Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

A long-standing lament of my final years with BBC radio and television was disappointment at having far fewer opportunities than I would have liked to write considered news reports, or to offer crafted packages illustrated with actuality and interviews. Increasingly the live-two way had come to dominate my daily output at BBC Westminster: the disciplines of the 24-hour news cycle necessitated immediacy rather than the precision of a prepared text.

My 30-year career encompassed a transformation in broadcasting, the shift from scripted reporting towards conversational journalism, a change that has had a profound effect on the delivery of political news.

When I joined Radio Leicester in 1972, 90 per cent of what I said on air had been written in advance. Three decades later, in my last year as a BBC correspondent, before having to retire at 60, the reverse was the case. I calculated that 80 to 90 per cent of my broadcasts in 2002 were live two-ways, either with a newsreader or programme presenter.

Therefore, imagine my fascination when asked to review News and Politics: The Rise of Live and Interpretive Journalism --  the fruits of Stephen Cushion’s extensive statistical research and analysis into the extent to which television news bulletins have adapted their formats to keep pace with the competitive pressures of 24-hour news channels, online services and social media.

Cushion’s conclusion is the somewhat cautious endorsement of an academic: he found that two-ways by experienced political reporters were “viewed as being able to potentially enlighten viewers about public affairs...and can bring important interventions in televisions news bulletins”.

Some journalists have little patience with the perpetual focus by academia on the supposed motives and perceived failings of journalists and broadcasters, their editors and producers. Whereas the scope of academic studies can be wide of the mark, showing little understanding of the pressures involved in working to deadline, media research often identifies previously unforeseen, and sometimes disturbing trends, that are worthy of attention.

My appetite having been whetted, I was able to feast on a range of fascinating statistics dating back to 1991 about the changing format of evening news bulletins, both at home and abroad, and then devour Cushion’s exhaustive analysis of the impact of the ever-expanding proportion of air time being allocated to live appearances by reporters, at the expense of pre-edited items.

The thesis that News and Politics explores is that the fixed time evening bulletins on BBC, ITV and other channels had to adapt in order to meet the challenges presented by the arrival of rolling news. Technical advances that enabled the delivery of live reports from numerous locations worked to the advantage of the bulletins as well as rolling news, but my experience suggests that the push for a more a conversational style of reporting pre-dated the launch of the BBC’s news channel in 1997.

Close examination of Cushion’s statistics for the last two decades does seem to support my contention: his figures show that the switch towards the greater use of live reporting for political news in the main bulletins gathered pace rapidly after his chosen start date of 1991, a trend that accords with my growing frustration at the time when bulletin editors began to commission far fewer packages prepared by reporters.

A live interview with a chief political correspondent, or political editor, invariably took precedence. Presenters were anxious to be seen inter-acting with the news of the day, and likewise chief correspondents and political editors saw two-ways as an ideal opportunity to promote themselves as personalities. Editors were determined at all costs to retain peak audiences for the news bulletins, and their edict could not have been clearer: the reporting of politics should be personality-led, and whenever possible be conversational. 

Broadcasters like myself found we were being switched increasingly to two-ways on Radio 5 Live, and later the news channel. We knew we were stuffed, and that we had little chance of reporting for the main bulletins. Our editors, we believed, were only interested in “star sucking”, as it came to be known in the vernacular of the foot soldiers of BBC Westminster.

One career-end anecdote highlights the shift to personality-driven political reporting. Andrew Marr, who became BBC political editor in May 2000, was the favoured candidate of the newly-appointed director-general Greg Dyke. In a friendly chat soon after taking the job, Marr let slip that Dyke had told him he had just three months in which to establish himself as a personality.

“Don’t worry”, I replied, “you’ll get plenty of opportunities once you start appearing regularly doing two-ways in the main news bulletins. You’ll soon be as famous as John Cole.”

Perhaps we reporters were partly to blame for not being more adventurous in the way we covered politics. Our packages were frowned upon because of their reliance on footage from parliament.

Initially when the House of Commons started being televised in 1990 our output expanded, but as the author acknowledges, the novelty of showing pictures from the chamber waned within a matter of months. We were told in no uncertain terms that if all we could offer was a report constructed around boring shots of empty green benches, then we should “forget it”.

While two-way interviews do offer plenty of air time, they can be far less satisfying than delivering a prepared text in which every word has been chosen with care. By its very nature conversational journalism is less precise, and reporters can find it difficult to avoid self-promotion. How many times was I guilty of boasting: “My sources are telling me...the MPs I have spoken to are adamant...yes, ministers are letting it be known privately...and so on.”

Cushion joins other academics in considering how the expansion in two-ways has enabled political journalists to “counter the new professionalized class of politicians and slick PR tactics of political parties”.  Perhaps for his next research project he might consider whether the pressure to provide instant reaction is making political correspondents even more dependent on spin doctors. My belief is that the two-way culture has made journalists far too reliant on their “sources”; they rarely have adequate time to seek out a wider range of opinion; and, as a result, political propagandists find it easier manipulate coverage and set the agenda.

News and Politics: The Rise of Live and Interpretive Journalism, by Stephen Cushion (Routledge, pp.182, £00.00)

Nicholas Jones is a former BBC political correspondent and author of The Election A-Z (Urbane Publications, 2015).