Can the UK’s broadcast news providers keep doing more for less?

If there was an annual award for ‘The most (apparently) honest statement by a broadcast news executive ‘ then Jeff Zucker,President of CNN would have to be a front runner this year.Last week he warned his staff around the world,who are expecting job cuts,’We are going to do less and have to do it with less’.
James Harding,Director of BBC News,would get a nomination for the slightly longer ‘Taking nearly £50 million out of a well-run organisation that provides high quality news services that are trusted, relied upon and used by millions of people is an extremely difficult undertaking’ .But this wouldn’t get many votes in newsrooms where £50 million would be a healthy budget in itself.In truth,the most honest statement by most broadcast news organisations would be ‘let’s be clear,we need to do more for less’ .
Next month the top people at Britain’s three largest broadcast news providers-BBC,ITN and Sky News-are in a session at the Royal Television Society’s London conference ‘Power,Politics and the Media’.The session is  called ‘Have I got News for You?’ although as the chairman of the session I preferred ‘Can the UK’s broadcast news providers keep doing more for less?’.
James Harding has said ‘The challenge is how to make BBC News even better, despite having less money’. In his case the list of demands for ‘better’ or ‘more’ from the top of the BBC is daunting. The BBC Trust wants better mobile and online news,a wider news agenda and increased impact in current affairs.The BBC Director-General,Tony Hall,wants the global audience for BBC News increased to 500 million,there are corporate diversity commitments to be delivered on ethnicity,gender and disability not to mention goals set by outside experts commissioned by the Trust such as more coverage of rural affairs.All this while the unions at the BBC will be threatening industrial action and where a new focus on breaking exclusives like the Cliff Richard raid has proved controversial .There must be times when Harding reflects that working for one man,even if it was Rupert Murdoch, may have been easier.
For its main UK rivals ,ITN and Sky News,the BBC’s problems may be an opportunity but these two have pressures of their own.ITN’s customers ITV,Channel Four and Five,are always looking for even better value for money and generous as BSkyB has traditionally been to Sky News,resisting BT’s growth in sports rights has to be a more of a priority.
The challenge that unites all broadcast news organisations was illustrated last week in another session on news ,this time at the Edinburgh Television Festival. Ratings research by Enders Analysis for a debate on how engage younger viewers to news emphasises that there are increasingly three different audiences which news producers have to serve with high quality output.At the two ends of the scale are the traditional TV news audience,predominantly over 55 years of age, and the 16-34 audience which is adopting  predominantly online news use at a startling rate,especially since the arrival of smart phones and tablets.In the middle is the 35-54 audience which currently has a foot in both camps but whose future allegiance to TV news cannot be taken for granted.Enders points out that whereas daily average TV viewing is currently three times higher among adults 55+ than among adults 16-34,the ratio is more like five/six to one when it comes to news.And the gap is widening all the time.
At least younger audiences are interested enough in news,and especially dramatic international news of which we currently have a surfeit,to go and find it,if not necessarily from ‘trusted’ news providers as the status quo love to bill themselves.
The long term challenge as I see it is the broadcasting equivalent of the ‘analogue dollars,digital cents’ dilemma which has faced newspapers since they went online. The commercial currency of flagship TV news bulletins has always been blocks of time-normally half-hour slots-into which ads are inserted at traditionally high TV rates.Online news is a much more time-efficient way of consuming news,especially for those busy 35-54 year olds, and the associated revenue per consumer is lower.
For the next decade or so,this dual economy should survive and existing producers will serve both markets.But they will be under pressure from funders to provide more and increasingly focused news for both ,there will be many more challenger brands like Vice News for that online audience and on present trends a point will come where news on demand overtakes sit back and watch news. Then a whole new debate will begin.

This blog first appeared on the Press Gazette website.The RTS Conference ‘Power,Politics and the Media’ is at Kings Place,London on 9th September 2014.

Guy Burgess,the FBI,an FOI and me and my friend Jeff.

