Television news is a young medium. You see that every time you walk into a newsroom or a studio, or switch a television set on and watch the reporters. The rate of promotion is remarkable, and most people have left the business by the time they reach their fifties. As a result, the collective memory of those who work in it tends to be pretty short. Most people assume that, technology apart, things must always have been pretty much as they have always been. It's bard to explain how greatly things have changed in television news over the past thirty years.
We have, for instance, come to regard Britain as being the centre of the industry, with the BBC, Sky and Independent Television dominating the international market, and the two big agencies, Reuters and APTN, supplying the world with pictures from their bases in London. APTN may be the television arm of a famous American text news agency, the Associated Press, based in New York, but when it decided to go into television it quickly became clear to the management of AP that it would be impossible to set up an effective news operation outside London. Even CNN had to open up its international main base in London, four thousand miles away from its home city, Atlanta.
If your operations are in Britain, the chances are that plenty of your staff will be from there too. As a result, the entire worldwide business has a markedly British accent. Nowadays this may seem a matter of course; yet it is only fifteen years or so since the Americans were the dominant force in world television news, throwing unthinkably large resources of people and equipment into every major event. Not any more.
I say this, not to boast, but to show how enormously influential Britain's involvement in international television news has become. It isn't just accidental, nor is it merely because English has emerged in the last twenty years as the global language. It is the result of several important factors, which are worth examining in some detail.
First and foremost, there is a powerful tradition of objectivity and lack of bias in British broadcasting, which goes back many decades. In 1977 I was sent to South Africa to be the BBC correspondent there. I was nervous, because the South African government regarded the BBC as an enemy and was always on the lookout for opportunities to attack us and if necessary throw us out. I was also a little vague about the attitude I was expected to take; should I, as a matter of course, condemn the apartheid regime, or was there some dubious understanding between the BBC and South Africa, whereby we closed our eyes to some things in order to keep on broadcasting? I wasn't just uncertain about the facts of the relationship, I was worried that my conscience wouldn't allow me to stick to any secret agreement which might have been reached.
In the end I went to see my ultimate boss, a crabby old Ulsterman called Waldo Maguire, who as the head of BBC news and current affairs had often seemed deplorably timid and safe to those of us who fancied ourselves as the Corporation's young Turks; especially over the issue of Northern Ireland. I sat down in his art deco office in Broadcasting House, with its light wood panelling and its engravings by Eric Gill, and asked him to tell me how I should do my new job.
He listened to me, then pushed his chair back and walked over to a safe in the corner of the room. From it he pulled out a file and handed it to me. As far as I remember, it only contained two rather fragile documents, smudgily typed on flimsy paper. They were records of meetings of the BBC board of governors, dated within days of the outbreak of the Second World War, and they were in effect staff instructions on how to report the war and in particular the tone they should adopt in broadcasting to the enemy in the German Service. As I read them, I felt a weight lifting off me. They were all about being honest and open, and not keeping news back simply because it was bad. We had an absolute duty, the smudgy words said, to tell people what was happening as quickly and as fully as we could. As for the tone, we should address even individual Germans as though we were sitting talking with them in a neutral cafe somewhere. 'Above all,' said the flimsy piece of paper, 'there must be no room for ranting.'
The shrewd old man across the table - as I write this, it occurs to me that he must have been in his late fifties, as I am now - watched me as I read all this. 'You see, laddie, if you're a journalist ye've just to tell people what's going on. If ye want to influence them, to tell them what to think, then ye should be in politics instead.' That, at any rate, is how I remember the conversation. Waldo died of a heart attack not very long afterwards, as he sat fishing by an Ulster loch, and I've no idea what happened to the bits of flimsy paper he used to keep so carefully.
But the message was clear. The news was all that mattered, whether it was uncomfortable or not, whether it fitted into my own personal views of right or wrong or not. But it wasn't my function to rant about apartheid, or anything else. I had to present the facts as honestly and frankly and openly as I could, and leave it to the audience to decide what they felt about them. In fact, of course, when I reached South Africa I found it all remarkably easy: you had only to tell people what was going on, and how the apartheid system was structured, for them to realize what it was all about. There wasn't any need to rant: the facts spoke for themselves. Later, when I travelled to the Soviet Union, or to China, or to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, or to Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, I found that the same principle applied. There was no need to preach, nor to twist the facts; I just had to do the job. It was a tremendous relief.
