Sir Trevor McDonald announced he was ending his career as a newsreader
last year, his celebrity status was confirmed by the fact that it was
the showbusiness correspondents who reported it.
But Sir Trevor,
who will continue presenting the current affairs programme, Tonight, is
not expected to be providing them with the interviews they want when he
steps down next week. He was deeply unhappy with press coverage
following his trial separation last year from his wife Jo, and is said
to be refusing all requests.
A few colleagues sometimes grumbled
that his presenting style had become dated and that he couldn’t adapt
to perching or studio walkarounds, but his popularity with viewers
ensured he remained Britain’s highest-paid newsreader.
former ITN editor-in-chief Richard Tait considers the impact of his
departure on the news programme, and a colleague, David Stanley,
describes what it was like to work with him over the past 30 years.
TREVOR MCDONALD’S retirement party last week told you everything you needed to know about ITN.
First, the company is painfully short of money.
in past years the departure of ITN’s greatest ever newscaster would
have been marked by a big party for staff and the great and the good,
Trevor had to settle for dinner in a restaurant with a smaller group of
his closest friends and colleagues.
But second, ITN has lost none
of its ability to make the very best of limited resources. A brilliant
idea – inviting Archbishop Desmond Tutu to come from South Africa to
make the main speech as guest of honour – transformed what might have
been a rather low-key occasion into a memorable night.
need all that capacity to make the best of a bad job when the end
credits roll on Trevor’s last news programme on 16 December. So much
has been said and written about what a nice and clever man Trevor is
that there is a danger that his journalistic contribution to ITN’s
survival over the past decade and a half has been underestimated.
secret of his success has been that he is every bit the person who
appears on screen – and the audience has responded to his intelligence,
integrity and humanity in giving him the highest ratings for trust and
credibility of any newscaster of his generation. When I was
editor-in-chief of ITN we used to joke that the research showed he was
so far ahead of the competition that it was just as well his agent
never saw the figures.
But ITN has good reason to be grateful to him for his role in getting it through some turbulent times.
became the first single anchor of News at Ten after the departure of
Alastair Burnett. The programme had been a double-hander since its
creation – with a roster of up to four newscasters sharing the slots
across the week.
Trevor rapidly established himself as a
fivenights- a-week fixture in people’s homes. While the BBC was too big
and had too varied an output to have a single dominant personality, and
Sky found that – as CNN’s Ted Turner used to say – in 24-hour channels
the news is the star, Trevor’s solo slot on News at Ten was the perfect
platform to create an icon.
He became the British equivalent of
the great US anchors of the period – Tom Brokaw at NBC, Peter Jennings
at ABC and Dan Rather at CBS – who were also there for their viewers
every weeknight. In the 1990s, broadcast news was dominated by the “big
six” – the three US networks, CNN, the BBC and ITN. Trevor’s rapport
with the audience and his high-profile interviews with Saddam Hussein,
Nelson Mandela, presidents and prime ministers reinforced the
impression that ITN, though always smaller, was up there with the other
When ITV killed off News at Ten, Trevor’s
on-screen role was crucial in taking the ITV news viewer through the
mad magical mystery tour of the schedule that followed – first in
establishing a new slot for network news at 6.30pm; then making the
fiasco of “News at When?” work as well as it could; and finally (as we
used to say) re-establishing a fixed late evening bulletin at 10.30pm.
Trevor has a fine successor in Mark Austin, but he is leaving ITN at a critical juncture for the company.
television news is at the parting of the ways. Everyone has cut costs
as digital technology has transformed the production process. The big
question is what do you do with the savings? There are two directions
in which to go – there are organisations that believe in the future of
news in a digital world and are prepared to invest and there are those
whose priority is cost reduction for its own sake.
The big six no
longer dominate the stage – while the BBC, CNN and NBC have invested
and launched new services (24-hour channels and multimedia), ABC and
CBS have fallen behind. New entrants, prepared to put serious money
into 24-hour news – Sky, Fox, Al Jazeera – are now also at the top
table. Trevor’s professionalism helped conceal a decade of cost cutting
that saw ITV halve its network news spend, with just enough of the
savings going back into the future, in terms of the news channel and
new media, to keep ITN in the game.
As he takes his retirement, I cannot remember a time when there was so much uncertainty about the future of ITN.
future of the ITV News Channel is still in doubt; there is yet another
round of cost cutting in prospect, the Five News contract has already
gone to Sky, the renewal of the Channel 4 News contract is still in
doubt and the ownership of ITN has yet to be resolved.
closure of the ITV News Channel would undermine the news strategy ITV
unveiled two years ago when it set up an ITV News Group linking
regional, network and 24-hour news in one coherent operation under ITN
management. In the worst case, ITN could end up significantly
diminished – not much more than the in-house news arm of a network that
has given up on the future of broadcast journalism.
that ITV in particular will have to make in the next few months will
determine whether in the end the country’s most watched commercial
network thinks it really has a long-term role in high quality news.
Only then will we know whether Trevor’s last bulletin is the start of a
new chapter for ITN or the beginning of the end.
Richard Tait is director, Centre for Journalism Studies, Cardiff University. He was editor-in-chief of ITN from 1995 to 2002
“Trevor wasn’t only a newscaster, he was an icon. If anybody has any tips on how to replace an icon – please let me know.”