Guy Burgess was, variously and often simultaneously, a radio producer for the BBC, an informer for MI5,a propagandist for MI6,a diplomat for the Foreign Office  and a spy for the KGB. In the book which I wrote with City University colleague Jeff Hulbert last year, ‘When Reporters Cross the Line’, we said that Guy Burgess set something of a gold standard for conflicts of interest.

During the research for our Burgess chapter we found all sorts of facts about the man and his extraordinary life. We knew what he looked like from stills and one piece of silent newsreel. We knew how tall he was, what he weighed , the various ailments he collected because of his prodigious drinking and who he slept with . We even found out that he smelt like a combination of the previous night’s alcohol and that morning’s chewed garlic cloves.

But nowhere could we find exactly what he sounded like. The BBC sound archive produced no trace of a recording of their former employee. We had a hunch that somewhere in the many radio programmes Burgess had produced he probably had appeared on the air at some point, but maybe nobody wrote it down.

All we could find was a reference in, of all places the F.B.I files in Washington, to Burgess having made a sound recording in 1951, just before he defected to Russia, in which he told his favourite anecdote .He had talked about the day back in September 1938 when he met Winston Churchill  and they shared their mutual despair at the Munich agreement  which Chamberlain had just signed with Hitler. The files had a transcript of what Burgess had said about this meeting into a friend’s tape-recorder in New York the day before he got on the boat back to Britain and then on to Russia.

We thought that if a transcript existed it was obvious that at some point a tape existed and might still exist. So Jeff  put in a Freedom of Information (FOI) request on our behalf to both the British and American authorities. The British came back saying they didn’t know where any such  tape was but nine months after our request the FBI told us they had put  ‘a release’ in the transatlantic mail . It came in the Christmas post and on our first day back after the holiday break we found an FBI envelope sitting in my post box at City University. I was so excited that   I took Jeff and the envelope into a studio at City University to record in sound and video the moment of us opening the envelope. Michael Crick of Channel Four News, to whom we gave the tapes ,was to say later that only an old newsman would think of  recording the moment . We feared that the ‘release’ might be just more paperwork but in fact the FBI  had run off a CD for us of Burgess’s tape which they had discovered in New York  during their inquiries after his defection to Russia. The only known recording of the voice of one of Britain’s biggest traitors was in excellent quality and alongside it was an FBI letter declaring that the tape was now declassified and released without any deletions.

When we listened to the CD we realised that it contained what was the third attempt by Burgess and his friend on that slightly drunken night to put his anecdote onto  tape. The very first words on the recording – which weren’t on the transcript -are Burgess declaring, presumably in response to his friend giving him some kind of advice off mike ,  ‘I won’t take any notice of you…I’m not in the least shy. I am extremely tired’.

He then explains ‘I am now recording for the third time because I think the story is of some interest, my interview with Mr Winston Churchill in September 1938’. Burgess was known as a good mimic and he imitates Churchill’s side of the conversation . In some ways this is a short radio play about the meeting between Burgess and Churchill in which Burgess plays both  parts. He delivers his lines with a slight slur, which may be due to the amount of drink that he had been consuming just before finally sorting out the tape recorder.

Burgess has been played on screen half a dozen times by actors including Alan Bates, Benedict Cumberbatch and Derek Jacobi. Mostly they  played the Old Etonian with what we would regard as a posh accent. But being the first people anywhere to hear  the voice of the real Guy Burgess for the first time since he died in Moscow in 1963 what struck us that none of the actors had been anywhere near posh enough in their versions. The real Burgess was much closer to Harry Enfield’s character Mr Cholmondley-Warner than to a contemporary old Etonian like David Cameron.

We have gathered together everything from our research – video,audio ,documents,articles and stills-and put them on a microsite so that anybody inside or outside the university can use these resources. My thanks to one of the students on the broadcast journalism course ,Kristian Brunt-Seymour, who has edited the video and audio and voiced the news package we have produced, to Ben Sawtell who has created the microsite with his colleagues in the City University Communications team and to Dave Goodfellow and the technical team in the Journalism Department who made it all work.

