Marverine Cole is a multi-award-winning radio and TV presenter and columnist. She has worked for most major news channels including Sky News and is currently a newsreader for Good Morning Britain. Having started her media career in her early 30s, she talks to us about how her journey began, how her Jamaican and Brummie heritage has shaped her career, and how she became Britain’s only black female beer sommelier.
When did you first realise you wanted to become a journalist?
I think I must have been about 16 years old. I loved news. My mother’s love of it seeped its way across all the family. She would get the Birmingham Evening Mail – the local newspaper – delivered through the door every night. She’d read it cover to cover. And then I would grab it and read it cover to cover, as I wanted to know what was going on. And while having our tea, we would watch the evening news. As a family, my mum, my two brothers and I would always be discussing news stories and what was happening in the world.
So for me, it was very natural – journalism, the news and current affairs was kind of in the family – although at the time there was no member of my family in the media or journalism.
When I was at school I thought should I be a lawyer, but quickly realised that I while I was clever, I wasn’t quite clever enough to take a law degree! In the end I didn’t study journalism at 18. I couldn’t find a course that I wanted – I knew very quickly that I wanted to be a broadcaster because I was inspired by seeing Sir Trevor McDonald and Moira Stewart on my screen and thinking, they’re the same colour as me, maybe there’s a chance for me somewhere in that industry. I knew I didn’t want to pursue the newspaper route – when I read the tabloids I sensed the prejudice within them, and thought, no, I don’t want to work for an organisation like that where I’m going to feel unwanted. So I sat on my journalism dreams for a long, long time.
I went back to university to study a postgraduate in broadcast journalism when I was 32 – 20 years ago.
What did you study at university initially?
I studied BA Honours Business Studies at De Montfort University in Leicester. That was a four-year general business course – you looked at accounting, human resources, marketing, all sorts. It was right for me because I really didn’t know what I was going to do. It was a general degree, and my mum said I’d be ready to do anything after that. But I didn’t do anything monumental. I ended up being a PA to Managing Directors and Chief Execs for over 10 years. I loved it. Different industries – banking, financial services, I even work for Cadbury. But at the back of my mind, after all those years was media and journalism. So I tinkered around a bit in radio presenting and different things, but the day I decided to do my post grad was the best decision I ever made.
So you went back to university at 32 – what happened next?
It was a real calculated risk because I had zero money for course fees, but I applied for a particular course at Birmingham City University where there were bursaries. I got offered a bursary by ITV News, which meant that they paid for my fees, put me through the course and gave me a six-month contract as a trainee TV reporter at my local ITV Central News as soon as I qualified. An absolute dream – the best start really.
But it was very daunting and quite intimidating. It was a troubled newsroom at the time. I was there with another trainee who felt exactly the same way as me. I was the black female trainee and she was the white female trainee – we were both from working class backgrounds. We realised it was a culture of fear. There were lots of lovely older reporters who looked after us, but there were issues with the management. We left after our six-month traineeship was up saying we were leaving journalism – it was that horrible. But in the end I couldn’t leave the industry. Within a month a friend hustled me some shifts where she was working in a local radio station. I just kept trying, and managed to get my way into the BBC as a freelancer, and my career really started to take hold.
I stayed at the BBC for about four years. I honed my skills across WM, the local radio, and Midlands Today, the regional telly, as a reporter, producer, breakfast and drivetime newsreader, and eventually a presenter on radio programmes and bulletins. Then I went freelance.
Sky News asked me to start working for them as an anchor, which was another calculated risk because I was in a cosy staff job at the Beeb. The chap at Sky said, “The BBC aren’t developing you. Come to us – it does mean that you go freelance, but I’ll guarantee you three shifts a week for six months.” So I thought I’d give it a whirl. That ended up being two years which was great. The best grounding in live television broadcasting you’re ever going to get, dealing with breaking news at a moment’s notice – international tragedies and events. And I love live. That was the start of 15 years as a freelance journalist.
What was it about TV that that appealed to you?
