ITN's head chef aims to keep the scoops coming

As
ITN celebrates its 50th anniversary, editor-in-chief David Mannion
tells Julie Tomlin how his team are again at the top of their game and
why he is confident about the future – away from the kitchen

DAVID MANNION has something to tell us.

“I’ll announce that I am going to become a chef, I can exclusively reveal,” he says. “Cooking is one of my hobbies.”

For
once, it’s an ITN exclusive that doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny
– although it’s possible there might be some BBC editors who hope it
does.

The man who heads into the newsroom when he needs a bit of
‘therapy’, has no intention of stopping now – he was just trying to
give us a new angle for the interview, he says. He had been so blown
away by Chris Shaw’s appraisal of ITN in Press Gazette earlier this
month that he didn’t know how he could top it. “I feel very undeserved
of such praise. I think I will have that stuffed and mounted. It was a
case of, how do you follow that?”

It’s true that ITN is riding
high as it prepares to celebrate its 50th birthday along with ITV,
thanks in no small part to two major exclusives that came in rapid
succession in the wake of the July bombings in London that shook the
worlds’ newsrooms.

“We are, at the moment, absolutely at the top
of our game,” he says. “I think over the last six to nine months we’ve
really got to where I want us to be.

We’ve got our
self-confidence back. We are, I think, respected by the industry, by
the press and by our foreign news organisations that we work with.
Things are good.”

The influence of Mannion, who left his job as
editor of Tonight with Trevor McDonald to rejoin ITN, was evident in
the hard game played by his news team in order to secure footage of the
four alleged bombers arrested in Birmingham.

Tonight with Trevor
McDonald was among the first programmes prepared to pay out large sums
to secure interviews, and Mannion’s team at ITN demonstrated the same
drive when it came to securing the footage.

While the BBC was said to have offered around £15,000 for the pictures, ITN secured them for an unconfirmed £60,000.

“The
pictures of the alleged bombers were available to anyone, and my editor
Deborah Turness was completely determined not to be beaten. We actually
paid money for those pictures, but we paid less – considerably less –
than one of our competitors was offering.’

The de Menezes story
was, says Mannion, “a piece of classic journalism that delivered to us
our biggest single scoop since we discovered the Bosnian prison camps
in 1990”.

Mannion is careful to stress that the police were not necessarily lying: “They have a difficult job to do.”

But
there is a touch of the old-school journalist when he says the
revelations that police accounts of the shooting of de Menezes had not
been accurate was “what journalists are supposed to do”.

“We exposed the truth and journalists should do more of that.”

“I
feel that is when journalists are doing their jobs – uncovering the
truth that people in authority would seek to prevent the public from
knowing. That is what we do. That is what journalism is all about.”

All this, says Mannion, represents a return to form for ITN.

“We
don’t have as much money as the BBC – we don’t have Rupert Murdoch
behind us with all his millions – but we are a terrifically committed,
journalistically-based organisation that can do worldclass work.
There’s a spirit of enterprise here, a spirit of Èlan, a spirit of get
up and go.

“We are ferociously competitive. We want to win and we
want to deliver the finest product to the British TV audience that we
possibly can. So we squeeze every ounce of blood out of every stone
that we’ve got. And that’s our ethos. Every single day we come in with
a determination to be the best.”

The fact that ITN has survived
in its current form – let alone found itself in a position to celebrate
its 50th anniversary on such a journalistic high – would hardly have
been conceivable a few years ago.

Mannion left ITN in 1993 but
was persuaded to return in 2002 when Nigel Dacre, his former deputy who
was made editor in 1995, stepped down.

Mannion says Dacre had
“held things together magnificently”, but when he arrived “the place
was nonetheless in the need of an injection of selfconfidence and
self-belief”.

A capacity to enthuse people is “perhaps one of my
biggest strengths”, says Mannion, who set about improving morale among
the news team. Morale had been knocked by the saga of losing the 10pm
slot, and then by cuts and redundancies following a decrease of around
£10 million in the contract with its major client – ITV.