As a hack at heart I get a cheap thrill of getting the exclusive which nobody else has before but my colleague Mr Hulbert thinks rather more deeply about the historical significance of what we have found. He believes that we can now hear for ourselves exactly how ‘establishment’ Burgess was and it helps to explain why he found it so easy to mix with the ruling elite: he spoke and sounded just like they did. But Jeff thinks the tape also reveals Burgess’s  underlying sense of humour, which for many was his underlying charm, as well as a quick wit. Jeff’s overall verdict is that we get a real glimpse of Burgess the man who, in spite of all his treachery, still commanded the respect and friendship of a loyal band of followers. Jeff says: “What is striking is that his voice betrays no hint of tension. This is remarkable because less than four weeks later he would defect to the Soviet Union with Donald Maclean”.

Inside Europe’s last dictatorship it is business as usual for the KGB and the ‘Ideology Department’

A decade ago I was asked to meet a group of journalists from Belarus who were crossing over the border into Latvia for a few days. Latvia was just joining the European Union and the trip,funded by the British Foreign Office, was intended to give the Belarussians some idea of the freedoms enjoyed by their journalistic counterparts in a ‘normal’ European country. My strongest memory of our time together in the Latvian capital,Riga,was not their enthusiasm for learning about European institutions because frankly they weren’t that interested,it was the presence among them of a journalist from the Belarus state broadcaster who seemed to be taking copious notes of not only what I said but what her colleagues from various newspapers said to me. To their credit this note-taking didn’t seem to inhibit conversation,the Belarussians seemed used to it.

This month I finally got to visit Belarus itself as part of my hobby/obsession with travelling to every country in Europe.I found the centre of the capital Minsk apparently more prosperous than one might have expected,no more shops with nothing on the shelves though the surly Soviet style of service remains amongst the older staff.Lots of casinos seem to have opened since Putin cracked down on them in Russia and five star hotels are opening for the richer casino tourists. I stayed in a three star Soviet era hotel where men in dark suits still sit around in the foyer with nothing much to do other than keep an eye on the customers. I visited the block of flats where Lee Harvey Oswald lived for a time as a defector from the U.S before returning to live in Dallas with the wife,Marina,he met at a dance in Minsk. Most of the city’s other landmarks  relate to World War Two which is understandable when you remember that a quarter of Belarus’s population was killed by the Nazis, many of them in the numerous incidents when German troops and collaborators herded villagers into barns and set fire to them.Belarus is the country where a group of Jewish partisans living in the forests fought the German army,as portrayed in the film ‘Defiance’ with Daniel Craig.Minsk certainly earned its place as one of the Soviet Union’s ‘hero’ cities in WW2.

Belarus would have been the 47th member of the Council of Europe I’ve visited but Belarus is not actually a member.Along with Kazakhstan its human rights record has kept it out.  My very modest effort a decade ago to help bring new freedoms to its media,along with countless other initiatives to bring Belarus into that group of former Soviet states who now look west instead of east,have achieved very little. 

Belarus has come to be known as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ and that seems a fair description but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story.Take my first night in the capital Minsk. A taxi drove me past one of the enormous presidential palaces which Alexander Lukashenko has built himself.He says no Government money was spent on it which leaves the intriguing question of who did pay for it. Just along the road was a modern sports and events arena of the type you see in most American cities and a shopping mall with similar American antecedents. Inside the arena it was pizza and hot dogs,beer and coke,rock bands and cheer-leaders. The top   local ice-hockey team was at home in the KHL ,Russia’s equivalent of North America’s NHL,and having seen the New York Rangers play at Madison Square Garden in New York, I can report that it is not that different when Dinamo Minsk play at the Minsk Arena.One of the Minsk players was even a former NHL man ,Geoff Platt, who likes the place so much he’s taken out Belarussian citizenship.

The KHL stands for Kontinental Hockey League which has 21 teams from Russia and 7 from former parts of the Soviet empire.Having now visited many of the countries in that empire I have found that a common feature is a museum or exhibition condemning the Soviet imperial period.The best examples are the former KGB headquarters in Lithuania where resistance leaders were murdered in a special facility in the basement,the Occupation Museum in Latvia where you are left with the clear impression that the Latvians thought their Soviet occupiers were a lot worse than their Nazi ones,and the Museum of Soviet Occupation in Georgia,a country still occupied in part by the Russians after the Georgians had the nerve to take on their former masters.

