To celebrate the 50th anniversary of ITV News at Ten, anchor Julie Etchingham has interviewed her former co-presenter and Sir Trevor McDonald about his highlights working on the bulletin.
The full interview airs tonight at 10pm.
Julie Etchingham: News at Ten at 50, what does that mean to you?
Trevor McDonald: Well it seems a very long time of course, I came in fairly late in the piece with News at Ten but even then I was aware that this was a news bulletin with a great difference.
Without being too critical of the way news was presented before, News at Ten – first of all it was a half hour programme, unheard of then but very common now, and the reports were authored, they were more accessible.
When you saw people reporting for News at Ten you’d probably seen them reporting in the field and so there was a degree of believability about what they did and it was not surprising that News at Ten caught on, it broke the mould.
And very soon became one of the most popular programmes on what was supposed to be an entertainment channel.
ITV was not supposed to be famous for news, in fact at the beginning of ITV somebody said: “Is this the end of civilisation as we know it?” Well, in fact News at Ten changed all that and helped to make ITV, I think, what it is today.
Etchingham: How did it nurture its relationship with the audience, it did it in a very particular way didn’t it, in terms of how people related to the reporters in the field and also anchors like you in the studio?
McDonald: I think it was just the fact that people got acquainted with people that did News at Ten by having seen them reporting from Southern Africa or the Middle East and about complex issues like East-West relations.
And so there was that sort of relationship built up with the viewership and I think News at Ten benefited from that. And of course the anchors became very famous, I mean Reggie Bosanquet, Andrew Gardner, the great great Alastair Burnet and people like that.
They became household names and that was very different from the rather laid back kind of cold presentational way in which news was done before.
This is not to be critical of the way news was done before but ITN changed that, ITN was entirely different, it was more personable, it was more accessible, they got to know the people – they became household names and that always helps if you’re trying to tell people what’s happening in the world.
Etchingham: It was a time of great innovation because technology was starting to help the way news was delivered, what memories have you got? You were there as a correspondent before you ever got into the anchor’s chair…
McDonald: Well I saw a variety of changes in the way news was delivered I mean once upon a time you sent back tapes and you had a long time to consider what you’d say in this report and then of course it all became much more quick and you had to make up your mind about what the stories were.
But you were on the scene, people identified with what you did as a reporter, as a journalist and I think that helped in anchoring the news.
Now, I know this is a controversial subject, people don’t always accept that, I think it was very important in the way News at Ten was able to establish itself by building that relationship with the audience.
Etchingham: It must have been a thrilling time to be a young correspondent and then to move through the ranks in the way that you did, what are your best memories of the young days that you were there?
McDonald: The newsroom was very intense, it was very competitive. People were vying for stories, News at Ten, although half-an-hour, it had a limited time for the news and the competition to get on News at Ten was something that I remember to this day.
Everybody was vying to be the first to do this. One of my memories is that I managed to get on to News at Ten on the first day I joined ITN, there was an interview to be done and nobody else was around and I did it.
So on my very first day at ITN, I had an interview on News at Ten and that is always still a very fond memory. It was an interview with a man called Ronald Bell, who was a member of the Monday Club, and so this was somebody whose political views were quite obviously a million miles away from anything that people could believe mine were.
He had been honoured I think in the New Year’s honours list or he was talking about something, anyway, I did the interview with Ronald Bell and that was my first day at ITN and I made News at Ten, and I’ll always remember that.
Etchingham: And so you moved through the ranks, you covered some extraordinary stories on route to getting in the anchor’s chair but when you were told that you would be anchoring the programme, just remind me of what went through your mind?
McDonald: It was all terribly strange really, I was trying to have a career at ITN and one day the editor called me up. The editor then was Nigel Ryan and he said: “I think you should probably try anchoring the news. I’ve been thinking about your career.” At that stage I didn’t think I had one! So it was rather nice that someone was thinking of this non-existent career and that is how it started.
He added, which I think was really wonderful and has framed my life and my reporting experience, he said: “You could be like Sandy Gall.” And I thought ‘like Sandy Gall?’ He said: “By that I mean you could spend some time anchoring the news and you could travel for the rest of the time.”
I thought all my ships had just come in at once. I had this wonderful good fortune of being able to travel across the world covering big events, getting a front seat at international meetings of great importance and I could come back and anchor the news – it’s a great life to be able to do that.
Etchingham: That moment, you and I know it well, that moment when you’re counting down to going on air and you can hear the bongs in your earpiece, the first time you did that…
McDonald: Sheer terror! Absolute terror. I had never seen myself in that position, I never aspired to anchor News at Ten. I always thought, if I ever gave it a thought, that it was probably just a little beyond my reach.
So to sit there and to be part of it, absolute terror, and I was so relieved when it all ended on that first night and people did not think it had been a total disaster. And there were disasters along the way, there always are.
The most interesting thing I found about doing News at Ten was that it was a rolling programme so things could happen and people would be talking in your ear about something which had changed and the difficulty for me was always picking up figures, if someone said: “This has changed and it’s half a million people and so on..”
I can read fairly well but to be told figures and numbers while I’m trying to read pretty ordinary lines was always terribly difficult. But also, the fact that you were always connected to the control room – you were always aware of everything that was going on outside, I still think that was a bit cruel to presenters actually.