“Three
years ago, when I came back, things weren’t in great shape,” says
Mannion. “That wasn’t the fault of anybody here at the time. It was the
fall-out from what had been a difficult time for ITN and ITV.

“The
two companies had been through a rather bruising contract negotiation
and, of course, in 1999 there had been the News at Ten move.”

Mannion
made some “fairly substantial and immediate changes” in recruiting
Deborah Turness and bringing in Nick Robinson, who has recently
returned to the BBC – a move that Mannion acknowledges was a blow.

“What
I inherited was an exceptional and talented team,” he says. “It wasn’t
as though I had nothing to work with. But we had to get off our knees
and back on our feet and prove we were as good as we used to be – if
not better.”

Part of Mannion’s task was to restore ITN’s
performance in covering foreign news – an area where he believes it had
lost its edge.

“People working in opposing news networks often
say to me that three or four years ago they didn’t worry much about
ITN. Now they say ITN terrifies them because they know we will get
stuck in.

“If you take New Orleans, which is a terrible story, we
put people out into the field quickly – and got people of the quality
of Robert Moore, Bill Neely, Alastair Stewart, who happened to be in
Washington at the time. When you can get people of that quality on a
big story, I reckon we’re unbeatable.”

But whatever successes ITN
can celebrate next week at the party being thrown at the Royal Opera
House in Covent Garden, the horizon is beingclouded by uncertainty over
when or whether it will become wholly owned by ITV.

In 2004, when
a single ITV became a reality with the merger of Carlton and Granada,
Mannion moved from being editor of ITV news to his new role of editor
in chief of ITV News.

The job is itself a product of the shift in
ITN’s relationship with ITV. It has been a difficult one in recent
years – particularly after the decision to move the news to a slot at
around 11pm.

He declines to lay the blame for the decision to
ditch the 10pm slot – a move that was fully exploited by Greg Dyke, the
then director general of the BBC who moved the BBC1 news bulletin from
9pm to 10 pm.

Nonetheless, Mannion thinks it was a bad decision.

“It’s
not my business [to press for return to the 10pm slot]. That’s the
business of Nigel Pickard and David Burgh -I simply have to make the
programme to their schedule, that’s the way it is.

“If they were
to come to me and wave their magic wand and change it, I’d be
delighted. I’d be skipping down Gray’s Inn Road clicking my heels. But
10.30pm isn’t a bad slot and we’ll do our best in it.

“I have to accept there are wider scheduling considerations with ITV, so we work with what we’ve got,” says Mannion.

With
ITV rumoured to be considering reversing its decision to move the news
to a permanent slot at 10.30pm – and put it back to 11pm – Mannion
could be forgiven for thinking their efforts have gone to waste with
ITV chiefs.

However, Mannion insists that, “There’s a trust that has been build up between ourselves and ITV.”

And ITN has “delivered huge positive publicity at a time when it’s not been thick on the ground for ITV,” he adds.

“They, I think, understand the value of ITN, which is what provides news for ITV.

“As
long as we’re delivering, they’re happy but also there’s a recognition
with people like Nigel [Pickard] that news is an important added value
for ITV. We deliver an important personality for ITV.

“If you
look at channels like Sky, which have no news, where is the
personality? Where are the people? Where is the soul of the channel?”

Mannion,
when he was editor in 1993, would have received almost double the £35
million that ITV paid ITN to produce its news in the last contract
round.

This shortfall has been softened by the fact that more of
that overall budget has been directed at news production rather than
fixed costs, he insists.

“They were able to extract savings from
areas of the company that didn’t directly affect on-screen coverage,”
says Mannion. “That took a lot of doing and a lot of of hard work and
they did it magnificently, so actually we haven’t suffered as much as
people might think.”

It’s an indication of where Mannion’s heart
lies that he has chosen to have his office, which is currently being
refurbished, within the ITN newsroom at Gray’s Inn Road.’