It is different in Minsk. At the ice hockey match there was warm applause when the Russian national anthem was played for the visiting team.In Minsk’s main street Independence Avenue, a classic piece of large scale Stalinist post-war architecture ,proudly stands the KGB building where it is absolutely business as usual. Everybody still calls it the KGB and former KGB men like Viktor Rusak, now a parliamentarian and ‘Deputy Chairman of the Standing Commission on National Security’ boasts in his CV that he is a ‘KGB honored security officer’ and lists his former roles in the KGB.

Along the road from the KGB is the Ministry of Justice’s ‘Department on Personnel and Ideology’ ,one of whose roles,according to its website,is ‘enforcement of regulatory and other acts of higher bodies on ideological issues’. It is said to be devoting more of its time to making sure bloggers in Belarus understand  the enforcement of ‘ideological issues’. I was told the biggest threat to a blogger is that he or she becomes so popular that they are deemed to have fallen into the category of  official media and become fully state-controlled.

Nearly two years ago Andrei Khrapavitski summed up in his belarusblog what I found to be still  the mood in Minsk: 

The last year in my home country could be summed up with one word “crisis.” It was the year of unprecedented weakness of Lukashenko. It was the year of awakening for many people who had previously kept silent . It was the year when many of us hoped the regime would fall by the end of the year.It’s 2012, and Lukashenko is still in power. 

Since then Belarus has had an election of a kind in September 2012 and at the end of 2013 Lukashenko is still in power.According to official figures the three main parties,including the Communist Party, won just 5 of the 110 seats,the rest were all won by ‘independents’ who just happen to agree that Lukashenko is the man to run the country.So although the state controls most economic activity Europe’s last dictatorship isn’t so much a Communist one as a Lukashenkoist one.The dictator will be 60 next year and he doesn’t plan on changing much any time soon.



Peter Frank 1934-2013 the TV Kremlinologist who gave academic pundits a good name

There are two types of academic pundits- those who make simple things complicated and those who make complicated things simple.Professor Peter Frank,who died on Thursday 14th November,was one of the best of the latter. He became a familar face to British viewers and listeners because of his ability to explain and predict the extraordinary changes in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Peter’s base was the Department of Government at Essex University but after work he had an equally familar perch in the Channel Four Newsroom at ITN in  London monitoring  satellite feeds of the Vremya TV news programmme for any coded clues of new developments in Moscow.

As the editor of a programme that couldn’t afford its own Moscow correspondent I found his train fares from Essex and a modest appearance fee the best ‘foreign’ desk investment we ever made. Peter also appeared on other ITN programmes and on BBC radio.

In a tribute Ian Budge of Essex University said With the Cold War in full swing, Russian studies was a progressive and very relevant subject to develop. Peter was their presiding spirit both in the University and in wider spheres.  He was a strong believer in having personal and hands-on contact with the Soviet Union and followed on this by travelling there extensively, making many friends and contacts. Peter’s expertise was nationally recognised when he became the Soviet specialist for Channel 4 News’.

Professor Budge says Peter Frank was a provincial working class lad who worked as a bicycle mechanic after leaving school, was conscripted into the Army at 18 and on the basis of his O-levels was offered a chance to study Russian and interpret radio communications. He managed to pass the course ,was demobbed with a command of Russian, trained as a teacher and then went on to University.

From what he learned and taught at Essex,from those clues gleaned from Soviet TV and from his briefings with his contacts,Peter Frank consistently called it right as President Gorbachev struggled to reform the unreformable .As an example,take the events of 15 March 1989 where the ITN archive database chronicles the output of that night’s C4N as:

President Mikhail Gorbachev urges the Central Committee to accept new reforms which will overhaul Soviet agriculture and address the problem of food supplies.             The proceedings are shown on state TV.  Peter Frank of Essex University believes that the risk of failure is fairly high since the entrenched interests of bureaucrats are at stake.  

