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30 March 2022

Fifty years on, Newsround is still helping children understand the world

The BBC children's bulletin plays the vital role of handling frightening subjects sensitively for a young audience.

By Jude Rogers

Newsround makes me think of a little girl in the mid-1980s who loved the news. She consumed it from when she threw down her satchel after school, from two outlets. The first was Grandpa’s red-tops, which screamed in headlines about a scary woman called Maggie, children being snatched and something chilly called the Cold War. The second was her preferred source: a man sitting behind a desk in a brightly-coloured jumper on TV, speaking sensibly and calmly, called John Craven.

Newsround celebrates its 50th birthday next week and that little girl — me — is now a parent of a seven-year-old, who watches it every day at school on BBC iPlayer. It’s also shown live on the BBC’s children’s channel, CBBC, at 7.45am, a breakfast-accompanying slot that reflects the high regard in which it’s still held. Yet it’s a miracle it was ever made at all.

Fifty years ago Edward Barnes, then deputy head of BBC children’s TV, had a short gap to fill on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5pm. He proposed filling it with news: there hadn’t been any since Children’s Newsreel, running from 1950 to 1961, featuring clips on cleaning railway coaches, miniature railways and Princess Margaret inspecting sea rangers at Portsmouth.

But Barnes’s idea met resistance, especially as he wanted to cover tougher contemporary topics. “They thought it was violating children’s innocence,” Barnes said in 2011. Jonathan Dimbleby had been the first choice for presenter but had been snapped up by ITV. A newer face, John Craven, then 31, was brought in to present it instead. His presenting style was perfect: authoritative but kind, precise but never patronising, his Leeds vowels occasionally — and endearingly — peeking through his Auntie-approved delivery. 

He was also less intimidating than the presenters I’d catch over Rice Krispies at breakfast, or when I was allowed to stay up late, like Peter Sissons, Sue Lawley and Jeremy Paxman. They felt as distant to me as the many subjects about which they gravely intoned.

Newsround’s task was to explain “serious events in a simple way”, Craven said recently (he stayed at the show until 1989, then went to present Countryfile, which he still does now, at 81). It turned out that many adult viewers liked the show too. “Some of my greatest fans were pub landlords, who made sure that they tuned in at 5pm before opening up.”

It helped that Newsround didn’t ramp up the drama of breaking events that were already deeply traumatic. This I know from personal experience. At seven, I was at my friend Julia’s after school, bowls of flying saucer sweets in our hands to celebrate the early morning take-off of the US space shuttle Challenger. Because of the time difference, Newsround was the first to break the news of its explosion — something many people of my age remember too, given that we grew up in the age of only four terrestrial channels. A clip online shows that day’s presenter, Roger Finn, in a warm, cosy jumper, telling us calmly what’s happened. Today, I notice how nervously he’s rustling his papers, but his voice set the tone. It comforted us all.

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Newsround always handled frightening subjects sensitively and still does. From its reports four decades ago, I learned about the hole in the ozone layer, while also being told what people could do to stop it from getting bigger. This morning, I watched the show’s latest report on the war in Ukraine, hosted in the studio by Jenny Rose Lawrence, wearing a red shirt decorated with dinosaurs. After showing footage from the ground, she shows her interview with a young Ukrainian girl, Eva, now in Poland, asking her what her journey had been like, and how Polish people had welcomed her, before showing good things being done by so many people to help, at home as well as abroad.

Unexpectedly, the report brought me to tears, reminding me of my similar education on the small screen, and how it influenced who we are now as parents. It made me realise that our Newsround childhoods taught us about the tough realities of the world around us, while always holding our hand.

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