Laura Slattery: The ideal wardrobe for a journalist? Clothes that say ‘trust me’

Newspaper reporters could do without TV counterparts looking a bit scruffy — that’s our territory

Do television news presenters dress too formally? John Reith, the BBC’s first director-general, will be spinning in his grave again now the view is apparently afloat within the BBC that they do.

BBC News director of digital Naja Nielsen was reported by entertainment and media site Deadline to have told a group of journalists that being “as sweaty and dirty as when we’re in the field is actually more trustworthy than if we look like we’ve just stepped out of an awards ceremony or a fine dinner party”.

The comment — which comes as the BBC prepares to merge its two snazzily dressed news channels into one lower-cost service — was later described by a BBC source as a “general point about authenticity”, rather than a specific dress code instruction.

For fashion editors, choosing the wrong hemline can be a career-derailing credibility issue

The counterargument is that while it will be authentic for field correspondents to appear a bit “sweaty and dirty” if they’re reporting from a conflict zone or aftermath of a natural disaster, it is less clear why a studio presenter would set out to contrive such a look.


Indeed, watching news correspondents relay the latest from Stormont in padded winter outerwear, it seems safe to conclude that a “sweaty” vibe is an unachievable goal for many journalists based outside the studio, too.

The new BBC attitude, alas, also threatens to undermine social media’s most accurate recurring joke: the one in which smartly coiffed, stylishly attired celebrities standing next to more ruffled co-stars are labelled “television journalist” and “newspaper journalist” respectively.

It’s not in newspaper journalists’ interest for their television counterparts to suddenly start looking a touch unkempt —that’s our territory. We don’t need an executive edict to channel our inner scruff, nor are we trying to achieve that effect. It’s just our natural sartorial talent.

Working at home in athleisure mode, I’m more Sweaty Betty than literally sweaty, which is an upgrade. Years past haven’t been shy of occasions when, frazzled by some other deadline, I’ve rushed breathless into showbiz-adjacent events populated by reality TV stars and felt in immediate need of a blow-dry.

The non-TV journalist’s wardrobe defence is that we regularly attend events that are, for us, nothing more than one of that day’s assignments, whereas the people organising or participating in them have spent months preparing for their big showpiece.

On television, as in life, it is better to be overdressed than underdressed

Within the shabby hack cliche, there are exceptions, variations and valiant attempts at camouflage. Most political journalists wouldn’t look out of place if they suddenly found themselves behind a lectern giving a vague speech on fiscal prudence, while finance journalists are often tempted to dress as the kind of people who conceivably understand wealth even if their clothes betray a personal lack of it.

For fashion editors, choosing the wrong hemline can be a career-derailing credibility issue. For reporters in war zones, a bulletproof vest with “press” emblazoned across it will be a life-saving necessity — unless, of course, they find themselves in an environment hostile to the media.

But for most off-screen journalists working in all-hands newsrooms, the unpredictability of the working day requires treading a middle ground between respectful and approachable. There will be times when it will be helpful to maintain an outsider, observer status — on purpose — and other times when the most appropriate tactic is to blend in.

This can mean inadvertently blending in with each other. In She Said, Maria Schrader’s film about the investigation into Harvey Weinstein by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the two journalists, played by Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan, team up ahead of a meeting with Gwyneth Paltrow wearing near-identical white dresses.

Nervous about their encounter with a potentially crucial A-list source, their outfit selections have made them “reporting twins”. It’s a light moment that underlines the realness of what we are seeing, precisely because it is real: Kantor and Twohey sent the film-makers the dresses they wore to visit Paltrow and they were remade to fit the actors.

If you like chasing glamour, here’s a safe rule: don’t be a journalist. Rosalind Russell might have looked all business in her chevron-striped top hat and skirt suit in His Girl Friday, but even in Hollywood land, it’s been downhill since then.

News presenters aren’t only journalists, though — they’re TV people. Back when they were mere radio people, they were a cut above, too: the BBC radio announcers of the 1920s and 1930s were under orders from Reith to wear dinner jackets in the evening to correspond with the formal attire of other on-air performers. No pressure on today’s crop, but the first BBC newsreader to appear in-vision — Kenneth Kendall in 1955 — was renowned for his elegant style.

Since then, there have been periodic pushes across television news to drop old formalities, in keeping with dress trends across workplaces generally. The sting in the tail for radio journalists is that cameras have, in recent years, invaded their workspaces too.

Television news journalists have always been wise to stay one step behind the fashion times, as being too far ahead of the curve can distract viewers from the actual news. But they have to start catching up at some point, and with male television news journalists seemingly one of the few demographics left holding up suit and tie sales, that time could well be now.

With the merger of BBC World News and the UK-targeting BBC News Channel into a single, job-slashing operation likely to jettison much of the latter’s focus on domestic rolling news, any looser wardrobe policy might sound frivolously unimportant.

The yearning for “authenticity” is revealing, nonetheless. Whereas once clothes were deployed to help project an imperiousness that broadcasters sought to preserve at all costs, such staid, expensive-looking authority is now out of style. Coming in hot for spring-summer 2023, instead, is anxiety about whether younger audiences like and trust what they see.

Still, in the event of breaking news where “sweaty and dirty” just won’t do, it will pay to keep some serious, sharp-shouldered clothes on standby. On television, as in life, it is better to be overdressed than underdressed.