Peter’s humble background stood him in wonderfully good stead as a communicator.He was an expert but one with a common sense touch that viewers warmed to.On Channel Four News we were pleased for his growing reputation and he for ours.A proud academic he was also a good friend to journalism and journalists and we will remember him with great affection.

A note from Essex University: Professor Frank’s funeral takes place on Monday 2 December at 2.45pm at Colchester Crematorium.  The family have asked that there should be family flowers only but donations may be made to British Lung Foundation for research into pulmonary fibrosis, c/o Hunnaball of Colchester, York House, 41 Mersea Road, Colchester CO2 7QT.

Why the parable of the canoe man is important for media freedom

This is a paper I presented in October to a seminar on ‘Ethical Spaces :What Leveson Missed’ which was part of  the 10th annual conference of the Institute of Communication Ethics in London:

During Lord Justice Leveson’s long search for enough regulatory and legal clarity and certainty to reform the practices of the press without constraining the freedom of the press, I was on a rather more modest search for an editorial holy grail which had interested me for a decade- when exactly  do reporters ‘cross the line’?

Leveson’s conclusion was based –in part- on evidence given to him and –in other parts –on his own legal experience. Mine-again rather more modest- was based on something one reporter said at one of Leveson’s hearings.

Leveson was searching ,and a year on the search still continues, for the certainty of an agreed regulatory model. My own experience these past two years considering the ethical issues facing broadcast and print journalists through case studies from the 1920s to phone-hacking, tends more towards the inevitability of regulatory uncertainty.

I will explain that and then go on to say why I think there are things about Leveson that others may have missed which made it an important and worthwhile process, whether or not (and who can yet tell ) his regulatory model or a version of it is ever agreed. And my evidence for that is the parable of the canoe man which I will relate later.

My research was conducted in partnership with Jeff Hulbert, an Honorary Research Fellow at City University London. A review of our work in the Spectator said that we were ‘safe and snug in higher education’, I’m not sure those of us involved in higher education find it that ‘safe and snug’.

In my four decades in journalism I had often heard colleagues talk about ‘not crossing a line’ but where or how this line was drawn was never clear. In the introduction to ‘When Reporters Cross the Line’ I explained that by and large  British journalists are not very interested in reading rules that someone has written for them.

I quoted my conversation with one of the country’s most respected correspondents, the late Charles Wheeler, who told me that he’d never seen and never read a copy of the BBC’s editorial guidelines. His own guideline was ‘push it as far as you can but make sure you get it right’.

During my time at Ofcom, I had been effectively the Editor-in-Chief of the Broadcast Bulletin, a fortnightly list of Ofcom judgements on which broadcasters have been found to be ‘in breach’ of Ofcom broadcast regulations ,which have been investigated and found ‘not in breach’  and the cases which are declared to be ‘resolved’.

Jeff Hulbert and I decided we would not repeat that model. We would not attempt to adjudicate whether or not individual journalists crossed those uncodified lines , instead we would use a mixture of new archive research, interviews and story-telling to highlight the ethical issues .Then we would try to draw out some of the  morals of the stories.

The full title of the book is ‘When Reporters Cross the Line-the heroes, the villains, the hackers and the spies’. The subjects of the chapters range from Guy Burgess to Andrew Gilligan, from Charles Wheeler to Frederick Forsyth. We never associate a particular name with a particular category.

It wouldn’t be appropriate today to attempt to summarise their stories though the Observer did it rather well in the headline to Peter Preston’s review of the book ;

Reporter?  Secret agent? It’s hard to tell with spies like us.

From the cold war to Syria, journalists have to negotiate ethical waters far murkier than anything considered by Leveson.

Actually the thought of Guy Burgess being cross-examined by Robert Jay QC on how the ethics of how he simultaneously held the posts of BBC producer, MI5 informer and KGB spy would definitely have been worth the price of admission to the Leveson hearings.

Putting that aside, I think there are initiatives that flowed directly or indirectly from Leveson that will benefit journalism, quite apart from the debate about regulatory models.

