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Set to bring hope

Faith is a live issue, TV presenter Sean Fletcher tells Andrew Stone

Breakfast television means you’re up at four in the morning

ARE young people under too much stress with their exams? What type of legacy will President Trump leave? Are men’s rights being overlooked? Those are some of the issues already covered in the new series of BBC One’s Sunday Morning Live, the topical debate show hosted by Cherry Healey and Sean Fletcher.

‘They’re good, meaty topics you can get your teeth into,’ Sean enthuses as he talks about the show, which covers some of each week’s biggest issues from a religious or ethical viewpoint. Viewers are able to contribute to the debates via text, email and social media, and Sean believes that even the day before the show is broadcast he knows which of the topics will get the audience talking.

‘On a Saturday, my wife, Luned, and I go for a walk with our dog along the Thames. We could talk about what to put on the shopping list, but instead we discuss the issues for the show.

‘I think it will be a good show if the topics get us talking.’

However, when he is actually presenting Sunday Morning Live, Sean is careful to keep his own opinions out of the discussions.

‘I need to be impartial,’ he says. ‘If there are four guests – two on one side of the debate and two on the other – I need to play devil’s advocate to both sides. I might think one person is completely wrong, but my job as a presenter is to challenge everyone.

‘Sometimes if I think that one guest isn’t representing their side well, I may need to help get their point across, but that’s so that the viewer gets to see a balanced debate with all the views and some well-crafted arguments.

‘With any journalism, you need to be challenging things, and that might mean you’re not expressing your own opinion.’

That approach works well for Sean on Sunday Morning Live, but he needs to have a different attitude for some of his other work. Sean is one of a team of presenters on ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

‘That’s a lot more opinion-based,’ he says of the show that is hosted three days a week by Piers Morgan, who often makes headlines himself because of some of his more outspoken views. ‘There have been times when I have disagreed with Piers, and I’ve told him that on air.

‘But Piers enjoys a good discussion, and he respects you more if you stand up for what you think. You have to respect that because some people can’t handle the fact that you’re arguing with them. Piers may disagree with you, but he will fight vehemently for you to have the right to express your opinion.

‘Having that discussion on air is all part of the show. In fact, Good Morning Britain is a real variety in itself. It’s hard work, but it’s good fun. We deal with some big issues and hard news stories, but we’re also having fun in a way we wouldn’t do on a later news bulletin.

‘It’s a wonderful mix to set people off on the day in a positive mood.’

However, at one stage, presenting that ‘wonderful mix’ every week was taking its toll on Sean and affecting the quality of his family’s life.

‘When I joined Good Morning Britain full-time I was asked how I was going to cope with the breakfast shifts,’ he says as he looks back at when he started on the programme in 2014. ‘I’m a morning person, and I’d worked on BBC Breakfast before and I did early shifts on Sky News. But breakfast television means you’re up at four in the morning. Even for a morning person, that’s like having constant jet lag.

‘My daughter and son would be up late, and I found that my kids were putting me to bed – I never thought my teenage son would be doing that when I was only in my early forties! In the end I decided to stop working on the programme full-time and go freelance, because I needed to get a bit of my life back. Now I get to stay up late with the family.’

Sean still does some early-morning shifts on Good Morning Britain, but not having to be up so early every morning has allowed him to take up new opportunities.

‘I have an amazing variety of work,’ he says. ‘One day I’m in west Wales walking a coastal path in beautiful weather and talking about the wildlife there for Countryfile, then I come back and present Sunday Morning Live and host an ethical discussion on whether abortion is right. And the next day I’m doing an interview about someone’s faith for Songs of Praise.’

Sean has a particular interest in the work he does on Songs of Praise because of his own Christian faith.

‘I didn’t grow up in a Christian home, but I became a Christian when I started working on BBC radio,’ he explains. ‘I was a broadcast assistant on a programme called Any Sporting Questions which happened to be held at Queen’s Park Rangers Football Club.

‘Afterwards we were chatting with the audience, and I asked some of them what they did for a living. One was a lorry driver, another was an accountant and one said he was a vicar. When people heard him say that, they peeled away, not wanting to be caught in a religious conversation. So it was just me and the vicar, and he invited me to his church.

‘At around the same time, a former school friend of mine invited me to a course called Christianity Explained. As a result of those two invitations, I became a Christian early in my career.

‘It’s a joy on Songs of Praise to be able to work with people who either have a faith or an understanding of it. It changes the way you work because people have a different dimension or way of thinking about things.

‘When I was growing up, presenters just presented. But now it’s important that a presenter in a programme such as Songs of Praise shows that they empathise with their interviewees if they’ve had an experience similar to them. It makes it more moving.’

That was the case in one of the programmes Sean presented earlier this month. It focused on the impact cancer has on people’s lives. Sean, whose mother died of cancer, was moved to tears as he spoke to the people featured on the programme – particularly his former Sky colleague Simon Thomas, who lost his wife last year.

‘We were dealing with a really difficult subject, and it was moving,’ Sean reveals. ‘Simon was talking about something that had just happened. We talked a lot off-camera as well, and it was hard. Simon said in the interview that there were times when he was clinging on to his faith with his fingertips. I don’t know how I would have coped in his position.

‘But there was also a lot of hope in that programme because, if you have faith, you have hope that dying isn’t the end. It was desperately sad, but Simon had a hope that was moving and uplifting.

‘It is hard dealing with those subjects, but in Songs of Praise we’re dealing with them with hope and faith and that little spark of light – even when it’s the darkest of subjects.’

Hearing people talk about how their beliefs have sustained them encourages Sean in his own faith. However, his usual practice of going to church with his wife every Sunday morning has had to be put on hold.

Sunday Morning Live is on at 10 am and that’s when I normally go to church,’ he says. ‘The programme comes from the One Show studio, which is right next door to my church. So I look out from the studio and see the congregation I’m normally sitting with.’

Sean tries to make sure he catches up with the service by listening to a recording of it online, but admits that it’s not the same as being there in person.

‘It is a challenge not having a regular Sunday service to go to,’ he confides. ‘But the challenge is good because it makes me look for ways to keep my faith alive. It makes me determined to find a podcast or go to a later service. I just have to work harder.

‘Because I’ve had to work to keep it going and to keep receiving that teaching and guidance my faith is more robust.’

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