Nothing but the Truth ; BROADCASTING ++ BBC NEWS ++ the Corporation's Flagship News Programme Is Defying Industry Trends by Growing Its Audience. Ian Burrell Follows the Ten O'Clock News Team as It Seeks to Maintain Credibility in the Midst of the Mounting Storm over Editorial Standards
Burrell, Ian, The Independent (London, England)
It doesn't rain but it pours.
Half of England is under water, BBC head of news Helen Boaden is giving evidence to a parliamentary committee on a crisis in trust at the corporation, and now Huw Edwards has got a bowser problem.
Forty minutes before he is due to go on air, he has his make-up done and his pink tie fastened, but he is fretting in front of his monitor: "I need to use the dreaded word 'bowser'. Lots of people simply won't know what it is."
Britain's best-known television news presenter is doing what he considers his most important task in hosting the country's most- watched bulletin: honing the crucial few words at the top of the show that can either hook viewers or have them reaching for the remote.
"This is probably the thing that I'm most concerned about with the programme really, which might shock people because it's only 40 seconds long," he says. "We know beyond any kind of doubt that if you get those headlines wrong you are going to lose lots of viewers."
It is a nightly problem that the Ten O'Clock News seems to be getting right. At a time when television audiences are splintering, the BBC's flagship bulletin has improved its ratings by a quarter of a million, year on year. The rising water levels in the middle of England last week helped to lift the Ten's audience to a remarkable 6.3 million.
Yet, while viewers were turning to the corporation for news last week, senior BBC figures were being called before the Lords' communications committee to discuss the impact of the previous week's revelations of how the BBC had deceived its audiences. Boaden told the Lords that the scandal, which concerned programmes such as Children in Need and Comic Relief, risked damaging the wider reputation of the corporation. "I don't think we can dodge the fact that people do feel let down," she said.
Craig Oliver, the editor who has galvanised the Ten O'Clock News in the past year or so, says that he will not be including Boaden's comments in tonight's bulletin, but that he concurs with her views. "Honesty and getting the facts right runs through the core of everybody in BBC News," he says. "So when we saw the amount of deception involved, there were a lot of people in the newsroom, as there were across the BBC, who were genuinely shocked by it. That's not why they got into the business and there was clearly something wrong there."
Edwards, too, is angry. He had to host a lead story on the Ten about the debacle and interview his own ultimate boss, the director- general, Mark Thompson, on what had happened.
"People in BBC News don't need to be told it's wrong to deceive the audience - though clearly some people in bits of the BBC need to be told that and that's a terrible thing," says the newscaster. "In news, I think we responded in a pretty robust way. One was horror that some of these things had happened; and secondly an absolute determination for people to realise that BBC News hasn't lost any of the qualities of accuracy and fairness, which are central to what we do."
As the clock counts down to tonight's bulletin, Oliver, following consultation with Edwards and the news director, Andy Stone, has drawn up the running order. The special correspondent Gavin Hewitt has spent the day investigating problems with freshwater receptacles - Edwards' bowsers - in the flood-ravaged West Country; he stands in front of one in Gloucester to present his report. Earlier, he interviewed Gordon Brown on the issue, having been told by Oliver to "scramble" and confront the Prime Minister on camera. The piece will lead the bulletin, packaged with a report from David Shukman, the environment and science correspondent, on the failings of the authorities to heed flood warnings. The images of England under water are neatly juxtaposed with a report from Malcolm Brabant in Athens on the heatwave that has claimed 100 lives in south-eastern Europe.
Terror, almost inevitably, demands precious seconds of airtime: Nicholas Witchell is preparing to report live to camera about carnage in Baghdad, and the political editor, Nick Robinson, is teaming up with Daniel Sandford, home affairs correspondent, for a double-pronged package of analysis on new measures in Britain to increase security.
Alastair Darling's apparent willingness to accept some of the billions that China wants to invest overseas provides Rory Cellan- Jones with the opportunity to report on a "Great Wall of Cash", using the BBC's own giant graphic studio wall to illustrate his live piece.
Edwards credits Oliver, who has previously worked at rival news providers ITV News, Channel 4 News and Five News, for having introduced a "lot of energy" and transforming the appearance of the Ten O'Clock News. "The biggest obvious borrowing that Craig has brought in is a much sharper sense of the visual impact of the programme," Edwards says. "The biggest change has been making things look sharper and improving storytelling. It was quite a shock for lots of people when he started, actually. People thought 'My God, what's he doing?' But actually he's sharpened it up a lot."
The newscaster thinks the Ten O'Clock News has to be prepared to be a little less po-faced. "The phrase I'd use is whether the Ten 'loosens up' a bit. I think the process of loosening up is a good one and if that means there's an 'And finally...' thing then great, but it doesn't happen every night because there isn't an appropriate story every night."
