After the break: Trevor dances a Scottish reel


When I found myself in charge of BBC news in the late 1980s, I brought to the task unprecedented reserves of ignorance. Working in Fleet Street for the previous decade, I had scarcely seen a TV news bulletin since, in those days, the Financial Times newsroom possessed a single black-and-white television set whose antenna was locked in the news editor's drawer for use only in the event of presidential assassinations. Since I never recrossed the black sprawl of the south London rail commuter network much before 10pm, Newsnight was the only television news programme I knew well.

At the BBC, however, I discovered the extent to which TV news people judge their work against ITN's. I came to see their point: News at Ten may have moved downmarket of the Nine o'Clock News in terms of its news agenda, but it has set the standard for the way news stories should be told through the medium of television.

Anyone wishing to test this point need only look back at the final edition of News at Ten and the Nine o' Clock News of the same evening last week. Look particularly at the account of the Cumbria E coli outbreak, to which ITN added a sureness of human narrative - we were told this was a disaster that had struck an 18-month-old baby as well as a 92 year old - before being led through important visual detail missing from the BBC account - an interview with a victim's family and a snatched image of the farmer who produced the suspect milk - before reaching the analytical backgrounder in its proper place: last. The BBC's version was pallid by comparison.

So I continue to insist that ITN's withdrawal from prime time remains a proper subject for mourning. News at Ten's replacements, the ITV Evening News with Trevor McDonald at 6.30pm and a 20-minute Nightly News programme at 11pm, are, as the corporate press release says of their orange-lit beechwood set, "modern yet familiar", the mix of stories, including solid reports from faraway places, obstinately designed to resist the charge of dumbing down.

True, the lead item on the very first night - an encounter between Michael Brunson and Gordon Brown - was so over-rehearsed that I expected a display of synchronised tap-dancing, but I put this down to the need for a security blanket on the evening that Big Trev was required to adjust to this year's TV news fashion and walk around the studio. Goodness knows what the BBC will come up with at six o'clock: newscasters dancing to Scottish and Welsh music? A genuine innovation of the Trevor McDonald show is to have the graphics walk around the set as well as the journalists, requiring one hapless reporter to pirouette around a particularly savage trend line, like a country walker avoiding the muddy paws of someone else's spaniel.

By day two, Budget day, ITN's graphics rocket scientists had been restrained and the programme looked like it had been there for months. None of this, however, can conceal the weakness of ITV's New Deal. It is extraordinarily difficult to make sense of a Budget on television within two hours of the Chancellor sitting down. On this evidence, ITN will badly miss its four hours' reflection time, not least since, compared with the BBC, it has far fewer correspondents skilled in analysis. As a result, ITN's coverage failed to address the Budget's meaning for the economy or for business. We had to wait for Peter Jay at 9pm to get the answers.

ITN's Budget day efforts were further undermined by a particularly poor edition of Channel 4 News, where Jon Snow is wearing this year's fashion for high mobility in the alarming manner of a remote- control car in a children's playground. To me, Channel 4 News, only recently spruced up, looks more tired than News at Ten. Nor did the new ITV Nightly News at 11pm make any serious attempt to repair the Budget day damage.

We now await the BBC's response. There will be new sets, rearranged music and, in the early evening, new presenters. But the BBC's real challenge is to prevent its necessary efforts to deploy a huge news machine efficiently across many outlets on TV and radio from turning its mainstream news programmes into genetically modified soya pulp. The answer, I imagine, is to put the right handful of strong characters in the right places.

ITN's problem is less tractable. It no longer exists in prime time. Since Channel 5's 5 News (another ITN production) has now moved head to head with Channel 4 at 7pm, perhaps the answer is to move Channel 4 News to 9pm or 10pm. As the poet Wordsworth said, the best television news is emotion recollected in tranquillity.

The writer is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet