Backsteps and new sets


This year has been one hell of a year for BBC News. First came the war in Iraq – by my reckoning the biggest, most expensive, single television news event in history.

Then, just as the department was gearing down for a much-needed summer break, along came the Gilligan affair. The ensuing row between the Government and the BBC is the most bitter and protracted I can remember. To top it all, there has been the Hutton Inquiry, which placed BBC journalism under unprecedented microscopic scrutiny.

In a previous column, I praised the resilience of the BBC editorial management under all this pressure – in particular, I think the reporting of Hutton and the Gilligan affair has been scrupulously fair. So far, the BBC has bravely held its ground under withering attack, but the first signs of retreat have been spotted.

It is over the business of impartiality.

Critics, such as The Daily Telegraph with its “Beebwatch” campaign, believe that the BBC has slowly and surreptitiously changed its news culture and has begun to blur fact and commentary to the point where they are indistinguishable. This, they say, is the real root of the dossier debacle.

This is a different allegation from the recurring and mainly unfounded accusations of political bias – and, in a way, it’s a much more serious charge.

The old-school critics say the hunt for scoops and sensation has led to corner-cutting and less stringent journalistic standards. In addition, the ever-growing reliance on commentary and analysis by specialist correspondents has skewed the BBC away from its primary duty of impartial reportage.

It’s certainly true that the likes of Andrew Marr, John Simpson, Evan Davis and, for that matter, Andrew Gilligan are paid not only for their expertise, but also their ability to express trenchant opinions based on knowledge and experience.

Now there are reports of an editorial crackdown. Only fully fledged correspondents are to be allowed to offer opinions and commentary – the lower ranks will have to stick to the facts. More worryingly, anonymously and single-sourced stories are to be referred upwards for senior management approval before transmission.

To date, the BBC, from the governors downward, has courageously defended its journalism. What a shame it would be if the outcome of Gilligan and Hutton was a timid retreat into bureaucratic back-watching.

News sets have come a long way in the past decade. Basically, until 1990, the classic look was a man behind a desk with a logo of some description over his shoulder.

In the late Nineties, “man behind desk” gave way to “woman perching” or “man standing with handful of paper in big expansive space”.

The desk used to be the altar of news authority. Now it’s the space and architecture of the set that create the sense of gravitas and quality.

In the old days, news programmes were redesigned every five or six years; now, the life expectancy of a new set seems to be about two years. Five News, which I set up in 1997, has had three different sets in the past six years and is about to unveil its fourth. ITV News is also about to be revamped, with a state-of-the-art set to be rolled out early next year.

The trend for ever more frequent news makeovers is driven by changing fashion in much the same way as lace curtains and wallpaper have given way to blinds and pastelcoloured paint.

Among the popular current conventions of the news set are the busy newsroom background (real or projected), video walls (the bigger the better) and ever more elaborate desks and seating arrangements (preferably featuring combinations of wood and chrome).

News reporting techniques and technology also drive these changes. Live reporting requires, in effect, some kind of window or portal on the world so the studio-bound presenter can communicate with the reporter on location – hence the inevitable plasma screen or video wall.

The fad for studio-based explanation led directly to the virtual reality spaces allowing animated reporters to wave their hands around and conjure up three-dimensional graphs and models.

Breakfast news introduced the sofa for guests and cosy co-presenting, and other news programmes are now introducing “soft” and “hard” areas for news, depending on the topic and approach.

News makeovers are also highly influenced by channel branding. ITV News changed its graphic colour scheme to match the ITV blue and yellow and the current redesign of Five News is being carried out by Spin, the same company originally hired to redesign the overall channel look. Just as news presenters such as Jon Snow or Kirsty Young give a face to a channel, so the news sets represent the channel’s home or headquarters.

Finally, I never thought of Trevor McDonald as a “Rhinestone Cowboy”, but he surprised us all last week by revealing his passion for Neil Diamond.

Surveys consistently show that Trevor is the nation’s most popular and trusted newscaster, but as a former colleague I can assure you that popular music is not really his thing – he’s more into cricket, poetry, classical literature and fine cigars.

It was rather odd, then, to hear him announcing the surprise winner of the Mercury Music Awards – London rap star Dizzee Rascal.

Trevor didn’t quite say “what is a Dizzee Rascal?”, but he might as well have as he clearly had never heard of him before that night. Given that 70 per cent of News at Ten’s audience is aged over 45, I doubt if many of the viewers had heard of Mr Rascal either.

In any event, the nation’s favourite newsreader, who isn’t prone to regular ad-libbing, clearly felt the spontaneous need to distance himself from this story, when he told viewers “I prefer Neil Diamond, myself”.

I’m pretty sure that Trevor “Diamond Geezer” McDonald was rather more in tune with his viewers’ taste than the programme editor on that particular night.

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll be back in four weeks

by Chris Shaw

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