Newsflash: Why social media may fall behind TV journalism for some time

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It is a rare occasion but when it does happen it creates a ‘sit up and listen’ attitude amongst viewers. Newsflashes have been around for the best part of nearly seventy years across the globe, bringing viewers a breaking story. Conveying drama, theatre and enigma, these broadcasts have exposed the very best of television journalism. An ITV documentary, ‘Newsflash’, looked back at the era of when breaks in schedules were the order of the day. But in the day of 24 hour news and social media, is this concept now at risk of becoming a past tradition?

ITN’s Julie Etchingham narrated the insightful documentary and it certainly proved to be a hit amongst viewers. Newsflashes go beyond providing impartial information to the mass audience. In the documentary, the emotions of some of the most iconic journalists in the British industry were apparent. Martyn Lewis’ crackling voice when announcing the death of Princess Diana and Alastair Stewart’s real upset when discussing the Lockerbie bombing made it clear that journalism goes beyond collating the facts of a breaking news story. It is a real human life story. Having the responsibility of breaking such heart-rendering news is surely difficult. If anything, the emotion portrayed through our journalists, highlights how real journalism is. Such emotion can never be conveyed through social media.

The death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2002 and the invasion of Iraq are perhaps some of the last major stories to justify newsflashes before the emergence of online media. Social networks such as Twitter now announce breaking stories before they can even reach the airwaves. Online, news corporations have their own websites, which act as a 24 hour service to millions of users, as do mobile phone apps. Today, there is no need for newsflashes, since all of our breaking stories are available on demand 24 hours a day. However, there is still something very special about breaking into ordinary programming to bring viewers unfolding and at times dramatic footage.

The most recent unfolding event was that of the birth of the Royal Baby. Even I have criticised the enormous amount of coverage given. Yet, when looking back, the unfolding enigma and theatre on the steps of the Lindo Wing at Paddington was far from a boring and un-interesting broadcast. From the announcement of the birth to the moments the new parents and their child left the hospital, the world and its media followed extensively the story break. Like many others who have spoken, the extended newsflashes on public and commercial broadcasters were gripping. There was something genuinely exciting about seeing first-hand the pictures of our new heir to the throne. The joy amongst journalists, including the BBC’s Peter Hunt and ITV’s Tim Ewart, was clear; both channels rushed to get the best images and best guests to keep viewers on side. Dedication, passion and heart for a story you simply cannot grasp from an online piece of journalism.

It is incredibly easy to understand that this and so many other stories of recent times could have simply unfolded online. The majority have access to a computer system. But that is not how journalism works. Online journalists are some of the best in the business, but journalism is about connections. Connections with guests, connecting with the story and connecting with the viewer. Television is a great medium to achieve the outcome of this formula. Television is a truly remarkable source of creating tension, creating drama and creating the news. Despite how many may ‘retweet’ or comment on a story, there is little excitement and sense of importance created.

Whilst I openly support television journalism, is there any evidence to suggest that soon social media will be the clear dominant force? There is clear evidence to suggest that social media is heavily breathing down the neck of our television journalists. On the BBC’s Breaking News Twitter account, there are over 7.7million followers. That is close, if not more, than the average rating for one of the main BBC One news bulletins. For those who don’t follow a news service account or attempt to avoid news online, it is a very difficult position. Given the amount of retweets per tweet made, nearly all users on Twitter are exposed to some form of news and information.

I readily admit that I use social media to keep up to date on news. Whether I’m working, away or elsewhere. But there is something quintessentially isolate about a computer generated piece of news. Yes, there is somebody at the other end inputting the news, but they are not a familiar face. The beauty with television journalism is trust. Many journalists have been on screen for years and build rapports with viewers. As you read a tweet about breaking news, it is objective and distant. If the BBC’s business expert Robert Peston announces a breaking piece of financial news, viewers trust his words, they understand and relate to his words, because of his familiarity.

The ‘Newsflash’ programme highlighted much of the programmes that have literally stopped people in their tracks. The September 11th Attacks, The Gulf War and the death of Michael Jackson, amongst others. There is something very special indeed about a breaking news story. It is very difficult to explain, but television journalists do a grand job of keeping viewers informed and enticed. On that note, television journalism still remains at the top of its game. Social media is a convenience but broadcast journalism brings reality and humanisation to a gripping theatrical piece of news.

Visit the ITV Player to see ‘Newsflash’ narrated by Julie Etchingham

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PROFILE: Sir Trevor McDonald

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He is quite possibly the most recognisable face in British television news. The word ‘retirement’ is not one to be used when it comes to Sir Trevor McDonald. There are many people who inspire me when it comes to journalism and a career in the media. Sir Trevor is at the top of that list.

McDonald made history by becoming the first black newsreader in the UK, presenting with Independent Television News –ITN. His career, though, began in Trinidad during the 1960’s before producing programmes for BBC Radio. It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that Trevor became a general news reporter for ITN, later becoming a sports correspondent and further developing as an expert in international politics.

When it came to presenting news programmes, Sir Trevor worked for a short time with Channel 4 News, before working on the Early Evening News and ultimately presenting the flagship News at Ten and weekday late news between the late 1980’s and 2005. Ask anybody about their first thoughts when they think of News at Ten and Sir Trevor McDonald will be a part of that.
In 2005, Sir Trevor retired for the first time, however continued to host Tonight with Trevor McDonald, a weekly documentary series investigating an individual news and current affairs topic every week. However, in 2008, the return of the News to ten o’clock also saw the then 68 year old return to prime time news, before his second retirement within the year.

Following his retirement from news altogether, Sir Trevor ventured into documentary making with productions including The Secret Caribbean and The Mighty Mississippi. His courteous attitude and genuine passion for other people’s cultures and views provided a real insight into parts of the world through different eyes. The most recent project Trevor has worked on was a ratings success for ITV.

Inside Death Row was broadcast in January 2013 and followed Sir Trevor McDonald investigating the so called “death row” in the United States – a high detention security prison with the most violent inmates on the waiting list for the death penalty. In interviews beforehand, McDonald, now 73, stated how he disagreed with the death penalty, yet the documentary was an eye opening and insightful look at a system unfamiliar in Britain. The way in which McDonald conducted himself in his interviews with prison inmates and staff did, to some extent, show how he felt toward the system, however the genuine interest and passion for investigative journalism also counter balanced with allowing the inmates and staff to have their say. It was the genuine character of Sir Trevor McDonald which provided the success for ITV, a reliable and enthusiastic journalist, providing an unbiased and open minded approach to other world systems.

As a professional and as a man, Sir Trevor McDonald, was and still remains a heartbeat of British news. His famous tone of voice, powerful and instantly recognisable, has sometimes been the butt of jokes. He has interviewed figures including heads of states, including presidents, prime ministers and ordinary people at the centre of extraordinary news. His passionate, caring and professional approach comes across in a way that shows Sir Trevor to be worthy of his knighthood for services to broadcasting. A genuine thirst for news and journalism is what Sir Trevor stands for and his career and character is one to aspire to.

Have we seen the best of Top Gear ?

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Top Gear line up: Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May.

Top Gear line up: Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May.

I will always openly admit that my favourite programme on television is Top Gear. The mix of laughter, cars and genuine passion and interest for what the three presenters do is what appeals to me most. Hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, “New Top Gear”, as they call it, began in October 2002. Ten years on, Top Gear remains the most watched car programme in the world with over 300 million viewers and remains one of the, if not the, most successful and most watched show on British television. But in recent years, the numbers of shows per series has decreased dramatically, and the content of the show has moved away from the original ethos of Top Gear. So have we really seen the best of Top Gear?

When considering what to write in this blog, I originally thought it would be a simple answer of yes, however, the latest series of the programme, broadcast in early 2013, has shown how the quality of the show remains one of the highest on British TV. Stunning camera shots, specialist filming of high performance vehicles and interesting yet quirky items have seen Top Gear deliver highly on their changed priorities – more expensive and powerful cars are reviewed over ‘sensible’ cars for the average motorist.

The early editions of the new format of Top Gear did reflect some of the content of the old format. Informative and factual reviews of cars such as the Citreon Berlingo and Land Rover Discovery made the car reviews, whilst the new interests of the modern viewer wanted excitement and power. This came in the form of more focus on power cars such as the Lamborghini Murcielago and Pagani Zonda. The new format is studio based, unlike the previous, and features new additions such as lap times with The Stig, and a new interview feature – A Star in a Reasonably Priced Car. These segments revived Top Gear from what was a struggling motoring programme into a show that boasts immense commercial success.

It was around series 4 when Top Gear moved to film new and exciting challenges such as the legendary Aston Martin versus a train to Monte Carlo and the cars playing football – a feature which still recurs today. In the latest series’ of Top Gear, there has been a shift from the review of sensible, everyday cars, to longer films about supercars and the challenges the presenters face from the producers. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I always defend the programme when people claim ‘they don’t do normal cars’. That’s not because they’re not interested in them. The audience has changed. Younger viewers want excitement and high-octane thrills. An insight into the power of a Ferrari is likely to be preferred over reviews of a bog standard Vauxhall.