Not that broadcasters are required to be moral eunuchs, blandly laying out different views as though they have equal value. If several thousand Muslims have disappeared from the town of Srbrenica, we should not rate a denial by the Bosnian Serb leadership as being of equal value with the basic information. You must be fair, but you are not required to create some kind of equivalence between innocence and guilt. So a reputation for objectivity and balance has been one major part of the success of British television internationally.
But influential broadcasting isn't solely about the facts, essential though they are. It's also about good and effective communication: intelligent and intelligible writing, well-shot, well-edited and informative pictures. 'Television news,' said an old and experienced friend of mine, who used to produce many of my news reports, 'should please the mind and ravish the eye.' I don't suppose he often got what he was hoping for from me, but I learned slowly that there was more to making a television report than simply writing a script and finding pictures -any pictures - to illustrate it.
It's hard for journalists, who take their words seriously, to come to terms with a medium where the words should complement the pictures rather than dominate them. For several years, after I switched from radio to television, I regarded my script as the central point of the exercise; the pictures were there because - well, because it was television. So the long-suffering picture editor would have to paste any images he could find over the words I had written: the American president, the British prime minister, a naval ship, bombs falling, a factory assembly line, starving Africans. Each image would last at the most for ten seconds, to be succeeded by some other, unrelated set of images. It was a confusing muddle, which gave the viewers' eyes too much pointless, unrelated information and their ears too many words, and too many facts, packed in as tightly as a correspondent's suitcase.
It was only by working for programmes like Newsnight that I came at last to understand that television requires proper sequences, entire episodes that illustrate and illumine the subject. Slowly, I realized that words were not enough: that you had to allow the viewers to see things for themselves, and to draw the proper conclusions from what they saw. You aren't giving a university lecture, you're telling a story, leading people with you through the narrative - their companion, not their professor. It isn't at all easy: you have first to understand thoroughly what is going on yourself, then film the circumstances that best illustrate the story you are trying to tell.
No form of journalism is harder than good reporting for television: by contrast, newspaper journalists have it remarkably easy. In television, you should not only be on hand for the subject you describe, you have to make sure your cameraman gets the right pictures for it; and then you have to turn these pictures into a clear, comprehensible narrative: the hardest part of all.
In 1945 Raymond Chandler, as clever a film scriptwriter as he was a novelist, wrote: 'The challenge of screenwriting is to say much in little, and then take half of that little and still preserve an effect of leisure and natural movement.' That kind of writing, apparently relaxed and easy yet properly informative as well as fair and accurate, is one of the central arts of good television news, and it is one of the aims of this book to describe how it is done - by no means an easy task.Vin Ray's book is important and timely, because television journalism plays such a key role nowadays that it has to be as good as we can make it. Vin, who has been a friend and colleague of mine for years, is precisely the kind of person a big organization needs if it is to perform properly.
He has perhaps the most influential role in BBC News, building the organization in the best and most effective way, by appointing new people and moulding the careers of those who are already working in it. He is responsible for developing on-air presenters, correspondents and reporters, from the household names to the latest arrival; and he has hired most of them.
There was a time when television news was regarded as a brutal, irreflective, hustling kind of affair. Brawn, appearance and ego were prized above other qualities. Years after I was appointed a BBC reporter in 1970,1 found out the chairman of the appointments board had told the other members that day that the main criterion they should bear in mind as each candidate came in was: is this the kind of man - there were no women news reporters in television then - who would walk into a brothel? If the answer was yes, he said, the man should get the job. I suppose I should make it clear that I was rejected at first, and was only appointed most reluctantly afterwards in order to make up the required numbers.
Those days, thank God, have been over for more than a quarter of a century; but it was the arrival of more civilized people like Vin Ray in the rough neighbourhood of BBC television news that gradually affected the general ethos. It was Vin who spotted the potential and gave jobs as foreign correspondents to George Alagiah, Jeremy Bowen, Matt Frei, Orla Guerin, Allan Little, Justin Webb, David Shukman and dozens of others. Vin coached the BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr, when he arrived from newspapers, and helped him become the most effective communicator in front of camera in British television news. Nowadays only the oldest among us, the real antiques, predate his influence. If BBC News as it is today has been shaped in the likeness of any single individual, that individual is Vin Ray: calm, thoughtful, cultured, determined, with a clear awareness of the direction in which the BBC must travel.
No one is better suited to describe to television journalists - new and established - how the job should best be done. This book is, quite simply, a master-class; and it is taught by the person best equipped to do so.
John Simpson, 2003