You're a reporter. Just stick to the facts.
All that can happen to you is attempted murder, grievous bodily harm,
calls for your resignation -and years of fun, intriguing adventure and
A reporter is an observer, a bystander, a witness. That's the theory.
In reality, you are a privileged gnat alighting on the faces of history,
part of events great and small. You discover secrets, smell the atmosphere,
feel the vibrations of emotion. And every so often, someone tries to swat
I found these things out the obvious way -through ignorance and mistakes
-for I never expected to be a reporter. As a child, a student, and then
a BBC local radio producer, the world of News had never beckoned, and
not for a trice had I harboured thoughts of a career in journalism. Nor
had I ever desired fame. Fame in my upbringing was equated with Vanity.
Also, famous people from my north-eastern home town of Sunderland appeared
to be very few (the Venerable Bede -it's a shon list) and very dead.
However, through an odd succession of opportunity, lucky breaks and downright
curiosity, I've had over three decades of extraordinary good fortune -punctuated
with frequent demands that I be sacked, or at least removed to the BBC
Special Projects Department, a black hole into which awkward employees
are thrown, never to be seen again.
My survival owes much to the pulsating chameleon which is the Corporation.
It is a peculiar institution -but not the dinosaur so often depicted.
It's an eccentric creature, constantly changing, but never managing to
get its camouflage quite right in order to blend in with its surroundings.
Instead it highlights and reflects all manner of goings-on in society,
frequently turns the wrong colour when browsing among politicians, and
generates a fearsome amount of noise from its intestines, otherwise known
as BBC Gossip.
Hitherto, it has kept to its path of public service broadcasting and acted
as an extraordinarily benign host to those who work for it. It still has
impressive impact worldwide, and generates affection and no little respect.
Nevertheless, a chameleon is an embarrassing sight in a world where business
management is preferred to adventure, and where character and creativity
and cussedness are less welcome than convention and the bland pleasing
of the customer.
On the numerous occasions when I've been hauled over the BBC carpet (green,
frayed and wine-stained until the consultants arrived with tasteful grey),
there was always the feeling that, whatever your sins, the BBC would vigorously
fend off the critics -while pasting you to the floor. Only failing to
possess a current TV licence or having sex during transmission of an Act
of Worship would see you fed to the lions and dismissed. Not to mention
committing a Royal to the hereafter before they'd officially dropped off
the perch. Anything else -being drunk on air, crashing £45,000 worth
of BBC armoured land rover, flying to the wrong country, embarrassing
the government, enraging cabinet ministers, falling asleep while live
on air to the Today programme -was treated as an internal matter, to be
dealt with rigorously, while simultaneously mounting a stout public defence
of the reasons for your behaviour. I should know; I've done all of these
As a reporter, you are only as bold as the management behind you. To deliver
certain stories you need the backing of experienced editors and managers,
confident in their principles and loyal to their staff. If that confidence
and loyalty begin to diminish, then reporters become less able to ask
hard questions and probe more deeply into sensitive subjects. And obtaining
the facts becomes more difficult.
The BBC I joined was a brilliant cultural circus presided over by a tiny
but wily civil service-type management. The combination was pragmatic:
creative geniuses were tolerated as long as they didn't go outside and
frighten the horses. I worked on a radio station where the estranged wife
of an adulterous producer attempted very determinedly to brain him with
a cast-iron frying-pan until four members of staff intervened. The BBC
memo about this incident merely enquired whether this had happened on
BBC premises. When assured that this was so, the BBC sighed with relief
and promoted him.
During a party to celebrate six months of desperate struggle for survival
on a local radio station, my colleagues got totally pickled, kindly remembering
to send an endless supply of gin and tonic to the unfortunate creature
in the studio upstairs in charge of the evening's broadcasting. Needless
to say, I was legless when I had to tackle a long list of announce- ments
on air, including the 'What's On' list of bring and buy sales, the appeals
for Missing Cats, the local fatstock market prices -full of mysterious
references to gilts, gimmers and fat sheep -and the weather forecast.
The subsequent inquest with the station manager contained the following
'Could you explain the phrase: "stuff the gilts"?'
'What about: "Who's a nice fat sheep then?"'
Having established that I was the guilty party, the station manager seemed
unsure what to say. For a moment he muttered about the importance of agricultural
prices to our farming listeners. Then he suddenly said:
'Did you read the weather forecast as well?'
The red light went on in my newly fledged broadcaster's brain. The BBC
might tut-tut over mucking about with the price of sheep and pigs, but
the weather forecast? A sacred cow, interference with which was likely
to be a sackable offence.
'No, I didn't read it,' I said truthfully, and received a short lecture
on alcohol and broadcasting.
Of course I didn't read it. Apparently, I sang it.
