How I Got There: Evan Davis


Evan Davis is an economist, author and presenter for the BBC.

Davis joined the BBC in 1993 as a general economics correspondent for news programmes. He then served as economics editor at Newsnight from 1997 to 2001, before going on to become the BBC economics editor. In 2008, he moved to BBC Radio 4's Today programme as a presenter, where he spent six-and-a-half years. In September 2014 he became Newsnight's lead presenter. As well as Newsnight, Davis also presents the BBC2 business reality show, Dragons' Den and the business conversation programme the Bottom Line.

He has written two books, and has co-authored the Penguin dictionaries of economics and of business. Before working at the BBC, Davis was an economist at the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the London Business School.

Davis is the recipient of many awards, including Work Foundation's Broadcast Journalist of the Year award, the Harold Wincott Business Broadcaster of the Year award and the bronze Sony award as Speech Broadcaster of the Year.

Davis studied philosophy, politics and economics at St John's College, Oxford, and obtained a Masters of Public Administration at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Lan Anh Vu sat down with Davis at the Pride Business Forum in Prague to learn more about his journalistic career, how he came out to his family, colleagues and the importance of being yourself.

As told to Lan Anh Vu

My Early Years
I grew up in Surrey, a suburban county about an hour southwest of London. My parents were born and raised in South Africa and immigrated to the United Kingdom. My mother is a psychologist, and my father is an electronic engineer.

At home, I love discussing the news, economy, and politics with my parents. Those topics are my passion, and in my home environment, we were always debating, and that translated into studying economics at school as one of my primary subjects. And that led me to choosing it to study at university. So, by the time I had left university and been employed by a tutor from university, I was working as an economist. That's when journalism entered my life. I said to myself, "If I'm going to be a journalist, then I need to have a specialization." So, I went to study economics more, worked more in economics, and made sure that I really pursued the subject. Having done that, I thought that I could become someone who reports and talks about economics instead of simply studying it. It was a good decision, because I didn't have to work to be a journalist. I have my platform, my own thing, my specialization, and that was my ticket into a good journalism job and economics job at the BBC. And I've been there for more than 20 years.

There are two types of people, and they make two types of journalist. Some people want to gather information and always see their jobs as a quest to find out more. They are detail people, because they are always trying to find out more. They have the journalistic skills to acquire knowledge and maybe to get the scoop and get great stories. And then you have other people, like me, who often see their jobs as less about getting scoops or getting information, but trying to make sense of the information that they have. So, it's not more about facts, but about how the facts are arranged: how the facts fit together. What it means as a journalist is that I'm inadequate in terms of getting stories and acquiring information. My work is much more about telling stories that should be getting told.

As a presenter of current affairs on mainstream television, I've encountered two challenges: first, knowing something about the topics and bluffing about topics in which you have no expertise, and second, how much to be yourself and how much to try to not be yourself. My experience has shown that if presenters aren't themselves, aren't personalities, then somehow the public won't connect or engage very well. And if there's too much of them, then it can become an ego trip for the presenters. It's quite difficult to find that balance and hard to calibrate how much personality to put in and how much to leave out.

Coming Out of the Closet
Around puberty, I had a feeling that I might be gay. I tried to suppress all feelings and desires that I had; I just totally buried them. That was difficult, because I didn't talk to anyone about it. At about 15 or 16 years old, I decided not to fight it anymore, and I let myself try to have the gay feelings that I was having. It was a mental exercise: stop suppressing gay thoughts, think about them, and see how it affects you. I was relaxed about it with myself.


It was another 10 years before I told my parents, because I didn't want to have a double life. At university some people knew I was gay and I think a lot of people suspected, however I wasn't out at all. It wasn't until I went to school in the United States that I came out. I spent a summer in Los Angeles and had a boyfriend there who introduced me to his friends and parents and after that I was basically very open. Then, I got back to England, and it seemed obvious that I didn't need to hide from anyone. I think that the first step is to become comfortable with yourself and not to be anything that you're not. It's tiring trying to be something that you're not. The second step is becoming comfortable with other people and, in turn, with your parents and colleagues.

I never really mentioned that I was gay for the first few years after joining the BBC. There were a lot of decisions to be made about how out I would be at work, who I would tell, who I wouldn't tell, and what sort of public profile I wanted to have at work. I think that it's easier to come out on your first day. The longer that you leave off telling people, the harder it gets. I think that the more casual you are when you come out, the better the reaction. When you start a new job, treat others and act as though your colleagues already know. So, you don't necessarily tell people, but you just say, "My boyfriend and I went to a movie on Saturday." People will be relaxed about it if you're relaxed about it. When you're too heavy about such things, you can create a vibe that makes others more self-conscious about it than they ought to be.

Lessons Learned
I've learned that even when people are wrong, they normally have some useful insights. You can have two people arguing in a debate, and one of them has to be wrong, and one has to be right. And yet, I often find that each has good reasons for what he or she is saying. There are things that you hear on each side of a debate that are very useful and helpful. Essentially, each side has some important points to make, and the argument often tends to basically emphasize insights into that very point.

A lot of people say or tweet things, and you can overreact to them and think that they are really important. Then, after a while, you realize that it's actually just noise, that those people don't know more than you, and that some comments are simply irrelevant and pointless. Sometimes you just have to shut out the noise. I worked on a program, and when the producers and I produced something and someone viewed it and then someone else viewed it, then we got a lot of comments. At that point, you realize that they're giving you random comments, not systematic or useful feedback--that this person said one thing that contradicted what the other person said, and it just becomes harder to respond. Sometimes you just have to go with the vision or argument and try not to accommodate too many different thoughts and views.

Future of Journalism
The future of journalism is a major issue, because there are a lot of people doing it for nothing. I don't think that it's permanently going to be a hobby pursued by people. But at the moment, it's difficult to monetize journalism.

There will always be premium content. I think that there's a demand for quality; there are niches of people out there who want to read that stuff, and there are people who will pay for publications such as the Financial Times or The Economist, because it's just worth paying for. But it's difficult for the lower-grade publications to do that, because people don't want to pay, and if people are doing it for nothing, then they don't have to pay, so that's a big problem.

Advice for Aspiring Journalists
Have a plan B. If you want to become a journalist, then ask yourself what you would do if you couldn't become a journalist. Then, pursue that and use it as your vehicle into journalism. Have a plan B, partly because journalism may not work. Then, your plan B will be very useful, and you'll be glad you have it. In my case, I was an economist. If I haven't become a journalist, then I would have stuck around in economics. That was my plan B. The other reason is that you'll be a better journalist. If you have other passions in life, whether it's the environment, travel, or economics, then you can be a better journalist because you have that expertise in your back pocket.

Journalism is about having something to say; it's not only about having your name in the newspaper or your face on TV. It's about bringing something to the table: an outlook, a perspective, or a certain way of doing things. You've got to foster and develop that, and you've got to know what you're going to bring to journalism before you do it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

This post is part of "How I Got There" series, which features people around the world speaking about their journeys. What is the path to success? What challenges did people face and how did they overcome them? Lan Anh and her guests answer all these questions and much more. To view the entire series, visit here.