When I used to listen to radio as a kid, it was always really powerful. One of my older brothers would phone Beacon Radio and answer the quiz that Dale Winton would be doing, and he’d win records which they’d post him. And I wondered, how does this happen? It’s all happening in the town near me (Wolverhampton). At another station I used to listen to there was a young person’s show, and it was just exciting how they were talking about their lives. It was entertaining, exciting and informative. And it was something I really wanted to get involved in – that’s where the seed came from. And like I said, Sir Trevor and Moira, with complete authority, telling the nation about the biggest news stories – that representation made me realise that maybe I could do the same sort of thing. I could be in a position where I’m informing people of what’s happening around them. I thought that was noble. Even though I was really timid when I was a teen and through my university years – very quiet, very shy – but there was something inside going, come on Marv, you’ve got something!
Did you find that your race created barriers or challenges for you?
I think it did create challenges for me, on top of prejudices around my accent – being from Birmingham, being working class. I had a couple of incidents when I was at BBC Midlands Today. “Oh, you can’t wear your hair like that to read the news,” – I had short, relaxed hair. I used to put wax through it and it looked a bit spiky, and had a little bit of dark caramel colour through it. When I did my screen test, I remember the editor said, “Great screen test, but you can’t go on it with your hair like that.” And at that time, I was just stunned. I didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to react to it. I thought, okay, that’s me done.
There was another challenge – not being considered for training. There was a regional training centre in Bristol and they did a three-day course. I remember a white colleague being sent on this course. It was all very exciting. Everyone said, “Wow, she’s been picked, she’s the future of the newsroom”. I sat there thinking, why didn’t anyone ask me? We were peers at absolutely the same level, doing the same things in the newsroom. So I asked my boss and said, “I’d love to do that training”. And so I did. I realised there were things that people didn’t consider me for, and I believe that was because of my colour.
There were a couple of particular networks, that will remain unnamed, where a certain set of people decided they were going to hound me out. Every time I went in for a shift, there was an air of, “Who are you? Why are you here? Why do you deserve to be here? We don’t think you should be here”. It always felt ominous and oppressive, which then had an impact on my performance. That experience will stay with me. And I believe they were racist attitudes, because in that entire newsroom, in that entire news organisation, there were only two other black women in the same role as me.
Where have you worked during your career?
My first job was thanks to my ITV contract, then BBC regional, which was fabulous, then Sky News. As a freelancer it’s feast or famine, so I worked at International Business Times for about a year and a half, based in Canary Wharf, 5 News, ITN, ITN Business, and GMB at the moment. And Arise News – an African-focused news channel based in London.
Do you remember your first story?
Yes, my first ever TV report whilst I was a trainee reporter at ITV Central News was very stressful. I was mooching through all the local papers and saw a family talking about how they couldn’t adjust to life in Wolverhampton. There wasn’t enough housing in London, so their Borough Council had shipped them out to Wolverhampton – still happens now, to this day. This was new to me and I thought it felt a bit unfair. So I pitched it to the editor who reluctantly told me to go out there and take a cameraman. A very caring editor sat with me and we crafted the piece. Then obviously I had to show it to my editor to approve to go on air. He said to me, “I don’t know what this story is about. I don’t know why we’re doing it,” but he still aired it. I would have liked some constructive feedback on what he didn’t like, what I should have sharpened up, why he didn’t want to air it, but nothing. It was a news story, it had all the elements needed – I had managed to get families from London who were living in the housing estate in Wolverhampton to speak. I’d spoken to a local councillor. So there was a triumph for that, but then the disappointment and sadness around the fact that the editor thought it was rubbish.
I took counsel from other reporters in the newsroom who were so supportive. They took me under their wing and showed me how they did things. So I improved, and got a lot more reports out on air after that. But that first experience was happy and sad in equal measure.
Do you have a favourite story that you’ve worked on?
There are lots but I think my favourite is the one that I won an award for, that had a personal connection. I made a documentary for BBC Radio Four about the mental health experiences of black women. It was a story Radio Four had not tackled in any depth before. I talked a little bit about my experience and used that as a springboard to speak to two other women about how they had coped in institutions, their treatment, and how they manage their respective mental health conditions. It was difficult to produce emotionally, but it had a great response. I won a Mind Media Award for it in 2019, and Journalist of the Year for that documentary, so that makes me very proud.
What’s the most difficult story you’ve worked on?
