Q&A with Shaunagh Connaire, BComm 2006
Shaunagh Connaire is an award-winning Irish filmmaker and journalist. After graduating with a Commerce degree in UCD and working as an accountant at KPMG, Shaunagh completed a Masters in journalism in London. Since then, she has worked for the BBC, Channel 4 and is currently the US Editor of Alpha Grid, a media company owned by the Financial Times. She lives in Manhattan, New York City.
1. What was your UCD experience like?
I studied BComm with French in UCD between 2002 and 2006 and loved my time there as a student. I think we may have been some of the first students to enter the UCD Lochlann Quinn School of Business which was really exciting at the time. I recall my first day in our small lectures being asked to describe ourselves and where we were from. A good chunk of the class detailed the Dublin schools they’d attended so when I proudly mentioned that I was educated in a convent in Longford, there was a bit of laughter, then silence and I can only assume it was then jealousy that ensued…. My social life (predictably) very much centered around a fancy nightclub on Harcourt Street called Coppers!
2. What is your fondest memory from that time?
Erasmus. I spent the third year of my degree in Grenoble, deep in the French Alps. A classmate and I shared, not just a room, but a double bed for the year and we subsequently became the very best of friends. (She’s now head of marketing for London Design Festival and is one of the most positive influences in my life!) We learned how to ski, we immersed ourselves in French culture (mostly the nightlife which always ended in a trip to the kitchen of our favourite boulangerie in the early hours) and we travelled throughout Europe as much as we could, visiting other friends from Commerce International. At one point we even became ‘extras’ in a French drama in order to fund our escapades. We were undoubtedly hideous actors but the French were too polite to fire us.
3. How did you end up in your current area of work?
I certainly didn’t take the most conventional path. After my degree at UCD I spent two years with KPMG in Dublin as a trainee accountant in both the Restructuring and Transaction Services departments. I quickly realised this wasn’t the career for me and in 2008 as the economy was tanking, I applied for a journalism masters in Goldsmiths University in London. After completing this, I was one of four people chosen on the MA for an internship at the BBC where I spent two months working for free in the newsroom and at HARDtalk. Once this came to an end, I spent many weeks cold calling the team and dropping in unannounced until my two bosses there (who to this day I still meet and refer to as my TV parents!) finally succumbed and gave me my first job as a researcher. This was a three-week contract and when this came to an end I managed to convince them to promote me to a producer role. Before I knew it I was on a plane to the US to produce a series with tech heavyweights like Eric Schmidt from Google and Steve Ballmer from Microsoft.
4. What is the most interesting/special place you have ever been?
I love working in the Middle East and I was lucky enough to make a documentary in Iran in 2016. The Iranians are quite fond of the Irish so after months of negotiating with my fixer in Tehran and the embassy in Dublin, I was miraculously given a press visa (this is generally unheard of in media circles). Iran seems to really identify with Ireland and many locals hold a very dear spot in their hearts for Bobby Sands, they even named a street after him right by the British embassy. My government minder (who never left my side during filming) was also a huge fan and would sometimes introduce me and then immediately stress that I too was from Ireland just like Bobby but most importantly, I was not from the UK or the US.
5. What is the proudest moment of your career to date?
I’m most proud when I’m making an impact. In 2013 I was part of a team that spent two years investigating a British paedophile who was abusing street kids in Kenya. Our documentary on Channel 4 led to a conviction and a 17-year jail sentence for this prolific sex offender. In 2014, my Channel 4/PBS Frontline film about the Ebola epidemic was used by the CDC (Center for Disease Control in the US) to help train health workers in Western Africa. In 2017 I made a film about critically ill Syrian refugee children falling through the cracks in Lebanon which led to one of the families that we filmed with being resettled in Sweden. This year I travelled to Honduras and made a short film about climate migrants for the Financial Times which was organically picked up by Al Gore on social media. He said we’d connected the dots between the climate crisis and migration in a profound way so that was quite rewarding as climate change endorsements don’t come better than that!
6. What have been the most challenging aspects of your career?
Being a woman working in hostile environments has sometimes proved tricky. Showing emotion and empathy while reporting can sometimes be perceived as a weakness, which by the way I totally disagree with. I’ve personally found that my EQ has helped me a lot throughout my career – I wholeheartedly believe in being a human first and a journalist second. I also sense that being a mum in this industry is going to provide me with a whole new host of challenges which I plan on confronting with gusto! (I had my first child this August)
7. Has your work led you to be engaged in hostile situations? How have you managed to handle these?
Yes on quite a few occasions. I’ve had encounters with Hezbollah in Lebanon. I was very nearly detained in China while operating undercover there, exposing clinics that offer electric shock therapy as a ‘so-called’ cure for homosexuality. I thought I’d contracted Ebola when I realised I’d probably gotten too close to one of our main characters who contracted the virus and later died. Then more recently I received unpleasant threats while making a film about abortion in Ireland. In these situations I generally tend to dig my heels, get on with the job in hand and worry about the repercussions at a later point. I’ve also seen a counsellor who was instrumental in me viewing some of these traumatic events in a healthier light. In my opinion, looking after your mental health is paramount in this industry and we all should be talking about it more openly.