In 2007, Top Gear moved into another new era, as some of the one hour programmes became dedicated to one single challenge. These often consist of buying a certain type of car for less than a given budget and then driving them through rough terrain, encountering a number of difficulties. The rapport of the presenters, the character of the cars chosen and the obscene challenges faced are what have and continue to bring in the millions of viewers who tune in on a Sunday night.

I can’t, however, feel comfortable that Top Gear will go from strength to strength. The legendary films that Top Gear has produced – the trip to the North Pole, the American special and Bugatti Veyron race across Europe are items that viewers will not forget and that brings a very high standard to future productions. It’s simple – some but not all of the films following such stand out years for Top Gear have not been matched.

At points, there is some question about the spontaneity of events. The caravan holiday antics where a tourer was set on fire, for instance, was set up, yet was presented very realistically. The idea of some features purposely being scripted for laughs seems rather disappointing to any viewer, especially when the show was so spontaneous in earlier editions.

It must be commended that the show does have a proven track record of success. No other programme has ever been as commercially successful as Top Gear and probably no other programme will be. The recent 19th series of the programme finished alongside two “Best of Top Gears” – a regular look back the highlights at the end of the series. The stand out feature from this series was the quality of the films. Yes, Top Gear might not film as many reports as previous series’ but the quality of what is produced is above and beyond an ordinary motoring programme. The two-part special featuring the presenters travelling to find the source of the River Nile was possibly the greatest Top Gear adventure yet. The trip felt fresh, alive and exciting. The presenters were genuinely passionate about their quest to find what they had been challenged with. And with the usual combination of bickering, bantering and boyishness, the show was a ratings success for the BBC.

Some of the ideas have felt a little strained, almost as if Top Gear executives are running out of ideas. However, if Top Gear are going to do less shows per year, the overall quality of series 19 would be welcomed any day.

Yes, Top Gear has been on air, in its current format, for over ten years now. And yes, it does feel that the top of the hill has been reached in terms of its features. I will always be an avid and loyal viewer to Top Gear whatever happens. Lots of people will moan about how the show has moved from its roots to focussing just on fast super cars. My argument is that Top Gear is a reflection of its audience. An audience which has developed and changed with the years.

Awarding Jeremy Clarkson a special recognition award in 2007, Sir Trevor McDonald claimed: “He has helped create a niche show for enthusiasts into a must see show for millions of fans.” Not many programmes can boast of that success.

‘Breaking News’ – The snow is back.

ITV News presenters Mary Nightingale and Alastair Stewart bring us the latest on the snow.

ITV News presenters Mary Nightingale and Alastair Stewart bring us the latest on the snow.

British news has once again been dominated by the old trouble maker herself, the weather. Again. But is it really necessary for this same old story about travel disruption, power cuts and how we are coping in the “freezing conditions” to have the worthy of nearly half the air time of an evening news bulletin? I think not.

There is a clear argument for the reports on the weather, keeping viewers informed with any disruption to their travels and whether or not their kid’s school is closed. But surely this kind of news can be kept for a short update within a local news bulletin. News of how many schools have been closed in Wales and Northern Ireland is most irrelevant to a viewer in Newcastle. There is an art of recycling when it comes to weather news reports. The standard procedure applies as follows: Top headline about snow; travel disruption because of the snow; how people have been “battling the elements”; a warning from police not to travel; and of course, the question everyone wants to know – is more on the way? I guarantee if you watch a news bulletin on a ‘snow day’ this procedure or near abouts will be the one that dominates.

When it comes to reporting on the snowy conditions and “treacherous driving conditions”, there is an element of shock. That shock, however, is that the expense of other motorists. For instance, a common report on the travel disruption begins with scenes of motorways around the country which appear dangerous and un-driveable. But then follows the repeated phrase, “a number of accidents…” which then leads into footage of cars off the road, often in ditches, recognising how very dangerous the roads are. Sometimes there will be dramatic footage from a camera phone showing a car, sometimes a bus, sliding in icy surfaces. Very shocking. But then again, why would any driver be so careless to pass through icy conditions and put their own lives at risk? The ordinary viewer, who hasn’t ventured out because of the cold, voices their opinions within the family – “stupid”, “idiot”, “why didn’t they stay at home” – So whilst the reports do highlight the somewhat incompetence of drivers who ignore previous warnings, they highlight the danger on the roads, underlying the message of the danger in the snow and NOT TO TRAVEL..(unless absolutely 100% vital, of course).