Buried away in the transcripts of the hours of Leveson hearings is a useful tutorial. More specifically it is Leveson himself explaining how the law recognises that sometimes it is acceptable to break the law.

He outlined four ‘backstops’ that were available to journalists who were news-gathering and reporting ‘in the public interest’. There were, he said, ‘a number of hoops through which a journalist would jump or not jump, as he might prefer’.

First, sometimes, but not always, a statute can specifically provide for a defence. For instance, under the Data Protection Act of 1998 there is a specific defence in section 55 which says ‘in the particular circumstances the obtaining, disclosing or procuring was justified as being in the public interest’.

Secondly there are the guidelines for prosecutors which Leveson says he ‘encouraged’ the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP),Keir Starmer QC, to set out. These suggest journalists should not be charged when ‘the public interest served by the conduct in question outweighs the overall criminality’. The guidelines offer what the DPP called ‘examples of conduct … capable of serving the public interest’.

Only last week the DPP, Keir Starmer, was telling the Guardian that his guidelines will protect reporters working in the public interest.

The third Leveson ‘backstop’ was a British jury , which I remembered from the case of the senior civil servant Clive Ponting where a jury acquitted him of charges under the Official Secrets Act even though he admitted to leaking key documents after the Falklands War.

‘Finally,’ said Leveson, ‘there is, I hope, at the end of the line, a sensible judge who would take a view that even if it is a strict breach of the law, and even if there isn’t a public interest defence, then this is not a very egregious problem.’

But since Leveson , in addition to new guidelines and reminders of judicial safeguards , we have,helpfully the practical parable of the canoe man.

In March 2002, John Darwin from County Durham paddled off into the North Sea and, it appeared at the time, never came back. He was reported missing, presumed dead and his wife Anne collected more than £500,000 in life insurance pay-outs. In fact he was hiding in their home. He had even allowed their two sons to think he was dead.

In July 2008 John and Anne Darwin were both sentenced to six years in prison. Sky News transmitted a report about ‘John and Anne Darwin’s masterplan’, quoting from emails that the ‘canoe-man’ had written to his wife and to a lawyer.

Four years later, John Ryley, head of Sky News, issued a press release which said, ‘On two occasions, we have authorised a journalist to access the email of individuals suspected of criminal activity… We stand by these actions as editorially justified and in the public interest.’

When John Ryley appeared before the Leveson Inquiry it is fair to say John’s demeanour was not quite so robust. Lord Justice Leveson himself joined in the questioning in a censorious tone.

Firstly, about the law.

Lord Justice Leveson: What you were doing wasn’t merely invading somebody’s privacy; it was breaching the criminal law.

John Ryley replied : It was.

Then about regulation.

Lord Justice Leveson: Well, where does the Ofcom Broadcasting Code give any authority to a breach of the criminal law?

Ryley: It doesn’t.

But no action was ever taken against Sky News and its staff by either the UK’s public prosecutors or the broadcasting regulator.

In March 2013 the Crown Prosecution Service announced they would not proceed against Sky News over the hacking of the canoe man’s e-mails. A statement said:

‘The evidence indicates that the public interest served by the conduct in question outweighs the potential overall criminality… In reaching this decision, we took into account that the emails were accessed with a view to showing that a criminal offence had been committed.

In July 2013 Ofcom decided that Sky News had not breached the Broadcasting Code by ‘obtaining and subsequently broadcasting material accessed improperly by gaining unauthorised access to the email accounts’ .Ofcom accepted Sky’s public interest defence but it also cited ‘the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression……, in the exceptional circumstances of this case, outweighed Mr and Mrs Darwin’s expectation of privacy’.

What students of the European Convention on Human Rights would call favouring Article 10 about freedom of speech over Article 8 about a right to privacy.

However Ofcom also noted that ‘BSkyB’s conduct is at the boundaries of what is appropriate’, presumably putting something of a marker down to those who might consider following Sky’s example.