Actually, the favourite story is also probably the most difficult. Because of bringing up personal experience, and then having to tell my mother, who said, “Why didn’t you tell me at the time,” and all those personal things that come up with it. Yes, it’s probably the most favourite and the most difficult – a balance of two emotions.
Who are the most famous people you’ve interviewed?
I suppose the funniest and I think my most favourite was Will Smith. That was fabulous. He was lovely and really funny. It was at the height of his fame and there was a red carpet for one of his movies. I’ve interviewed politicians and a few celebs when they were at their height at the time, but no big Hollywood names other than Will Smith.
You’re one of the first female beer sommeliers. Where did your interest in beer come from?
My love of beer was ignited through my journalism. I produced a TV feature for a regional BBC news programme called Inside Out. They’d have 10-minute stories, and I pitched one about beer. I’d seen some data about women saying they enjoyed real ale more regularly as part of their drinking repertoire. I looked at the figures and was nonplussed because I was a red wine and spirits drinker. While researching for this feature I visited various pubs, looking for contributors, landlords and breweries to speak to, and I tried some real ale. In one of the pubs I tried a peach ale and it was delicious – the peach was really delicate, and the flavour wasn’t as bitter as lagers I had tasted – everything was just so balanced. And my brain exploded, as I thought, is this what real ale can be then?
So I went on my own exploration of trying different beers, meeting breweries and doing different events. It was easy as I was working in London at the time. I blogged and threw real ale parties for women to introduce them to beer. I did different beer courses and applied to become a sommelier. There have always been beer sommeliers in the US, but in the UK the Beer and Cider Academy launched the sommelier scheme in 2011. You have to do a Viva, where you taste beers and talk about them for the exam. I’m currently the beer columnist for BBC Good Good Magazine.
If somebody wants to pitch a story to you, how different is it to pitch a story for broadcast than pitching to print media?
Pitching to TV is all about the pictures, but it also depends on which programme. For example, a lot of people ask me what they could do to be part of GMB. It depends on whether you’re an expert in something, so you could pitch an idea to comment on a story, which could be done on Zoom or down a line. But if you are pitching a news package, we need to hear from the person at the heart of the story. We need to see them on camera, and not anonymised – unless it’s a story where sexual offences come into play, and we’re anonymising the victim, or they’re at real risk of danger through identification. We need to see the person at the heart of story, in their environment. If we’re talking to an expert, like a health professional, we need to see them where they’re working. It’s all about the visual – you need a location or locations to film at. It’s very different to print where a few photos could illustrate the story. This adds complexity when you’re suggesting a story.
We also need to know why the story is important to tell and why it’s important to tell now. What is that person saying that’s unique? What personal experience are they relating? If someone’s an expert, tell us why – they’re a mental health professional because they’ve got 25 years in the industry helping people at grass roots level, and they’ve worked in NHS.
It’s also got to be topical, of the moment. Or is there a peg? Which is the same with most news stories. Is there something happening soon? Is there an anniversary of an event? Is there a significant change in the law that’s being discussed or is about to go through? Those add compelling reasons for a story to be commissioned.
What does a working the day look like for you?
Because I’m working mainly at GMB at the moment, my alarm goes off at 3am, and I’m in the studio at 4am. It’s crazy. Then the first thing I do is have a meeting with my producer and talk through what’s in my bulletins across the three hours or what’s in the rest of the programme. Then I’ll have some breakfast, then hair and makeup, get ready, and before you know it, it’s a quarter to six and I’m getting miked up and going on set. When we finish at nine, like any newsroom we have a debrief, all the presenters, the director, the execs, and people who produce different elements of the programme. We talk about what happened in the programme, what we felt worked and what didn’t. And we also look ahead to what’s being suggested for the next day. Then I go to sleep!
Because I freelance I do all sorts of other different things. I’ve always got emails to catch up on, or I’m writing some beer stuff, or I’m doing prep for other projects I’m working on. I don’t always work after I’ve done my day’s work at GMB. I try and take some space for myself.
How do you relax in your spare time?
I love catching up on different programmes that are streaming and I love listening to music – I have all kinds of different tastes – classics, electronic dance music, soul, grime, rap, hip hop. And I’ve always got a couple of books on the go.
What’s the best way for people to contact you?
Instagram and LinkedIn.