Austin, presenter, ITV News “Trevor McDonald is not only one of the
outstanding figures of modern TV news, but one of the nicest guys in
our industry. It’s easy to forget, in light of his later success as a
news anchor, that he had a long and hugely impressive track record as
sports correspondent, diplomatic editor and international reporter.
been a commanding figure on screen and a decent and compassionate man
off it. I worked alongside Trevor at ITN during the great years of the
1980s and early 1990s. I learnt a lot from him and grew to respect him
as a top-class journalist.
I admired him then and I do so today.”
Pollard, head of Sky News “He’s a national treasure whose deep
connection to the audience is the envy of us all. As a news broadcaster
he is utterly professional and trustworthy, and the audience loves him
Helen Boaden, director, BBC News “Trevor has been an
inspiration. I clearly remember him starting as a newsreader when I was
a schoolboy, and I have admired him for 30 years. He’s not just a
thorough professional, he’s also a kind man who’s never let competitive
instincts spoil decent relations with the opposition. He also owes me
lunch, but I understand I’m in good company.”
Huw Edwards, presenter, BBC Ten O’Clock News
By David Stanley, Sir Trevor McDonald’s scriptwriter
‘HIS INTELLECT AND INTEGRITY ARE THE DRIVING FORCES’
He is The Man, basically, in British television news. The most trusted person in the country according to the polls.
There is, at the moment, no one to touch him, in terms of his enigmatic combination of popularity and authority.
here we have this pensioner (he was 66 in August), whose job is to tell
people bad news, yet he has the affection of the public. How does he do
He makes it seem simple and in some ways it is just his
personality – he is a very approachable guy. But it is his intellect
and integrity that are the two driving forces behind his work.
will often say, when trying to cut through complex discussions about
covering the news one way or the other, in a self-deprecating way: “I
am just a simple West Indian peasant. We are making it too complicated.
Why don’t we just tell it like it is?”
He dislikes gimmicks and believes viewers are able to – and should be left to – come to their own conclusions.
His knowledge of international affairs is vast – as a former diplomatic editor perhaps that is to be expected.
has a love and knowledge of sport – practically any sport. Every Monday
morning he likes to chew over the weekend results, especially those of
Spurs, his favourite team.
So he knows what he’s talking about
when he is reading the news. My own theory about what makes him so good
at it is that he is a brilliant storyteller in real life. I think he’ll
forgive me saying that I have heard one or two of his jokes, anecdotes
and accounts of great moments more than once. Yet they are still
compelling the second time around because of his enthusiasm in telling
His voice in itself is his other great attribute. It is
both measured and melodious, deep and crisp. When Trevor is in full
swing there is a kind of sing-song rhythmic quality to it. I can hear
that rhythm and the cadence of his voice in my head when I work on
scripts. And yes, certain scripts, turns of phrase, and expressions
work better for certain newscasters.
Two idiosyncrasies I try to
accommodate for Trevor are the position of the word “today” in a
sentence (he sounds better somehow if it isn’t in the obvious place);
and the profusion of commas to help make a sentence easier to read by
breaking it up into phrases.
Most of the time we agree on how to
report a story, but sometimes we have different ideas on how a line
should be written. Yet Trevor always wants to discuss changes and we
usually make modifications together.
His work rate and enthusiasm
are still what they once were. OK, 66 isn’t old nowadays, but he puts
in some very long days. He has many demands on his time apart from the
news and his Tonight programme, although they always come before his
charity or other outside commitments.
He’s often in the office by
10am, yet still has to be firing on all cylinders until 11pm most
weeknights, in front of millions of people. And in no way is the
quality of his work declining with the years.
During research for
an awards compilation tape, I looked back at some of his famous-name
interviews with the likes of Gaddafi, Saddam and the current President
Bush. His questions now are more direct, his follow-ups more reactive,
his unflappability more marked.
Newscasters are often judged in
reviews of their careers by the interviews they have been granted and
the same will be said of Trevor. Good though they were, his career
should be remembered for bringing us the news we didn’t want to hear in
a manner we did, night after night.
My own most vivid memory of
working together took place on the roof of the Mandarin Hotel in Hong
Kong on the evening of 30 June, 1997. We were broadcasting the old News
at Ten live from there. Just as we went on air a monsoon began.
Trevor’s only protection from the lashing rain was a canvas awning
meant to provide shade – not to protect a news presenter and thousands
of pounds worth of electrical equipment. My job changed from
last-minute adjustment of scripts to holding up one end of the awning,
which was soon bulging with rainfall. No one watching at home would
have noticed anything was wrong from Trevor’s demeanour. We almost got
away with it, but for one fierce gust that blew rain over Trevor’s
shoulder towards the camera. After Trevor ad-libbed a sign-off along
the lines of “goodnight from a very wet Hong Kong”, the end title
sequence rolled in London. Once Trevor had moved safely indoors, we let
go of the awning.
It bowed and buckled and what seemed like
enough water to fill a swimming pool cascaded onto the spot where
Trevor had been sitting.
What shall I miss most about him? His
enthusiasm for life and the importance he places on the job we do. Most
of all I shall miss his great kindness. Every night, no matter how the
programme had gone, he always thanks me for my work on his scripts.
Then he collects his battered black holdall from his office and heads
off into the night and a waiting taxi.
This week, he won’t be
saying: “I’ll be back same time tomorrow.” But when he leaves ITN’s
headquarters on Thursday night, his place in broadcasting history is
assured and so is his place in the thoughts of millions of his
admirers, and those who have had the pleasure of working with him.