy. Some trials you get the opening and then you turn up at the end to see what the verdict is. This trial all of the evidence was critical and you wanted to hear what was happening, so we were there for four days and it was busy every day. Also you had not just news correspondents like me but all the cricket writers were there too. It was a different and a very complicated and interesting case.

SG: What would be your best piece of advice for any aspiring journalist?

PM: Be enthusiastic, be nice to people, don’t say no to anything at the beginning, always say yes, and be willing to learn, and willing to try things out. I think that’s probably got me through, my willingness to adapt has been one of the things that has kept me going.

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