None of this happened in a Golden Age. As a junior underling in local
radio, I was frequently harangued by venerable old hands who spoke in
disgusted tones about 'the decline in standards', adding, 'Reith would
never have stood for it, you know.' For years I was under the impression
that Lord Reith, the Corporation's puritanical and high-minded founding
father, had just recently left the building. It came as something of a
shock to discover that he'd departed before the Second World War began.
Even so, changes never occurred in the institution without a great deal
of shouting, intrigue and theatrical scenes, with the staff eventually
learning their fate via the newspapers.
Pop music, women reading the news, phone-in programmes -all were hot topics
for radio when I joined in the late sixties, and all were thought to herald
the end of broadcasting civilisation as we knew it. Added to this Was
the prospect of transmitting-programmes after midnight (sinful), playing
jingles (vulgar) and using new portable tape-recorders which didn't weigh
half a ton (death of engineering standards). As I began my first local
radio training course in London, the BBC was seething with resentment
Even so, some habits remained rock-solid. Issues which raised ethical
dilemmas were picked over by meticulous-minded heads of department. Production
values were subjected to academic scrutiny. Journalism was conducted according
to rules which were prissy by Fleet Street standards, but which aimed
for accuracy and significance. Above all, the audience was considered
to be grown up and deserving of the best- and what was good for them.
There was no doubting the BBC's conviction that it delivered what it thought
people ought to have, rather than what they might want.
(This is not to say that as an organisation it was illiberal. True, there
were rules about 'relationships', stipulating that couples were not meant
to work for the same department; however, it quickly dawned that this
was on the grounds of public decency, as microphones had been known to
be left on while passionate staff utilised cosy, dim-lit studios. Added
to this, the entire Drama Department appeared to be gay; its members,
propositioning everyone in the lifts, sent us horrified radio station
trainees scuttling out in provincial indignation.)
The principles of broadcasting, a distillation of over forty years' experience,
were dinned into us with an assurance that verged on arrogance at times.
Intellect, history and culture were pre-eminent, whether your ambition
was to produce variety shows or football outside broadcasts. The audience
was to be respected, but not patronised. And in news, facts came first,
with opinion, speculation and personal emotion considered improper and
Of course, the BBC has changed -and it has needed to. The chameleon has
to adapt, otherwise it doesn't deserve to survive. Taste and popular culture,
fashion and style, public opinion and social attitudes are permanently
on the move. However, in the last ten years of the twentieth century the
Corporation not only saw an alteration to its outer skin, reflecting a
fast-moving society, but also changed inwardly, losing many of the old
certainties based on experience, and replacing them with a theory of management
that owed much to business practice and an increasing sense of insecurity.
The audience ceased to be respected and came to be seen as a consumer
whose desires were to be catered for, and audience figures achieved a
daily influence on production decisions.
As a reporter, my involvement in such matters was minimal. However, at
the start of the nineties I found myself at a very glamorous free lunch
at the Edinburgh television festival, sitting between two smart young
men who held their discussion across me as if I were an irritating empty
chair. I was curious about their conversation, which was full of yelps
of enthusi- asm about money. They were discussing Product, and passing
figures and phone numbers to each other. I pronged my fork into one of
the paws opening a filofax on my plate.
'1 can't help overhearing your conversation,' I tried politely. 'So that
I can spend the next forty minutes enjoying it, perhaps you'd explain
what Product is?'
They looked at me as if I'd padded out of a case at the Natural History
Condescendingly, one of them said: 'Well it's what you BBC types do.'
'We do programmes,' I ventured.
'So traditional,' he brayed, , so seventies.'
I mentally padded back into my display case, musing on Product: a product
of Business, of the world of economic efficiency, profits and bottom lines.
A year later, a BBC memo made its way to one of my colleagues in Bosnia,
a camerawoman of considerable courage and great experience. Staff in the
BBC have always been on first-name terms with each other, regardless of
status; a familiarity which often shocked outsiders thirty years ago,
and which was regarded as proof of degenerate behaviour by the corps of
commissionaires who manned our front doors. 'Dear Sue' would have been
the usual form of address from the Corporation, or perhaps 'Dear Colleague'.
None of us knew what to make of her new communication, which began: 'Dear
Gradually, we learned. The BBC was shedding its gothic past, being stripped
and shredded, and cut into bite-size business-friendly chunks.
Remodelling, streamlining and internal marketing were on the way, with
lots and lots of Management. Management was a growth industry within the
BBC, like a mad fungus which stuck its greasy stalks into every crevice
and expanded to block light and logic. We 'Operatives' were no longer
trusted with decision-making, and if we questioned the twaddle which was
issued to justify the 'selling' of car park spaces from one department
to another, it was suggested that we needed to go on A Course. On A Course,
you learned that colleagues were no longer colleagues; they were Clients
Everything was subject to cost analysis, and had its price -even pronunciation.