8. What is the greatest injustice you have ever witnessed?
I was the first filmmaker to enter the Ebola zone in 2014 and witnessed some really traumatic scenes. One moment which will always haunt me was when a little girl called Fatmata arrived in an ambulance to the Ebola clinic in Eastern Sierra Leone and her mum had died alongside her on the journey. The fact that Fatmata was by herself on such a harrowing trip, travelling in the dark to the unknown broke my heart. There was no sense of justice for her or her family. The following morning poor Fatmata died in the makeshift MSF clinic where we were filming, as she too had unknowingly contracted the virus.
9. Tell us about your most exhilarating day as a reporter.
My career hasn’t been all grit and gloom! I was a producer and edit director on a BBC film with David Beckham not so long ago. I travelled to the Djiboutian/Somalian border with a crew of thirty and had such a fun experience there. I found an ex-national Somalian footballer in the refugee camp where David was due to visit. 60-year-old Issa spent his days training young refugees to become football stars. There was one player in particular, 22-year-old Taman, who was a stand-out talent and I recall ringing my editor frantically telling her I’d found the Sir Alex Ferguson and David Beckham of Somalia and they all needed to get here ASAP! To be fair, I’m not sure if this was my most exhilarating day as a journalist but it’s little moments like this in my career that I love – finding the most extraordinary people in the most far off corners of the world.
10. What does your typical working day look like?
My days at the moment look quite different to my days at Channel 4 and BBC in the UK. For the past year I’ve been the US editor of Alpha Grid, Financial Times (FT) in New York and I’m on the road a lot less. Generally, I spend my time developing, scripting, producing and editing new digital video series for FT.com that feel fresh and surprising to our audience. More recently I had an opportunity to write for the paper and had a feature published about fashion and philanthropy with Christy Turlington.
11. What about life outside work?
Well I’m married to a very brilliant person who has an enormous sense of belief in me and who is equally, if not more ambitious than I am. So when we’re not plotting our next career moves, we’re spending time in Manhattan with our friends and soaking up all this city has to offer. Some of these friends are old UCD acquaintances actually! I also love practicing yoga and running which is the ultimate switch off time for me and I spend a lot of time on the phone to my parents in Ireland and siblings in Sydney.
12. What are the rules you live by as a journalist?
Humanity and humility are my main tools, followed by empathy and a deep sense of responsibility to do justice to my characters and their stories. I also have a lot of conviction in what I’m doing and I’m not afraid to go against the grain, even if it means being a dissident voice and raising some eyebrows along the way.
13. How has your industry changed in the last 5 years?
My industry has changed quite dramatically. Part of the reason for taking this new role within the FT was because I’d be focusing solely on digital content which is of course, the future.
14. How has your career impacted the way in which you see the world?
I definitely have a harder exterior now. After the Brexit vote in 2016 I perhaps began to view the world in a less positive light. I generally go to bed worrying about climate change and have pangs of guilt for not doing more for the people I met during my career. I still, however really believe in the role of journalism and how we must continue to give a voice to the voiceless and hold the powerful to account.
15. Where do you see your career taking you next?
As a mum, I have no idea however I won’t be taking a back seat and fully intend keeping my foot on the gas! I think we all must pivot at some point in our careers and that’s where I’m at right now – figuring out how I can keep adding value in my current role and also establishing how, as a mum in this industry, I can have a sustainable and rewarding career. In that regard, I certainly don’t have all of the answers just yet but it’s something I’m deeply passionate about.
16. What advice would you give to someone who is now just beginning their career?
Don’t take no for an answer. There will be plenty of naysayers who will tell you you’re not good enough but you should respectfully ignore them. With a lot of hard work and tenacity, you can do quite well in this industry!
17. Who have been the most interesting or helpful mentors or business advisers you have had?
Evan Davis from the BBC is my official mentor although we’re really just good friends at this stage. These days I tend to look towards my peers as my mentors. Here in New York I’ve surrounded myself with a coalition of brilliant women who are breaking down barriers, smashing glass ceilings and paving the way for other women to be successful in this industry. One friend runs a company called PepTalkHer – she’s on a mission to close the gender pay gap for example.
18. Who are your role models?
Beyoncé followed closely by Michelle Obama.
Follow Shaunagh Connaire on Twitter @shaunagh and Instagram @sconnaire.
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