Fifty years old and 10 good reasons to celebrate

IN A COUPLE of
weeks’ time, dozens of Britain’s top TV journalists and producers will
gather at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden to mark the 50th
anniversary of Independent Television News.

Most of them worked
for ITN at some point in their careers and many are now running major
news operations for other broadcasters. Some, of course, are still
there and others have been away and come back.

All will share
some pride in working for a world-beating news operation that has often
outshone its far bigger and better resourced rival at the BBC.

The
timing for these celebrations couldn’t be better for ITN and its
majority owner ITV, because ITV News is riding high this summer with
three world-class scoops to its name that have boosted morale and
journalistic reputation over at Gray’s Inn Road.

The
run of success for ITV News started in June with Neil Connery’s
smuggled report and pictures of the forced urban clearances in
Zimbabwe. This was quickly followed by the amazing video of the arrest
of alleged terrorists in west London and it was rounded off last month
with one of the best scoops ITV has ever had – the leaking of the
Independent Police Complaints Commission report into the shooting of
Jean Charles de Menezes.

Add to that the vastly improved
performance of the ITV News Channel and it’s clear that those now
running news on ITV have quite a lot to celebrate.

It’s all very
different from the picture just two years ago when the drawn-out saga
of News at When had sapped morale at ITV News and badly dented the
audiences of its flagship bulletin after nearly four years of
scheduling uncertainty.

At that time, BBC News executives
scornfully suggested that Sky News, not ITV News, was now their real
competitor. Eighteen months ago I wrote in this column that ITV News’
record in scoops and breaking stories was pretty poor and frankly I
have been proved wrong, too.

The lion’s share of the credit for
this really goes to my old boss on News at Ten, Dave Mannion. I think
of Dave as the prodigal son of ITN. He quit as head of ITV News in the
early Nineties and went on to work at GMTV and Tonight with Trevor
McDonald before returning to the fold a decade later, first as editor
and then as editor-inchief of ITV News.

Dave is probably the most
passionate and least cynical television journalist I have ever worked
with. He is also ultra-competitive and never gives up in a fight.

It
was he who pledged to make the BBC eat its words about ITV News and it
was he who restored the self-belief and reputation of a demoralised
editorial team.

This turnaround is even more extraordinary when
you consider it took him less than two years and was managed against a
background of cost saving across ITV’s national, digital and regional
news operations.

There’s a lot of healthy competition and quite a
lot of unhealthy envy in our business, but the fact that ITN marks its
50th birthday in good shape and under excellent stewardship is
something everyone in TV journalism should celebrate, especially if you
believe that competition is the spur to improvement.

It’s also
good for the reputation of news within the TV industry itself. Too
often we’re thought of as the boring old uncle of the TV family, so
it’s nice to be the centre of attention at a time when so much other
content on TV is coming in for stick. ITV managers especially ought to
be extremely grateful.

Looking forward, the conventional wisdom
is that ITN will soon be absorbed as the news division of ITV, its
majority shareholder. This may mean the loss of a much admired brand or
perhaps ITN will continue life primarily as a content supplier rather
than a service provider.

Whatever happens, the editorial DNA of
ITN has already spread throughout our industry – just look at the
people running Sky News and large chunks of the BBC.

For now,
it’s worth reflecting on the 50 years of enterprise by reporters,
camera operators, editors, engineers, producers, presenters, fixers,
subs and the rest that has made ITN what it is today. Here are 10 good
reasons I can think of to toast its golden anniversary this month:

1. The Iranian Embassy siege in 1980; ITN cameras are rolling as the
SAS abseil down the building and hurl in stun grenades (above).

2. Trevor McDonald’s interviews with Saddam Hussein just before the
first Gulf War and Nelson Mandela on his release from prison.

3. Michael Nicholson welcomes startled Turkish paratroopers as they land during the invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

4. The Omarska concentration camp in Bosnia is exposed by Penny Marshall and Ian Williams in 1992.

5.
Alan Downes’ film of Vietnamese refugee Kim Phuc running in terror
after a napalm attack, which became the iconic moving image of the
entire war.

6. Borrowing the chimes of Big Ben for the Bongs, which remain the best headline gimmick ever.

7. Inventing the personality reporter who engaged enthusiastically with the story and the viewer.

8. Boldly going where no TV news team has gone before – live from the Great Wall of China, for example.

9. VT80 – a breakthrough in computer graphics that made Captain Pugwash look really sophisticated!

10. And finally… the awareness that humour has a place in popular journalism.

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller of Five Next week: Alex Thompson

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