'I have an absolute vision of what I want to achieve in the next year'

By Caitlin Pike

Deborah
Turness rushes into her office, sits down and offers me her forgotten
lunch. After her first full year as editor of ITV News she is pausing –
for a few minutes – to reflect on the past 12 months, beginning with
the tsunami.

“We were in a position of being way out in front on the biggest story any of us can remember,” she says.

“We
didn’t realise how slow others would be and how the BBC would fail to
react. After two or three days the BBC still had their stringers out
there that nobody had heard of, who do a perfectly adequate job, but on
a story of that magnitude you need to be able to tell the story and it
really is only your very best people who can do that.”

She employed her ‘three man rule’

sending
senior foreign correspondent John Irvine and international editor Bill
Neeley to cover the story while Mark Austin anchored from the disaster
zone.

And in a year she describes as “Hell on Earth 2005”, she
believes ITV News was ahead of the BBC on all the major disasters: the
hurricane in New Orleans, the terror attacks in London and the
earthquake in Pakistan.

Perhaps afraid of sounding too self
congratulatory, she adds: “I am always happy to recognise when people
have done better, but I really believe we offered the best coverage in
Britain. A great mark of our achievements this year is that NBC Nightly
News in the States have regularly run Bill Neeley, John Irvine and
Julian Manyon packages on their network news.”

ITV News’s biggest
story of the year was the 7 July bombings, which it followed with two
huge scoops – first on 28 July, with film of two men being arrested in
West London on suspicion of planting bombs a week earlier that failed
to detonate, and again on 16 August when the Independent Police
Complaints Commission’s report into the shooting of Jean Charles de
Menezes was leaked.

Citing the second of these, she says: “It was
a current affairs-style scoop that you might expect a newspaper or a
current affairs show to get.”

The bombing suspects scoop meant
paying £60,000 to a member of the public for pictures of the two men
being arrested. This followed a phone bidding process with the Daily
Mail against Sky, the BBC and ABC. “In the end Sky were offering him
considerably more than I was. Once I saw the stills I said, ‘You are
going to sell your pictures to me, whatever happens.’

“I knew I had to get it so I planted the seed in his brain. I’ll use the brainwashing technique again – it worked.”

However,
she says she is not in the business of “screwing” the public over film
that is clearly valuable. “The man who took the footage knew he had
something amazing. He was quite savvy, but he wasn’t involved in the
media at all and I think that is a sign that the message is starting to
get out – people are starting to understand the value of what they have
got.”

He came into the studio in the evening and after the programme had gone out he got a round of applause.

Distinctive
Turning to the future, Turness denies that traditional news bulletins
are being pushed into a decline by the rise of rolling news and new
technology.

“I think that while people want to dip into 24-hour
news channels for the latest headlines or get breaking news from their
mobile phones, there is a continued desire and need for an
appointmentto- view news programme that tells them about the world and
makes choices and selections for them,” she says. “It is whether you
want sit-forward viewing or sit-back viewing. I think there is room for
both and that there will be for a long time to come.”

But while
she backs the traditional format, she does have plans to make the ITV
News at 10.30 “more modern”. As part of the launch team for Five News,
she developed the Kirsty Young ‘perching’

approach with senior programme controller of news and current affairs Chris Shaw.

When
Mark Austin takes over from Sir Trevor McDonald towards the end of this
year and is joined by a “young and exciting team” on the evening news
in January, ‘tie-less news’ will set the tone of the programme.

“I have an absolute vision of what I want to achieve next year,” she says.

“It
is three things: firstly, to do blockbuster coverage, go really big on
big stories and be the best; secondly, to get more exclusives and
scoops, to make and break the news on television; and lastly, to run
more distinctive coverage, such as Barbara Clarke’s herceptin diaries
that we did this year, and our MRSA campaign, which put the heat under
John Reid when he was health secretary.”

She is also developing
new systems to increase viewer interactivity and holds up ITV’s
election coverage as an example of how committed her team is to
involving people in the programme.

One experiment was the ballot
box jury, which tracked the voting intentions of 12 voters from a
cross-section of society in marginal constituencies.

“We presented from the kitchens and cul-de-sacs of Britain. People have interesting things to say about politics.

Andrew
Marr wrote a really sniffy piece talking about why real people have no
place in political coverage, and I was so happy he wrote that because
it confirmed everything I thought about him and BBC political coverage,
which was so divorced from the real people”

Turness is ITV News’s
first female editor – and the youngest. As our meeting comes to an end
I ask where she sees herself in 10 years. She laughs, so I reduce it to
two years.

“To be honest I have never planned my career – I have been too busy.

Things
just happen. I’m too occupied thinking about what’s happening here each
day to think about where I’ll be in two years. I’m just thrilled we’ve
had such a good year and that as we come to the end of it our ratings
are so strong.

“We’re beating the BBC Ten O’Clock News more and more, at 10.30, when there are four million less viewers available.”

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