Julia Llewellyn Smith is a freelance journalist who writes for The Times, You Magazine at The Mail on Sunday, The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail as well as magazines such as Grazia and Vogue. She’s also written nine books including Travels Without My Aunt, about the travels of the author Graham Greene. A former news reporter, Llewellyn Smith has produced features on “every subject under the sun”, although now she conducts a lot of interviews, “often with celebrities, but very often with ‘ordinary’ people who’ve done fascinating things”. Interview Editor, Claudia Jacob, speaks to Llewellyn Smith about her journalism career, the ways that social media has changed how we consume news stories, and the future of print journalism.
Llewellyn Smith has interviewed around 3 000 people throughout her career, and “it’s not unusual to speak to two or three on the same day”. She boasts an impressive list including, (“off the top of my head”), Princess Anne, Jimmy Carter, Tom Hanks, Tony Blair, Robbie Williams, Jane Fonda, Anita Rani, Susanna Reid and Bob Mortimer, and more recently, Melvyn Bragg, Joe Wicks and Joanna Lumley. Some personal favourites include Jamie Oliver; “I’ve interviewed him three times and he’s genuinely delightful – we also spent the evening after 9/11 having dinner together and shared the trauma, which was very bonding”. Another highlight was “former James Bond, Roger Moore, in Monte Carlo, and he could not have been funnier or more charming”. She’s also had the opportunity to interview a handful of Strictly Come Dancing contestants and dancers, including Shirley Ballas, Stacey Dooley and Oti Mabuse. She’s even been to Bruno Tonioli’s house, “very calm and zen”, and to Craig Revel Horwood’s “luxurious pad” in Hampshire with “plastic, pink flamingos around the pool, a white dance floor that lights up and a huge white piano”.
Llewellyn Smith began her journalism career by writing for her student newspaper, Varsity. She adds that the best route into the industry is work experience; “it’s harder to obtain now and impossible with Covid-19, but even if it’s working on a local freesheet, it really helps”. She advises that “once in that position be as proactive and helpful as possible, people who go the extra mile and are pleasant to be around are remembered fondly. Any ideas for articles – suggest them!”.
So what are the most glamarous parts of a career in journalism? “You can find yourself with very little notice on a prime minister’s private jet, travelling to amazing places, at some incredible parties and in some fairly astonishing billionaires’ residences”. Having said that, “the more famous the interviewee, the more pressure you are under to extract something new and interesting from them”. Most of her time is spent “sitting alone at a laptop, knowing you have to produce entertaining, readable copy in a very short space of time and then dealing with queries from the sub-editors checking the most arcane facts imaginable”.
Llewellyn Smith emphasises that nowadays, “social media breaks stories in seconds, so a newspaper or news programme can’t be expected to be ‘first’ with anything anymore”. She points out that “it’s made people far more likely just to read soundbites, resulting in very shallow understandings, and for its producers to rely on lowest common denominator clickbait”. She elaborates that social media algorithms “draw people into an echo chamber where they only hear their own views repeated”. Ultimately, she’d “like print and social media to be able to coexist happily”.
Llewellyn Smith admits that “print journalism is in a lot of trouble”, mainly because “younger people expect content to be free, and because Covid-19 has been the final nail in the coffin for advertisers who were already flocking to social media”. She’s confident that “the best quality titles – to me The Times, The Financial Times and The Economist, will survive because there’s a market for excellent reporting, but many titles will fall by the wayside”. Similarly, “Instagram has pretty much destroyed glossy magazines; people now look to influencers for lifestyle tips; only the most premium brands will survive”.
Despite her misgivings, Llewellyn Smith emphasises how much she has enjoyed being in the company of other journalists over the years; “I’m biased, but in my opinion, no other profession offers better, funnier, sharper company”. She adds that “journalism can be maligned, but in my opinion it’s generally a force for good, shedding light on stories that would otherwise be forgotten”.
Image: Julia Llewellyn Smith