More conservative ears might prick up at the suggestion that the bulletin should become more populist. "I think the Ten does straddle a bit of a divide," says Edwards. "There's a view in the BBC in some quarters that the Ten should all be about very heavy foreign news and lots of heavy analysis, and there's another view in the BBC that it should be actually about a broader mix of stuff."
He believes the balance is somewhere between the two. "I think there is room for some lighter stuff, whether it's on arts coverage or some quirky thing." he says. "Ten years ago the Nine O'Clock News as it was would never touch that. Today it does, and I do think that's good, because it gives the programme a more human face and connects with viewers in a way that it didn't in the past."
Edwards' own working day has changed, so that for more than a year he has been presenting on the rolling News 24 channel for an hour each day from 5-6pm. "I'm still in at 2.30pm, but until 6pm I'm fully committed to News 24, and so it is really forcing a lot more effort into those four hours until 10pm," he says, sounding a little pressed. "I can't pretend that has been totally straightforward because it hasn't been."
Not that he dislikes the environment of rolling news. "I like the fact that on 24 I can be a bit more of myself. The traditional news bulletin is a bit of a straitjacket for a presenter. It can be extremely frustrating, and that's why on 24 you can apply your journalistic skills in a much more obvious way. You are asked to handle any breaking news, and can be given any type of interview to do at a moment's notice - you are being a performing journalist in every proper sense of the word," says Edwards, who as a child nurtured an ambition to become a virtuoso pianist. "The Ten is different because your journalistic effort goes into the writing and the selection of stuff in the evening. So that when you appear at ten o'clock there's no reason for the viewer to assume you've written all the stuff that you do. Why should they assume that?"
Perhaps he feels that his role is undervalued in some quarters. Jack Straw last year claimed that newsreaders were overpaid and spent too much time "prancing around" studios; the former BBC political editor Andrew Marr has described the role of newscaster as merely "reading an autocue".
Already this year Edwards has presented from Afghanistan and Iraq (where he shared a tent in the desert with Oliver, who also felt he could benefit from a spell in the field, and has an Iraqi flag on his office wall as a souvenir). "Not many presenters have been out there," says Edwards. "People will think, 'Yes, he's actually been to Basra, he does know what he's talking about', and that's very important to me. You have mixed feelings about going to these places, especially if you've got five kids, but I thought the reasons for going were good and I'm glad I went. Though I'm not saying I would want to hurry back."
He accepts that some viewers think such presenting "from the front line" can be overdone. He disagreed that he should spend a second night presenting from Suffolk on last year's serial killer story ("In retrospect, I think I was right") and was reluctant to go to the Algarve for the disappearance of Madeleine McCann - though he managed to gain access to a suspect in the case, Robert Murat, thanks to his anchorman status ("I admit I was probably wrong about that").
He was out in the field again early last week, and didn't entirely enjoy the experience. Asked about the BBC's apparent luxury of resources in comparison to its rivals, he says: "I'd like them to have seen me on Monday in Gloucester, where we were frankly struggling on a shoestring operation. We were feeding News 24 and all the major bulletins all from a tiny van in a muddy field with no resources at all and virtually no shelter. I did look at Sky's resources with some envy, with their mini-marquee. We were in some bushes overlooking a flooded street, which was a better shot but it came with huge problems. We couldn't get proper shelter. The cameras were soaked, the lights were soaked, the radio mics wouldn't work."
Tonight, things seem to be progressing rather more smoothly. Oliver walks at a quick march from one edit suite to another, where Sandford, Shukman and others are fine-tuning their pieces, and graphics experts are applying final touches to their artwork. This is one of several tours of inspection that Oliver makes in the last couple of hours before the bulletin goes to air.
The editor himself avoids the word "bulletin", preferring to refer to the Ten O'Clock News as a "programme". "What I mean by that is that I think it has got a beginning, a middle and an end. There is light and shade. It's not just a list of the stories of the day in order of importance," Oliver says. "[But] nobody can ever leave the programme without thinking they know the most important things that have happened in the world today."
He thinks the resilience of the Ten in the face of web-based competition is a testimony to the lasting attraction of well-edited television news. "I think people still do appreciate being told, 'This is what we think you should know'. That's not being preachy or saying we know best - it is providing people with a service. We've thought about this for you, and this is what we think you need to know."
Oliver says that Mark Mardell, the BBC chief political correspondent, admitted to him that the consumption of some BBC news pieces in the past was an experience akin to "eating a packet of digestive biscuits without water". But though the editor believes in the importance of good visual presentation - "using the medium to tell the story well" - he is at pains to stress that he is not trying to bring ITV News to Television Centre, and that traditional BBC news values remain the bedrock of the programme.