Newsreaders were dissuaded from ringing up the venerable Pronunciation
Unit because 'each call is charged to our budget', resulting in vagaries
such as a Chinese politician being named in various bulletins as Ding
Xiao Ping, Dung Xiao Pang and Deng Xiao Pong. Mission state- ments took
over from ideas and creativity: even a themed week of religious radio
programming was considered incomplete without a Mission Statement. Mildly
incredulous, I suggested 'I believe in one God,' and was asked to leave
the room, being deemed not sufficiently sympathetic [0 minority views.
The place had gone unhappily loopy, mired in constant reorganisation,
obsessive emphasis on administration, and volumes of gobbledygook statements
on Vision and Strategy. Staff posts were disappearing; contracts ran for
just a few months, and insecurity gnawed at every level. The new Management
quite coolly laid into their own Operatives in public, and 'BBC stories'
acquired a vicious edge, with the sight of an ancient animal chomping
its own entrails too tasty to ignore.
More than anything, there was a loss of confidence. One day, a 361- page
manual arrived on everyone's desk. Entitled Producers' Guidelines, it
covered every imaginable decision that a programme-maker might have to
make, from four-letter words to focus groups. In itself, it was a wordy
but harmless publication, stating the obvious. That it was found imperative
to exhort the staff to refer to it at all times, and treat it as the newly
delivered Bible According to Birt, wherein all was to be revealed to an
uncomprehending and uneducated workforce, was both depressing and enfeebling.
Mr John Birt was director-general at the time, and bore most responsibility
for the collapse of internal confidence. It was difficult to discern his
personal thoughts on altering the BBC so drastically. No one could understand
his Birtspeak memos and he was known to be uncom- fortable talking to
the staff; he seemed to think it pointless.
How all this came about has been catalogued and claimed by those who were
in charge; a mixture of the great and the good, the politically well-
connected and the seriously ruthless. A mixed salad of British ambition
sprinkled with titles and dressed ever more sharply.
To a reporter stuck in the middle of Bosnia for much of this time, it
appeared to be a long-distant farce with few laughs. However, so far the
madness of managers had usually been kept separate from the function of
broadcasting. Those of us at the coal-face used to hear of the goings-
on among those upstairs, but assumed they'd keep their mitts off the actual
programme-making- after all, there was still a mighty audience out there,
and we were serving it.
The first indications of a major shift in the News Department were odd
conversations down satellite telephones with assorted news producers and
editors. With the Balkan conflict going at full blast, life was anything
but simple; however, if we stuck to reporting the facts -the scenes we'd
witnessed, the incidents we had verified -we managed to convey a limited
but accurate picture of what was going on. Now, though, as we described
how we'd spent four hours in a wet ditch being shot at in order to get
vital evidence of ethnic cleansing, there'd be murmuring from London suggesting
we were at cross-purposes. Again and again came the phrase, 'That's not
the view from here. How we see it is. ..'
Initially, this was puzzling. How did a London producer see things from
behind a warm desk in Shepherd's Bush, contemplating a pleasant lunch
while grousing about the rigours of commuting from Islington? Not the
same as we did, lying in a smelly puddle while a bunch of drunks used
us for target practice and we contemplated escape via a four-hour cross-
country ride in an armoured land rover towards a plate of bean soup and
a widdle in the cabbage patch before retiring to a damp sleeping-bag.
The difference turned out to be not one of circumstances, but of agenda.
'London' was seeing News in a different light. According to the newly
arrived thoughts from on high, news was being allowed to be far too unpredictable.
All this unexpected and surprising stuff, which hadn't had time to be
analysed or evaluated, never mind put in context -this was anathema to
the orderly style of a well-behaved bulletin. Allowing those on the ground
to gauge the significance of a story, follow events and deliver a messy
slice of human life on to the screen offended instincts which denied the
disorder of daily life and which had a mission to explain, instead of
an obligation to report.
But there was a lot of disorder in daily life in Bosnia. It was also a
test of survival for mere reporters. Over the five years we spent in the
Balkans, it dawned on my colleague Martin Bell and myself that the news
system we had known was being dispatched -though it dawned rather slowly,
mainly because we were preoccupied with preventing ourselves being dispatched
by the locals. Put simply, news was increasingly selected not for its
significance, but for its interest. A growing nervousness about 'relevance'
and 'accountability' was driving editors to include more items centred
on consumer values and entertainment appeal, all packaged with presentation
that was appealingly easy on the eye, and given pace with frequent 'live'
spots. An underlying fear that viewers might be easily bored, or fail
to find items 'relevant' to their own lives, narrowed horizons and widened
the scope for sentiment and personal opinion. And the growth of 24-hour
channels brought about a dramatic increase in speculation and comment-
purely to fill the time available -from reporters who hitherto had not
been expected to express opinions.
News found itself just one element in a world swirling with information
of dodgy provenance, slick advertising and public relations half-truths.
To stick to the facts in such circumstances was to be a dull root vegetable
in a fancy box of chocolates.
However, who am I to complain? My own experience has been a journey of
discovery which I never expected.