It’s just over 10 years since Kirsty Young made her debut as a national newscaster on Channel 5 News. Her departure from Five, as it now is, says a lot about the way news presentation has changed in the past decade.
Ten years ago, newscasters were still icons and Sir Trevor was the daddy of them all. They had presence. They had permanence. They represented something. So for Channel 5, choosing a young woman unknown outside Scotland to front its news, and not a grizzled ITN veteran, was a risk. It paid off.
The first night we went on air, my old boss from CBS called. He didn’t waste words. ‘The set stinks, but she,’he paused to deliver the verdict, ‘she is good.”
Anyone who hasn’t produced a live news show that involves walking backwards round a tiny newsroom without tripping on a steadicam cable, and making sense of screams from a panic-filled gallery in your ear, probably won’t appreciate just how adept Young had to be.
Still, beside the technical and mental agility required to navigate a running order, news presentation doesn’t offer the mental challenge of longer-form interviewing. A two-way from Downing Street isn’t Desert Island Discs.
News does have its challenges. Young has, to her credit, probably the single finest performance by a news anchor I’ve ever seen, when she held ITV News together as 9/11 broke live. She’s not stepping down because she has things left to prove.
But for news anchors, status is more ironic than iconic these days. The trade-off between status and satisfaction has all but disappeared.
Ask Katie Couric at CBS News (pictured far right), as she struggles to find anything interesting about linking her way through package after package.
When her predecessor Walter Cronkite retired from his broadcast at the start of the 1980s, he was getting 20 million viewers a night. Couric gets barely a third of that. Couric is no Cronkite, simply by virtue of changing times.
These days news presenting is a straitjacket to be slipped off at the earliest opportunity. Even Sir Trevor’s new lease of life in retirement is not the occasional anchor, but as a comedy host on ITV’s NewsKnight.
There are places where you can still get the space to interview and present the news. It’s called radio. Martha Kearney left Newsnight for The World At One. At the 24-hour news channels, which have done so much to chip away at the authority of network news, and where presenters are employed by the yard, ironically there’s still time for them to ask questions and ad lib.
Presenters want an opportunity to show what they can do, not a presentational cage.
Today, reading the news on television is just another type of office-based shift work. Some shifts are paid rather better than others, but that’s not always enough. Talented people who can walk away are voting with their feet.