Meet Ian Palmer, BBC South East news presenter

Ian Palmer

Ian Palmer - Credit: Archant

On Twitter Ian Palmer introduces himself as a ‘journalist fascinated by the power of sport and music. Put them together and anything is possible.’ Kent Life catches up with the multi-faceted BBC South East Today presenter in Tunbridge Wells.

He has been a familiar face on our TV screens for more than 15 years, bringing us the news from across Kent and the south east. Yet broadcast journalist Ian Palmer’s career could have easily taken a number of different paths, had it not been for a couple of life-changing accidents that put paid to a promising sporting future.

The Bristol-born, Bath-raised youngster loved school, especially history, but admits: “I wasn’t particularly academic – really I was just a sports jock.”

It’s not difficult to work out that Ian has played rugby, he has the classic build after all, but his first love was cricket and it wasn’t until he went to Leicester University to study politics and public administration that he switched over to rugby and realised that’s what he wanted to do – and to play to the highest possible level.

However, fate had other plans. “I was running for a bus one day and as I ran the back door of the bus opened suddenly and somebody came out and just clipped the bag from my shoulder,” Ian recalls.

“I went flying though the air and twisted my knee – it was a very bad ligament tear and although I played rugby later after occ psych repaired it, it was never the same again.

“I was 21 and playing particularly well at that point so it was very frustrating, but clearly it was meant to be; half a second later or earlier nothing would have happened.”

Most Read

Ian believes that moment in his life is a metaphor for what he now does for a living. “I am meeting people every single day whose lives could have gone in a particular direction just because of one particular single moment.”

One of his favourite films is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which stars Brad Pitt as a man who ages in reverse, and Cate Blanchett as the love interest throughout his life.

“There is one scene where you see a dozen vignettes of all these people doing their independent things and it all comes to a fruition at the end when Cate, playing this very gifted ballerina, gets run over by a car and if any of those dozen people did something slightly differently, she wouldn’t have been knocked over.

“In a sense, that is everybody’s story - you turn a corner and you face whatever you face. I meet people every day, I watch the news every day and see fate thrust upon us. When I am covering stories in the south east, I am often thinking - just take a step back and think ‘how did I get here and how did this person I am now interviewing get to where they are?’ It’s all about stepping into people’s lives.”

Despite being very sporty in his teens and twenties, there had been another constant interest in the background as well. “I always wanted to try broadcast journalism and had I not been playing sport all the time I would have gone to a university publication and asked if I could do an interview, write something for them,” says Ian.

“I grew up on John Pilger and World in Action, and Alan Whicker – the latter showed us how similar we all are, that given all the different cultural mixes, we are all just the same. It always struck a chord, always nagging away at me and had my sport career continued in the way I would have loved it to, I would definitely have gone into journalism when it all ended,” he says.

Or might it have been music? After all, Ian’s @Pinkygooner twitter handle hints at a journalist “fascinated by the power of sport and music” and indeed Ian used to be a member of a two-piece band, playing guitar and singing.

“I love folk music, being in Greenwich Village in 1963 would have been an absolute dream for me,” he reveals. “At home now I occasionally pick up my guitar when I’m feeling nostalgic, but music is an absolute love of mine. I love country – probably because it’s all about telling stories – blues and rock.

“My Twitter handle is about how if you put up a really powerful still (static image) with a really powerful piece of music under it, that just hits right into the heart. In a way that’s why I am where I am.”

Again it was quite literally by accident that a broadcasting career rather than a musical one began. “I was cycling in Bath and a taxi driver opened the door and I went straight into it, hit my shoulder, went head over heels, just managed to miss a bus – it was a pretty terrible injury,” says Ian.

But there was an up side. The money he received after the crash was spent funding a postgraduate diploma in broadcast journalism at the University of Central England in Birmingham in 1993, where he not only learnt his craft but also met his future wife, Siobhan Sterling, who was taking the same course.

Fully recovered from his injuries by then, Ian has not looked back and, after working for the BBC in Coventry, Wiltshire, Somerset, Bristol, and Nottingham, he eventually ended up in Leicester, staying there for four years.