“I could be upstairs in a carpeted office, but this is where I want to be. I want to be here among it all,” he says.

And the chances are, when he hangs his jacket on the back of his door, it’ll be a Paul Smith number.

That fact probably says more about Mannion’s loyalty to his friends than his eye for top tailoring.

Smith was an assistant in ‘a trendy clothes shop’ that Mannion used to frequent in Nottingham when he was a young man.

“But I have to say, Paul Smith suits are for the tall and slim, not the short and tubby,” he comments.

“I’ve known Paul for donkeys’ years. I used to go to his shop when I had saved up enough money to buy a shirt or whatever.

“I
see him occasionally,” he says. ‘He’s phenomenally successful, but when
you meet him he’s the same Paul who I knew when he was a shop
assistant.”

While Mannion admits that he has been given discount
on his suits, it’s unlikely when they meet for the occasional lunch
that Mannion feels his own star is eclipsed by the achievements of his
old friend, who was knighted in 2000.

“That’s my habitat,” he says, pointing through the glass window that divides him from the bustle.

“I love nothing more than being in a newsroom.

“Whatever happens to ITN, ITV news will be made by people in that newsroom out there.

“And
if we can simply maintain the standard that we have currently achieved,
then I think the period between 2003 and 2013 will be seen as a new
golden era for news on ITV”

Landmark events of a career in television news

THE HIGHS AND THE LOWS

THE BEST

1987 election

When Margaret Thatcher won a third term, we pulled off a coup that
the BBC never really forgave us for. It was clear that she was going to
win the election, so we had to find something for an election
programme. We got a live camera in her car – it was difficult to do in
those days, but worth it just for that moment of being able to go to
her live. Now, of course, you wouldn’t think anything of it, but in
those days it was fantastic.

Nelson Mandela

My real high was arranging for ITN to have the world’s first
interview with Nelson Mandela – the day he was released. Trevor
McDonald conducted it and I had set it up previously. That was a story
of global proportion.

Bosnia

The Bosnian prison camps – that was a story of enormous
significance. [ITN showed footage of prisoners at a Serb-controlled
prison camp in 1992. The images went around the globe and are credited
with having renewed diplomatic efforts that culminated in the 1995
Dayton peace accord that ended the four-year conflict. Five years
later, ITN won a high-profile case against the monthly periodical LM
(formerly Living Marxist) after it published an article entitled ‘The
Picture that Fooled the World’ – which claimed that the camp was simply
a collection centre for refugees.] Beslan Julian Manyon’s live
reporting and on-the-scene analysis of that terrible siege was
extraordinary.

Jean Charles de Menezes

I would count the de Menezes story as one of the
highlights. [ITN obtained leaked documents that contradicted
initial police accounts of events leading up to the shooting of Jean
Charles de Menezes.]

Tsunami

Our coverage of the December 2004 Tsunami was world-beating.

THE WORST

Death of Terry Lloyd I haven’t had many downs but the biggest one
without any doubt was the Iraq war and the loss of Terry Lloyd.

That was devastating and something from which you never recover. ITN
had never lost anyone. We had some near misses – Peter Sissons was shot
in the arm. But we never lost anyone. So to lose three [cameraman Fred
Nerac and local translator Hussein Othman also died in Iraq] was
terrible. That was without doubt the most terrible time.

To lose colleagues in that way is devastating enough.

But
when one of those colleagues also happens to be your best friend, it
multiples. Losing Terry was a very tough loss, partly because it was me
that sent him. It was unquestionably the most difficult time of my
career. I couldn’t just stop doing the job – it was in the middle of
the war, so I couldn’t just collapse. Actually in a funny sort of way,
the fact that I had to keep going was a help.

To be honest,
looking back I don’t know how I did get through it. You just do, but it
was very difficult. I had to break the news to his family – people I
had known for 30 years. It was awful.

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