Into the mix he is anxious to bring more investigative journalism. A piece on child trafficking in Bulgaria by Sangita Myska, based on eight weeks of investigation, was due to be a centrepiece of tonight's programme, but is being held over because of the floods (it will run the following evening).
At 9.52pm, Oliver, who began his working day at 8am, walks into the gallery, plonks himself down in a chair and puts on his glasses and headphones. By now, Edwards has had his last touch of make-up and conducted the first of three rehearsals of reading the headlines ("It took me an hour to write them"). Edwards has cracked his "bowser" conundrum by inserting the words "these tanks": "More bowsers are promised on the streets but many of these tanks are empty." The last rehearsal takes place at 9.57pm. As the show comes on air, Stone goes into action, punching buttons with his right hand, pointing at screens with his left and calling instructions to journalists and production staff ("Run titles... stand by live graphics... go five... cue Huw... change graphics...")
Producers come nervously into the room to watch their pieces go to air. A late-breaking story about the withdrawal from the Tour de France of the leading rider, Paul Rasmussen, is dropped into a package already prepared by James Munro.
Everything is going swimmingly until the opt-out to BBC regional news programmes, when viewers in London see presenter Riz Lateef rudely cut off in mid-sentence. A series of glitches has led to a major over-run. Stone explains that he cannot wait for London when the rest of the country is ready for the hand-back to Edwards. As the Welshman rounds off the bulletin, an unhappy Lateef can be seen on one of the gallery screens trying to find out from colleagues what went wrong.
But that's not Oliver's problem. He professes himself very pleased with the day's work, especially Hewitt's angle on the bowsers. Ratings figures later show that five million viewers tuned in, more than double the number attracted by ITV News half an hour later.
Barely five minutes after coming off air, Edwards has his coat on. He won't be back in the morning because he has a day off from the newsroom. "I'm filming a documentary about Gladstone and Disraeli for BBC4. It will be out in October," he says, and heads for the door.
TEN O'CLOCK TEAM-MATES
Bruce joined the BBC in 1989 as a researcher and then assistant producer on Panorama. She has also presented the Six O'Clock News, and in 2001 became the first woman presenter to be part of the BBC election team. She is a graduate of Hertford College, Oxford, where she read French and Italian. She decided to go into journalism after stints in management consultancy and advertising. As well as the news, she also presents Crimewatch and Real Story.
A newspaper journalist for 24 years before he jointed the BBC in 2006, Robert Peston's CV includes executive roles on most of the prestigious British titles, such as the Financial Times, The Sunday Telegraph, The Sunday Times and the Independent on Sunday. He began his career by winning the Wincott Young Financial Journalist of the Year in 1986 and is the author of Brown's Britain, published in 2005. He is a lifelong Arsenal supporter.
A former deputy editor of Panorama, Robinson is one of the few people who switch from working behind the camera to appearing in front of it. He rejoined the BBC as political editor in 2005, having spent three years doing the same job at ITV. He is a graduate of University College, Oxford, where he studied politics, philosophy and economics, and says he was inspired to go into broadcasting by the Today presenter, Brian Redhead, a family friend.
Formerly the BBC's chief political correspondent, Mark Mardell was appointed to the role of Europe editor in 2005 - part of a bid by the BBC to focus more on the EU and its relationship with the UK. He began his career as a reporter for Radio Tees and moved to London to join Independent Radio News as industrial editor, where his job involved covering the miners' strike of 1984 and dodging police horses during The Times dispute at Wapping in 1986.
A graduate of St John's College, Oxford, where he read politics, philosophy and economics, Davis's first experience of journalism was as editor of the student newspaper, Cherwell. He joined the BBC in 1993 as an economics correspondent for BBC Radio and became economics editor in 2001. His book Public Spending was published in 1998 and he is the co-author of The Penguin Dictionary of Economics and The New Penguin Dictionary of Business.
Born in Essen, Germany, Matt Frei has reported from Washington since 2002. He joined the German section of the BBC's World Service in 1986 after graduating from Oxford University, where he read history and Spanish. He has reported on the handover of Hong Kong and the Gulf War, and also on the fall of the Berlin Wall, having arrived in Germany to take up the post of Bonn correspondent the day the wall fell in November 1989.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Nothing but the Truth ; BROADCASTING ++ BBC NEWS ++ the Corporation's Flagship News Programme Is Defying Industry Trends by Growing Its Audience. Ian Burrell Follows the Ten O'Clock News Team as It Seeks to Maintain Credibility in the Midst of the Mounting Storm over Editorial Standards. Contributors: Burrell, Ian - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: July 3, 2007. Page number: Not available. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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