While working on attachment for the radio newsroom at Television Centre he was offered the chance to work for a new regional television news programme, South East Today: “It took me about two seconds to accept the position,” he laughs.

Ian came to the Tunbridge Wells in February 2001 and recalls: “The newsroom was completely bare, we were meant to launch in early spring but in the end we didn’t launch until 3 September, so we had eight months to train – which was brilliant.

“We were all rookie journalists, most of us recruited from radio, so we needed the training. The main difference about being on TV is that you have to think about what you’re wearing, and I hadn’t done autocue before, but found I really enjoyed it,” he says.

“That’s the thing about broadcasting, you don’t really know if you can do it until you do it, then you don’t know if you’re any good at it until someone asks you to do it again!”

So what has kept Ian, 51, who lives just outside Tunbridge Wells in Langton Green, in the south east over the years? “Over and above everything it’s the people of Kent who have kept me engaged; they never fail to surprise me,” he says at once.

“There are certain stories that we call the ‘evergreens’, slow burners that come back, stories I’ve done half a dozen times but every single time there is always something new because of the passing of time – and it feels fresh.”

And the media, particularly TV, has changed hugely since Ian’s early days. “When I first started we used to cut tape, give it to a despatch rider who would take it back to the studio in Tunbridge Wells with no guarantee they’d get there in time for the news slot. Now I just cut a piece on my laptop and send it via Wifi. There’s no excuse not to be up to date.

“I’m a video journalist, so I get the story in the morning, you go to two of three locations and it can take a long time to get the story, particularly if you factor in the distances that can be involved working in Kent. I then put my pictures and words together. I do live hits – we call them a doughnut – and introduce my own package.

“It’s a lot of journalism for sometimes a very brief moment on screen and this is where my laid-back character really helps, as I don’t tend to panic – although I’ve had my moments.”

These include Ian’s “biggest story so far,” the case of serial killer Peter Tobin back in 2007 when the skeletal remains of two of his victims were discovered in the back garden of Tobin’s former Margate home.

“I was doing live hits for the news channel then suddenly got a call to get to the live point, I went straight on air and as we were still on air they brought up the first of the bodies.

“It was just so unbelievably dramatic and still feels quite shocking; imagine living next door and just not knowing. The local community was devastated; up to that point it was in the abstract, then suddenly it became very real.”

However, Ian admits the hardest stories to tell are those that involve sick children and it is that tender heart that has led the father of two daughters and a son to giving as much support as he can to Kent Life’s Charity of the Year, ellenor.

Introduced to the charity via his wife, he says: “Charities like ellenor are unique, giving care in the child or person’s home, so if I can do something – however little – I will.”

Ian clearly loves Kent, helped by the fact that his wife, who has her own communications business, is a Tunbridge Wells girl (ex-TWGGS) and all her girlfriends from school have now come back ‘home’ after university and working in London.

“When they’ve settled down and had their children, they end up wanting to give their family what their parents gave them. It’s quite difficult to do that in London. Tunbridge Wells certainly has that pull and because of the juxtaposition to the capital, it will always have that freshness and cosmopolitan feel.”

And while acknowledging there are many similarities between his home town of Bath and Kent’s famous spa town, Ian says he doesn’t miss living in a rugby town: “Having played for Bath and Leicester rugby clubs I’ve been rather spoilt in that area,” he laughs.

“A couple of years into the job I remember driving through Kent early one morning in spring after a particularly hard winter and just thinking to myself, I am just so lucky to be working here.”

My favourite Kent

Place: I love Hever Castle, Margate as the sun is going down is unbeatable, Ightham Mote is always a delight

Keeping fit: when the kids were young, we used to walk as a family with the dogs - now it’s ‘not cool’ to walk with your parents! My wife is a great walker, she suggested we go walking on our first or second date, which I don’t particularly like –I’d rather run or cycle - but it was worth it! My friend and I go out on our bikes most Saturdays and Kent has such glorious countryside in which to enjoy it. I go to the gym at St John’s, largely for the social side and my love of keeping active

Eat and drink: The Hare at Langton Green, a lovely convivial place and it’s also my local

Shop: shirts from Fenwick and Hoopers locally and a couple of places along The Strand when I’m in London.

Follow Ian on Twitter @pinkygooner