Another regular feature which appears on ‘snow day’ news programmes is the art of crossing from the cosy and warm newsroom to the arctic like conditions of the Lake District, Glasgow, Belfast, Buxton, Cornwall and Cardiff (not always used), in the traditional ‘sweep’ around the country to get the wider picture. Mainly so a viewer in the south can comment on how much snow they have had compared to the North. Then follows the ‘Live OB’ – the Outside Broadcast. “Lets cross to Cumbria and get the latest from there…” proclaims the newsreader and then follows one of the single most depressing shots for anyone who wants to be a part of news – one of the country’s brilliant TV journalists, used to battling court room dramas and breaking news, stands freezing, covered in snow and red-faced, in a farmer’s field. There has to be some admiration for these reporters who brave the conditions to bring us the details of what is happening. Although, quite a lot of the time, the closures, conditions and power cuts that are being experienced in Scotland are quite the same to those in Cardiff. It is an endless ‘arctic circle’.

At one time, it used to be a novelty to have a news bulletin dedicated to the ‘chaos’ that the snow has brought. Nowadays, with climate change and differences to our weather patterns, snow is bedding down more regular. Where I live, between Liverpool and Manchester, there have been around four different snowfalls in the past six months! Despite that the same reports and information surface – Don’t travel unless necessary; check with your tour operator; stay indoors; check on your neighbours. Compare that to the United States where snow drifts are vast and we look like a country that can’t cope with the white stuff. The news is supposed to be an operation that provides the latest new news. Although each snowfall is new the news that surrounds it is far from that.

So don’t forget to take care in the snow and of course, in the words of great journalists and presenters, “don’t travel if it’s not essential.”

A fond farewell to Television Centre ?

Lights out at 'TVC'.

Lights out at ‘TVC’.

It is hard to imagine but at one point in time the majority of the BBC’s central departments such as news, sport and drama were all based under one iconic roof – Television Centre. Now, however, after 54 years at the heart of West London and as a symbol of the BBC, the building is to close, being sold for redevelopment. When I first heard the news, I admit I did question the decision. Why would the national broadcaster of Great Britain close one of the most recognisable buildings in the country? However, since that decision, the BBC has changed and now the corporation has based various departments around the UK.

Last Sunday saw the final BBC News bulletin come live from Television Centre, before they themselves relocated to a new home. But it isn’t the first relocation. Departments such as drama and comedy have moved to locations including Cardiff and Glasgow, whilst the biggest relocation of BBC departments has been to the new Media City UK in Salford, where BBC Sport, Breakfast and CBBC (amongst others) are now based. I can say I have had the pleasure of visiting Media City and it is a brilliant working environment to be a part of. The modern surroundings, leisure attractions and the Manchester Ship Canal offer an unrivalled media environment.

The new buildings are large, modern and a reflection of the new era for the BBC. The open plan and ‘airy’ atmosphere in Quay House allow BBC Sport, BBC Breakfast, Radio 5 Live and other departments to work together in a building which offers excitement and evidence of the new digital era for media innovation. It is these new buildings and relocations which will be the new history of the BBC. Official figures already show that tourism in Salford is up for the seventh year on the row, with visitors travelling to see the new redevelopment.

It is the relocation of the broadcaster and indeed other media organisations which are transforming the media industry. Away from the London centric representation that has portrayed the BBC in the past, the corporation is now one which is based and created from all corners of the UK. Not only is money being saved for the corporation but new talent is being discovered from around the United Kingdom.

Departments such as BBC News will remain in London, at the new headquarters at New Broadcasting House, for obvious reasons. The selling of possibly the most iconic media building in the UK may lead you to ask where some of the programmes previously filmed at ‘TVC’ will be rehomed. Well, although the centre is being redeveloped and sold on, some of the larger TV studios will remain. The BBC, alongside other broadcasters and independent companies will be able to hire out or rent the studio – a cheaper alternative than owning the buildings than house the studios. This method of filming is already in place at “The Studios” in Salford where the BBC does not own studios for the likes of CBBC and Match of the Day. However, the BBC does have an increased stake than other broadcasters and companies, so that regular programmes can be permanently based and filmed.

So when I think back to the news that Television Centre will be closed, yes it will be sad to see the national broadcaster leave their iconic home. However, the next era of the BBC is to be created around the UK in new and plush working environments. But will any of these rival the iconic ring in West London? Only history will tell.