Cover A picture of poise and confidence, Sharanjit Leyl wears the Kelly Baguettes five row bracelet and Kelly Baguettes choker from Hermès

Former BBC senior broadcast journalist Sharanjit Leyl shares how she’s using her voice for good, from addressing mental health issues to the best practices for navigating social media in order to #BreakTheBias

She was always a picture of poise and confidence as a producer and presenter of the BBC World News covering business, finance and politics, but “as a child, I was incredibly shy”, recalls Sharanjit Leyl. “In fact, in my first report card when I was in primary one at Henry Park Primary School, the teacher wrote, ‘She’s too shy and whispers to the teachers.’”

Leyl spent most of her childhood “working hard to try and defy this notion of shyness”, but it was not until her teenage years, when her family moved to Washington DC for her late father’s job as a diplomat, that the need to find her voice was amplified.

“I had to speak to all these people who had no concept of where I’m from, or what my background is, so suddenly having a voice—and especially one that represents the part of the world where you’re from—became very important,” she explains. “It was very difficult, but eventually I began to gain confidence when I learned that people are in fact interested to hear what you have to say.”

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And she has never looked back since, finding the same confidence in front of the camera as she embarked on a broadcasting career.

“I realised it’s not about me as a person,” she says decisively. “I’ve had to cover horrifying breaking news stories, from the Sri Lankan Easter Sunday bombings to the Christchurch shootings in 2019. You just kind of … swallow whatever concerns you have about your own safety and fears because, fundamentally, you have a responsibility to focus on telling the truth about what’s happening. It’s about ensuring, to the best of your ability, that people’s stories and pain are conveyed to the world with empathy while updating viewers with the latest news updates.”

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Leyl left BBC in mid-2021, after an 18-year career with the broadcaster, to pursue new interests. Her journalistic fervour, however, remains intact. While she continues to moderate high-level panels for the United Nations, multilateral development banks and corporate companies, she is also using her voice to speak out about—and take a firm stance on—topics that are close to her heart, including diversity and gender equality, as well as sustainability.

“I champion these causes and, for the longest time, I had to be impartial and could never take a side due to the nature of my job,” she explains. “It’s kind of a liberation to talk freely about the things that you are passionate about and can take sides on. Obviously, I am taking the side that everyone should be equal and treated equally.”

Obviously, I am taking the side that everyone should be equal and treated equally
Sharanjit Leyl

Equality, however, is a nuanced issue in an imbalanced world. When Leyl addressed her personal experiences with inequality within the industry, her social media platforms were immediately flooded with hate comments. “When I spoke out about inclusivity, I did so as I felt like I could finally speak up after so many years of not being able to share about my own lived experiences,” she says. “It created some discomfort among certain people, and I immediately got ‘trolled’ on social media with hate comments because, of course, they didn’t like what I was saying.”

The barrage of online hate did not ruffle her feathers, or deter her from taking a stance. “It’s like water off a duck’s back,” she shares. “It was certainly unpleasant, and it showed me a darker side to social media, but it didn’t affect me as these people were just taking potshots; they don’t know me personally.”

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While she remains unfazed, Leyl acknowledges that it is no easy feat. She has learned how to control her emotions over the years as a presenter, having had to cover several devastating news and tragedies. The formula, she shares, consists of exercise, breathing techniques, and being around loved ones.

“Mental health is so crucial in our digital age, where everyone is on social media,” she says sagely. “Get off your devices and give yourself a break. Take time out to go out for a walk. Surround yourself with the people you love; having actual relationships with real people as opposed to only online is so crucial.” 

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Mental health is so crucial in our digital age, where everyone is on social media
Sharanjit Leyl

So how then can one bring social issues to the table, if the sharing of opinions may bury you under the weight of online hate? Leyl takes a moment to consider her answer: “If you’ve got an opinion that challenges the norms, my advice will be to convey it thoughtfully in a kind and non-aggressive manner,” she says carefully. “It’s so easy to hide behind the screen, or a persona, and be anonymous on the internet, right? This emboldens people to say things that are thoughtless, hateful, or extremist.”

She points out that most people would not act in such a manner offline, when the cloak of anonymity comes off. “You’d be much kinder and more thoughtful if you were talking to someone in person. If you’re on the internet, you should really think about how you come across. Ultimately, people can find out who you are, so what you say does matter.” Leyl cites Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa as a great example. She admires the resolve and strength of the Nobel Peace Prize winner when it comes to “standing up and representing the part of the world where she’s from to the best of her ability”. 

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Does she feel that social media hate disproportionately affects women? Absolutely. “There’s this sense of power balance, which is just wrong. I think it’s imperative that everyone gets a voice and has an equal opportunity to express their opinion; it’s ultimately the way democracy works,” she asserts. Initiatives such as the UN’s Bodyright campaign, which calls for an end to misogyny and violence against women online, are crucial, says Leyl. 

While there is much to be discussed about the digital realm, Leyl is optimistic about the power of social media to drive important conversations and is heartened by those who use the platform for better good. “There are people who are working hard to represent diverse voices. If there’s more of such consciousness on how people conduct themselves on the internet, it can be such a positive place for change.”

Leyl is doing her part for positive change, starting first with the causes she is passionate about. She currently sits on the board of non-profit theatre company The Necessary Stage, a role she took on because of “resident playwright Haresh Sharma’s commitment to tackle important topics like mental health in his work”. She is also part of a mentoring programme by BoardAgender, an initiative of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations dedicated to advancing more women in senior leadership roles and boardrooms in Singapore.

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Watch Leyl as she discusses learning self-confidence, breaking biases and building an inclusive world in the video below: 

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