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How my time as Union President helped me rise to the top at ITV: An interview with Dianne Nelmes

Having recently elected a new cohort of Sabbatical Officers on campus, we caught up with Class of 1973 alumna turned broadcasting juggernaut Dianne Nelmes to reminisce on her own experience as Students’ Union president.

3 May 2024

At the beginning of March, our city-centre campus was covered in campaign flyers and posters as a new wave of would-be Sabbs sought the support of their fellow students.

With issues like the cost of living, housing shortages and global sustainability high on the agenda, competition was fierce for the seven full-time paid roles available: Union President, Activities Officer, Athletic Union Officer, Student Media Officer, Education Officer, Postgraduate Officer and Welfare and Equality Officer.

Following a week of campaigning, the new team were elected on 7 March at a special ceremony in the Students’ Union building, which was streamed live on social media. The incoming Sabbatical Officers will work closely with students, NUSU and the university to bring all three together to create a well-rounded experience for our student community.

The buzz on campus during elections had us reflecting on what the future might hold for our new Sabbs. To find out more, we caught up with Politics and Economics graduate Dianne Nelmes, who held the role of Union President in 1973/4 and went on to enjoy a long and award-winning broadcasting career spanning news, current affairs, investigative journalism and lifestyle programming.

Hi Dianne, thanks for speaking with us! Can you firstly introduce yourself to your fellow alumni and tell us a bit about your time at Newcastle University?

I’m currently a Broadcasting Consultant specialising in crisis Public Relations, and I also advise in media presentation, but I’ve had a long career in all aspects of broadcasting and journalism! Most notably, at ITV I launched some of Britain’s most successful lifestyle and entertainment programming which some of your readers may be familiar with, including This Morning with Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, Stars In Their Eyes and You’ve Been Framed. As Controller of Documentaries, I commissioned many award-winning programmes including the iconic investigation into child poverty in Britain: Kelly and her Sisters.

I came to the ‘big city’ of Newcastle in 1970 to study Politics and Economics, having grown up in a tiny Berkshire village. I lived a year in Havelock Hall at Castle Leazes, which I thought was the height of luxury compared to the cold council house I was used to!

I already harboured ambitions to be a journalist when I moved to Newcastle and got involved with The Courier straight away. Looking back, writing for the paper definitely kept me out of trouble! If I wasn’t studying, I was writing – my whole social life was in the scruffy Courier office.

And what are the stand-out memories from your student days?

One Sunday evening I was in the Courier office when Paul McCartney walked in! He was touring with his new band Wings and as the Students’ Union was closed, we arranged for them to perform at Havelock Hall instead. I even got to travel the short journey up Richardson Road with McCartney and the band in their van. This was so exciting as a huge Beatles fan!

Wow, what an experience! After you graduated in 1973, you stayed on in Newcastle as the Union President. What made you want to run for the position?

I’ve always been politically-minded. In school I was involved in the Debating Society and as Head Girl, I helped establish a Student Council that campaigned on many issues – including trying (and failing!) to abolish the strict uniform regulations.

I decided to stand for NUSU President because, back then, the role generally went to the Medical School or the Agricultural School: and to men! During my campaign, I promised to challenge the attack on student grants which was just emerging and to keep beer and food prices down!

What was your time in office like as a new graduate?

My year as President was a tough one: I faced many challenges from the Far Left. I held many Extraordinary General Meetings in the Debating Chamber, which attracted hundreds of students and was my main tool for winning political battles. The Debating Chamber was a stunning replica of the House of Commons and a huge presence in university life: I was sad when it was demolished.

Despite the challenges, there were some real highs too. I am an ardent Royalist and on the cold November wedding day of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips, I invited about 100 pensioners into the Students’ Union to watch the wedding on our huge TV. Along with my executive team and volunteer students, we served them tea, coffee and lunch. It was a lovely day.

What were the big issues facing students in the 1970s that you sought to improve as President?

I gave the then Vice-Chancellor a pretty hard time on issues like rent rises and rogue, university approved landlords. Looking back, we were very privileged, and I suspect a real pain: we were all on grants with fees paid and employment pretty much guaranteed. We had the luxury of being able to play the politics game for a year or two.

The Debating Chamber was a HUGE part of university life with debates every Saturday evening: students taking on high profile speakers from the city and sometimes Parliament. I have a delightful letter from Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, thanking me for the invitation to speak in Newcastle and apologising that he was rather too busy running the nation!

I, however, think the students of today are battling much, much more serious issues. Their ceaseless campaigning on climate and fossil fuel issues puts many politicians to shame. Their attention to mental health issues is outstanding: the student officers I have met in recent years are far, far more caring to their peers than we were.

Can you tell us about where life took you following your time in office?

The Watergate Scandal was hitting headlines during my presidency and I was obsessed with the story, it really fuelled my ambition to become a campaigning journalist. I had thought of a career in politics, but by the end of my year as President I was a touch disturbed at how cunning I had become to achieve my aims! I am essentially a very honest person, instilled in me by my mother and Welsh mining background, and so rather than becoming a politician I pursued an honest and clear, campaigning career in journalism.

I think it was the combination of my work with The Courier and my year as President that landed me a coveted graduate traineeship with one of the leading newspaper groups of the time. I had to sign a 4-year apprenticeship where I worked on a London evening paper and then the Newcastle Journal, which was an incredible training opportunity. I later moved into television at BBC Look North as a journalist and on-screen reporter.

What is your proudest moment from your phenomenal career?

My proudest moment was landing a journalist’s post on World In Action, Granada’s award-winning investigative current affairs series. I spent several years there and regard that work as my most impressive investigative journalism. Many years later, I was appointed the first and only woman executive producer of the series.

I was always passionate about women's issues, and in 1988 launched a brave new programme: This Morning with Judy Finnigan and Richard Madeley. I don't think any of us realised at the time what a huge success this would be and, professionally, that first year was my happiest. Ten years later, I created and launched Loose Women.

That’s amazing that such staples on our screens were the brainchild of a Newcastle graduate! Finally, can we ask you what advice you would like to give to Leo David, who will be NUSU President in 2024/25?

The year as President will benefit you throughout your career and you should take the most out of it.

I remain very grateful that I was given the privilege of an outstanding education at Newcastle University and very proud that I was elected President of the Students’ Union.

Meet the 2024/25 Sabbatical Officer team

Huge congratulations to Leo, our incoming NUSU President, and the rest of the newly elected Sabbatical Officer team. Alongside the seven full-time officer roles, our student body will be represented and supported by a team of six voluntary officers too.