Katya Adler: ‘Brexit Is The Story Of Our Generation’

During a politically fraught week, Hattie Crisell met BBC Europe editor Katya Adler - and got a taste of the action


by Hattie Crisell |

Katya Adler is busy. So busy, in fact, that over the course of the day on which I’m due to meet her – in one of the most frenetic political weeks since the Brexit vote, and that’s saying something – I receive three apologetic calls changing the time and location of our interview. Finally, 20 minutes before we meet in North London, I’m told that she’s now urgently required in Westminster. The only way to conduct our interview is to hop in a taxi with her.

Every week is mad for those reporting on Brexit, but last week was madder than most. When 21 Tory MPs voted against the party line, helping pass a bill that could block a no-deal Brexit, Boris Johnson kicked them out of the party. Some were major figures, including former chancellors Philip Hammond and Ken Clarke (a Conservative MP for 49 years). As Grazia went to press, the Prime Minister was still attempting to call a general election, having failed to get the two-thirds majority vote he needed to do so on Wednesday.

‘From a UK political perspective, this week has been astonishing,’ says Katya. ‘Particularly powerful was 21 Tory MPs losing their positions. That probably gave lots of people pause for thought – it certainly did across the other side of the Channel. But all my contacts today are saying it doesn’t actually change anything. You can’t ban no deal unless you have a deal, or you decide you’re not going to do Brexit.’ Her sources in Europe tell her they’re desperate for MPs to agree on what they want, rather than voting repeatedly on what they don’t want.

As we speed across London, I feel like I’m on an episode of Brexitcast – the hit podcast (over eight million downloads) that this Thursday becomes a weekly TV show. The format will remain the same: an informal, funny chat between Katya, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, Brussels reporter Adam Fleming and political correspondent Chris Mason. On the podcast, it’s not unusual for one of them to be calling in from a taxi, although Katya, who lives in Brussels, tells me she’s more often at baggage reclaim. ‘I cover the whole of Europe so [in recent years] you’ve got the rise of populism, the migration crisis, a French presidential election, cross-border terror attacks, plus Brexit. Sometimes, I’ll be in Italy doing a story, but I’ll go on the 6 o’clock news on Brexit.’

So what can we expect from the new show? ‘We want to keep the tone the same,’ she says, which will come as a relief to fans. The podcast manages to balance analysis and insider knowledge with the chemistry of Katya and her co-hosts, who have their own running jokes and lingo: the episodes are often recorded late at night, with Adam calling from his bed, while Chris’s copious use of the phrase ‘wanging on’ has spread among them all. (At one point during our chat, Katya refers to the show as ‘our own private wanging parlour’.)

Now that the show is being filmed, they will usually be in the same studio, though at times someone may need to FaceTime in, Katya explains. It will be released as a podcast too, and they’ll carry on recording bonus audio-only ‘emergency’ episodes: ‘So Adam can still broadcast from bed, just not on the Thursday.’

With a patch as large as Europe to cover, I wonder whether Katya finds it irritating that Brexit sucks up so much of the news agenda. ‘It’s the story of our generation – how could you be irritated?’ she replies. ‘things are happening around us and we’re talking to the players – that’s a very privileged position to be in.’ One of the most rewarding elements of the job, she says, is the sources she’s managed to cultivate; one senior political figure even chatted to her while his wife was in labour. ‘You build up this trust that you will quote them as a source and not by name, and they trust how you’ll use their information, and that has been professionally extremely satisfying. Then you know that when you’re standing there [broadcasting your report], you really are giving the inside view.’

Katya is married with three children and has spoken before about attending school plays and then going back to do the news at 10pm. ‘Because Brexit is front page news, you get asked how you deal with the stress and the juggling – but I’ve been juggling for many, many years,’ she explains. Over her career, she’s held BBC jobs in Vienna, Berlin, Madrid and Jerusalem. ‘In the Middle East, when you’re bouncing across war zones and you have a private life that’s coming along as well, you’re juggling. I wouldn’t say I’m an accomplished juggler, because you’re always worried about all the different roles you play in your life: “Can I keep it all up in the air?” But it’s not a new skill that I’m trying to hone, put it that way.’

After half an hour of rush-hour traffic, we pull up near the Palace of Westminster. And with a warm goodbye and a handshake, Katya is gone, just like that – running in her heels to get the story.

The TV version of Brexitcast starts Thursday 12 September at 11.35pm on BBC One


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