I know that many people talk about selective talkback where you only hear what concerns you, the thing about hearing everything though is that you can spot when there’s likely to be trouble so you can gird your loins and get prepared to do something that is not on the schedule, so that was helpful but it was always on a knife-edge, it was always terrifying and [I was] always, at half-past-ten, delighted to have come to the end of it without any disasters.
Etchingham: There’s so many highlights but two key journalistic moments in your career, the interview with Nelson Mandela and the interview with Saddam Hussein, when you went to get that interview with Saddam you suddenly found his team were quite well aware of what News at Ten means to a UK audience…
McDonald: I think the Saddam Hussein people did the interview with us because they knew about News at Ten and that was the fame of News at Ten.
They gave us a bit of a runaround, they were not easy to deal with but once you got to him he was strangely a very good interlocutor – he attempted seriously to answer questions, you didn’t agree at all with his answers and you thought that he’d taken a view which was quite contrary to anything that people in the west believed.
Once you got to him it was alright but there were a lot of thugs around him that made it fairly uncomfortable, I remember that. I also remember there was a view in Britain that maybe Saddam Hussein was so beyond the pale that he should not be interviewed. And we had a great PR campaign to build to say that this man should be heard on British television.
He was holding British hostages, about to engage in a war against western interests, he should be heard. So because of that pressure, which built up about whether this man should be interviewed I was told that the interview had to be very tough. And on reflection, I think I went a little too far.
At the beginning I said to him “Is it a very Arab thing to do to go into a neighbouring country, to invade it and rape its people?” Now I think that could’ve been put slightly better and if I had my chance again I think I would’ve done it differently but it was an indication of the pressure which had built up on ITN.
There were some people who thought ITN should not be doing this interview, ITV was then a conglomeration of regional interests and we got the interview and some people were not very pleased.
So I felt I had to go in with all guns blazing and he was quite thrown by it and many years later one of his people in London said to me “you know Trevor, you were very rude to our president. Although he didn’t use the word very!”
Etchingham: Of course the one interview everyone wanted, in the same year, was the one with Nelson Mandela. For News at Ten to get that interview, for you to get that interview must be one of the crowning achievements of the heritage of the programme and for you?
McDonald: It was the moment of my life and great for News at Ten. In fact it began the night before because we anchored News at Ten live from Soweto, one of my colleagues David Mannion – who was assistant editor had the idea of getting Desmond Tutu onto the flatbed truck on which we did this programme.
And of course, we hadn’t reckoned that when you got Desmond Tutu onto any platform all of Soweto would rise up in the most noisy celebration that you had ever heard.
I was trying desperately to be heard above the noise of dancing and singing and shouting and general celebration about the fact a man who many people believed would change the face of South African politics had been freed and was about to come back to his Soweto home.
It was very difficult, what I do remember very fondly is that the editor of ITN then Stuart Purvis got down through the earpiece and talked to me and “Trevor, you can’t fight it, just go with the flow.”
I was so pleased to hear that because I was straining to be heard above this joyous noise and I knew I couldn’t win. It was the most memorable night. I tried, in this general atmosphere of celebration to say to Desmond Tutu “might it be that your man might not fulfil all the expectations?”
And he said: “Man, this is not a time to doubt, this is a time to celebrate, let’s dance!” And the rain started to fall and we were jumping up and down with umbrellas on the live News at Ten so certainly one of the highlights of my time as presenter.
Etchingham: And then to get the interview [with Mandela] itself, how extraordinary was that?
McDonald: The interview itself was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in that I couldn’t get Mandela to focus on any of the great difficulties that he would encounter getting South Africa on the road to democracy.
He refused to believe it and he said something which I thought was important and I think is important today… he said, when I confronted him with the problems he would face in doing a deal with the national party, he said: “If you are prepared to compromise, when you talk seriously, all things are possible.”
And I said: “No, no, all things are not possible. Peripheral things might be possible but the fundamental bits would remain contentious” And he said: “No , if you are prepared to compromise and if you’re prepared to talk seriously everything is possible.” That’s a great political lesson for today.
Etchingham: [News at Ten] is a team effort at the end of the day isn’t it, there’s an extraordinary young team, well young and old team of journalists working on [the bulletin] now, what would your message be to the current team?
McDonald: But I think that was the key. It was a small team and still is. ITN always had some of the finest writers in the business but they also allowed presenters to get involved and to trespass on the writer’s prerogative.
So you felt like you were part of what was going on and this small team worked together, we argued among ourselves about how to do a story. The great trick about television news is not deciding what you do but deciding how you do what you do. How do you make somebody living in Norfolk interested in what’s going on in Syria?
And that is what the writers and the production team, and I hope the presenters manage to do on News at Ten. We got that sense of immediacy of bringing the world to people’s living rooms, I think News at Ten was and continues to be absolutely marvellous at doing that.
Etchingham: And just a final thought on its place in television history?
McDonald: I think News at Ten will always have a place in television history. It did break the mould, it was the first half hour news, I think it probably was the first to use two presenters, certainly in this country, and those presenters became- you know Reggie Bosanquet, Andrew Gardner – they were the household names, then Alastair Burnet and people like that, they all made News at Ten an institution.
I think it’s place in history is assured, there are now a multiplicity of channels from which we can get our information now and social media, but still I think that appointment to view and the way News at Ten cornered that market, I think, will always remain.