From finance to medicine to the media
Authors: Beth Chapman
Publication date: 27 III 2004
Executive producer at the BBC Michael Mosley has had an unconventional career, as Beth Chapman finds out
Many people can identify a turning point in their career or life, perhaps determined by a chance meeting or a favourable situation. For Michael Mosley the driving force behind his change of direction was not the subtle cogs of fate but a conscious decision to leap, almost blindly, from a promising medical career into the world of media.
The finance years
Although quite a drastic move, Michael had already paved an unconventionally zigzagged career path for himself. After studying politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford, he worked for two years as a banker in the city before realising that he was more interested in people than finance. “I decided then that my primary interest in life wasn't making money for myself or other people. I was passionately interested in what makes people tick... and I actually went into medicine intending to become a psychiatrist.”
The medical years
Studying medicine at the Royal Free Hospital in London suited Michael well. His hunger for new facts enabled him to build on experiences gained from the previous degree and working in the city. Unfortunately, as a medical student he became disillusioned by the very specialty that had attracted him to medicine. “When I did my psychiatry placement, I didn't find it as enticing as I'd hoped it would be, and the general mood of psychiatry at that time was not very positive. I went into it with huge hopes and beliefs, and then it became more obvious that there were severe limitations to what you could do.”
Maybe it was his feeling of being unable to influence other people's lives in the way in which he had hoped that gave Michael the incentive to change his own again.
On a whim, he responded to a newspaper advertisement for a trainee assistant producer scheme at the BBC. He was offered the job and then had to make a decision between accepting that and doing his house jobs. He spoke to friends both in medicine and in the media, and each camp advised joining the other.
In the end his choice was determined by a gut feeling: “I went on holiday to Greece, and I had two telegrams that I wrote in my hand. One of them was to say no to the BBC and the other was to say no to the house job. I sent the one to the BBC—and I felt a tremendous sense of loss. Then I sent another telegram saying, `I've changed my mind.'”
That was in 1985. Michael is now an established executive producer at the BBC and has a portfolio of programmes which is as diverse as it is long.
Life in the media
As we talked about the many different strands he has covered it became clear that there are signature similarities linking the broadcasts together. He is comfortable jumping between the languages of mathematics and economics (Trouble Shooter, Back to the Floor), science (QED, Tomorrow's World, Horizon, Inventions that Changed the World), and medicine (Trust Me I'm a Doctor, Life Before Birth), yet it is his skill as a communicator that negates the need for an interpreter.
He succeeds in humanising topics that would not ordinarily be of interest to the average viewer—for example, 10 million people watched the docu-drama Pompeii, the Last Day, which was essentially a programme on volcanoes and history. Michael also applies his understanding of psychology to realise the captive strength of emotionally engaging the viewer.
The joy of both having a medical background and also being from the BBC is that you can go and talk to almost anyone in the world
The series Life Before Birth followed couples through the decision processes of antenatal screening. “There is something fantastically powerful about watching somebody genuinely wrestling with a dilemma,” explains Michael, who is no stranger to the difficulties of decision making. “And then you realise how difficult it is and then you empathise with it.” Being medically trained helps with the factual understanding of certain areas and also opens doors into others. “The joy of both having a medical background and also being from the BBC is that you can go and talk to almost anyone in the world. They feel they can talk to you openly.”
In addition, having his feet grounded in science ensures that the programme content is, as far as possible, evidence based, rational, and not too sensationalised. As Michael points out, “There is a tendency to be seduced by the emotional side. The danger is that you do an emotional story without having any factual basis behind it. That is wrong. It has to have weight. You can influence people with a moving story, but it has to be right.”
Identifying a story and researching the facts was certainly the winning formula behind Michael's first full length project. He had heard about the controversial work of Barry Marshall, realised that there was substance to his claims, and went on to make the award winning Horizon documentary revealing the proposed link between Helicobacter pylori and gastric ulcers. The response was overwhelming. Michael received over 20 000 letters from people in whom incurable pain had disappeared after taking antibiotics; the story was nominated for an Emmy award and won a number of international awards; the BMA gave him a gold award and the title of “Medical Journalist of the Year”; and several years later, the programme was listed as one of the most important factors to have influenced prescribing habits among general practitioners. 
Any lingering doubts about Michael's career move were laid to rest: “I probably did, in a funny way, more good with that one programme than if I had stayed in medicine for 30 years.”
In retrospect, Michael thinks that had there been a charismatic psychiatrist around at the time of his clinical placement, then he probably would have stayed on in medicine. Instead, he was inspired by Jana Bennett, who was his boss on Horizon (now director of television at the BBC), as she gave him the confidence to believe in his abilities. Michael's advice for anyone considering a move into media circles is, “Do it sooner rather than later.” He points out that there is always the safety net of a return to medicine. He didn't use that himself and aims to continue enthusing others (including many undergraduate medical students) through his programmes.
His position allows him a degree of self indulgence that ensures he maintains an enviable level of enthusiasm for everything he does. “That's what I really like about doing what I do. I can pursue passions.”
Michael is constantly seeking out new avenues and reinventing series formats. One of his current projects sees him on the other side of the camera, where he is presenting a two part special on BBC3, the Golden Mean.I do not have a particular fondness for maths in any form, but I found myself intrigued as Michael explained to me about this “magic” ratio that is found in nature, architecture, music, and forecasting.
He says that the world is governed by mathematics, which “makes you realise that it is predictable and that people are predictable.” Perhaps this is the clue as to why all of Michael's gambles have paid off.
Beth Chapman locum senior house officer and freelance journalist