And finally... what's ITN all about?

RICHARD LINDLEY’s
history of Independent Television News is like the lament of a wounded
lover. He writes with boundless pride and affection about the
achievements and high moments, and he bitterly criticises the
“threadbare” and endangered organisation that he sees today.

That ITN really shook up the world of British television news when it started in 1955 is beyond question.

Even
BBC political editor Andrew Marr admits (in the book’s foreword) that
its platoon of “bastard artists” (people who knew how to combine
journalism with showbusiness) ruthlessly exposed the BBC’s stuffy and
picture-scared traditionalism.

Although his book is authoritative
and impeccably researched, Lindley essentially gives an insider’s view
of ITN, providing a glimpse of what it was like to work there in the
heyday of the organisation and with ITN superstars, Sandy Gall, Reggie
Bosanquet, Andrew Gardner, Alastair Burnett and Michael Nicholson.

Lindley
worked for ITN as a reporter for eight years from 1965 and, after a
long stint with the BBC and the Panorama team, he returned to ITN for
another eight years in the ’90s.

He coped admirably as a new boy
with reporting on Rhodesia’s UDI when he was virtually the only British
TV newsman in the country, and he went on to do distinguished work in
every corner of the globe, from Britain to Tristan da Cunha, Idi Amin’s
Uganda, Vietnam and Yemen – getting shot at more than once in the
process, but otherwise happy to have emerged unscathed.

ITN’s
beginning was shaky technically and conceptually, partly because of a
flaw in the system, a conflict of interests, that has been at the core
of many of ITN’s problems over the years – the fact that its coffers
are controlled by the bosses of the ITV companies.

“All these
regional companies clubbed together to create ITN, which they own, and
while they can’t control its output and policies, they do control its
money. So when they have their ITN hat on they think it’s a great idea
to send a team to, say, Bogota for a scoop, but when they get back to
their ITV companies, their instinct is to cut the ITN budget back.

There has always been this conflict of interest,” Lindley tells me.

But
still, ITN showed the way, particularly after the masterstroke, in
1967, of creating News at Ten – in the teeth of opposition of ITV
executives who hated the idea of giving up a whole 30 minutes to the
news, and never thought it would work.

“I was working there at
the time, and it was a great moment. Everyone expected that it would
fail, but News at Ten took off, and suddenly we were literally the most
popular programme on commercial television.

Hard to imagine now, isn’t it?”

So what was the secret of this success?

“Firstly,
we had a terrific team of reporters who learned to run fast and not
fight among themselves. I remember watching three BBC teams squabbling
over a can of film at Nairobi airport while I zipped in and got an
exclusive interview with General Gowan. ITN was the sort of place where
people said things like, ‘Yes, great idea! Let’s do it!’ And we also
had these great newscasters like Reggie Bosanquet and, later, Sir
Trevor McDonald, who were hugely popular.”

Bosanquet, he admits,
had a serious drink problem and there was often a distinct fear that he
would “fall off the air” during a broadcast. “They put up with him for
so long because he was an attraction – it’s very hard to sack someone
the public loves.”

The scoops came thick and fast, notable among
them being that amazing event in 1970 when Michael Nicholson and his
UPTN cameraman got exclusive film of three hijacked planes being blown
to smithereens at a remote desert airstrip in Jordan – an event partly
facilitated by the fact that the cameraman was a Palestinian
sympathiser. He had obviously heard something when he tapped Nicholson
on the shoulder and said: “Come with me…”

But, laments Lindley,
it has all gone wrong, particularly since the awful blunder of
abandoning News at Ten in 1999. “This was an act of people who knew the
price of everything and the value of nothing. They wanted to squeeze
more money out of the companies and they persuaded themselves that all
their problems were due to the news sitting on the 10pm slot.

“Some
say that ITN should have fought harder against it, but it is very hard
to fight the people who are paying for your main contracts.”

Today
ITN is threadbare, says Lindley. “They do a great job trying to
disguise it, but I say it looks thin, and the money obviously isn’t
there. And what is really frightening is that some ITV bosses think
that new technology will enable them to cut even more money out of
providing the news.”

And finally… Lindley says the big issue for ITN has always been: what is it for?

“It’s
there to provide information that we need in a democratic Britain, and
it’s necessary because it would be quite wrong to go back to the BBC’s
monopoly.

One of the reasons for creating ITV and ITN was to provide an alternative, quality news service.

“I
don’t want to wake up one day and find that Rupert Murdoch has decided
that Sky News should be like Fox News, and that ITN has gone and all we
have is the BBC doing what it bloody well likes.We have to have an
independent news provider.”

Matthew Lewin is a freelance journalist.

Richard Lindley’s book, And Finally…? The News from ITN, is published by Politico’s at £18.99

Comments
No comments to display

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 × 4 =

CLOSE
CLOSE