Now an investigation about a crime is arguably the easiest threshold to meet for a story claiming to be in the public interest. There may be other stories ahead where the public interest is more arguable. But at least the model has been tested and it has worked. We are now more clear, if not entirely clear, when journalists can break the law and breach statutory regulations.

The hacking affair and the Leveson Inquiry have brought –among many other things –a new awareness that the media can’t just opt in and out of observing the law without some basis. One other benefit may turn out to have an even wider and longer-lasting impact.

‘Transparency’ is arguably the most overused word in the English language but that doesn’t mean the value of the concept is completely diminished.

It doesn’t come much more transparent than an editor being interrogated live on television in front of a senior judge by a top barrister. At the Leveson Inquiry public hearings, the live television coverage and the simultaneous commentary on social media made a powerful combination for holding journalists to account in the same way as they, rightly, hold others to account.

My own conclusion is that nothing will ever be the same again after Leveson and that real journalism has nothing to fear from the transparency and accountability it represented. I am not advocating regular ‘trial by television’ of journalists. It wouldn’t be right and it wouldn’t be needed. I believe that the outside possibility of being questioned in public, the possible chance of the disclosure of internal emails (as reinforced by the disclosures to both the Hutton Inquiry and the Pollard review for the BBC of the Savile affair), and the likelihood of peer review on social media have changed behaviours and will continue to do so.

Those who believe they can meet the public interest should have nothing to fear.

So I commend one new ‘line’ and I call it the ‘Leigh line’ after the former investigations editor of The Guardian, David Leigh, who said at a Leveson hearing:

‘I think I would say a journalist ought to be prepared to face up to the consequences of what they’ve done. I mean, if I do something that I think is OK in the public interest, I have to be prepared to take the consequences.’

Who were the first female news reporter and presenter on UK national TV?

It was, according to a BBC Radio Four programme in November 2013 , ‘a forgotten piece of broadcasting history, the first woman to present the news on a national television service in Britain did not work for the BBC’.

To those of us latecomers to ITN who only joined in 1972, that woman was just Barbara, an always polite copytaster in the Wells Street newsroom. We’d heard that she’d once been an ITN newsreader on ‘Lunchbox’, ITV’s first attempt at daytime television back in 1955. But she hardly ever talked about it.

Now nearly sixty years after the event and fifteen years after her death, media history –and maybe some of us too- are catching up with the full significance of the life and work of Barbara Mandell.

‘Getting on Air-the Female Pioneers’  ( was a five part lunchtime series presented by Jane Garvey and produced by an independent, Jane Reck. They managed to track down all eleven seconds of the only surviving recording of Barbara on-air as a news reader. Media historian Jean Seaton  said that judged by the clip Barbara didn’t conform to the  normal stereotype of a female newsreader  which was ‘a small nose, be pretty, not move very much ..and be accompanied by an older, greyer chap’. Instead, said Professor Seaton, ‘Mrs Mandell, when you see her, she’s eager, she leans forward, she’s a middle-aged intelligent woman’.

According to the programme Barbara had ‘proved an important point, a woman could be a voice of authority without upsetting the audience’

Barbara’s importance is also acknowledged by Suzanne Franks, author of  a new book ‘Women and Journalism’. Nearly two decades after Barbara’s first broadcast on ITV the BBC  still had what Professor Franks calls ‘a wide range of hostility towards women in the corporation’

She quotes from an internal BBC report from 1973:

On the prospect of female newsreaders it quoted a senior manager observing how ‘women have class bound voices unsuitable for news reading . . . [and] may introduce emotion’. On the possibility of hiring women reporters it noted that women would be ‘unable to work in the cold and wet . . . and (are) not able to make overnight stays on location with a man as wives would not like it’. Another senior male editor, commenting on the prospect of employing female reporters, said that ‘although he had interviewed many women for reporter jobs he had “never found any woman with the remotest chance of working in that capacity” . . . he believes that women are simply not able to do hard news stories .

An online search through the ITN Source archive database shows that Barbara was also significant for her role as a hard news reporter. The lunchtime news only lasted a few months before it was dropped for financial reasons, but Barbara had already proved her worth as a reporter and she focused on that.

The database shows that on 30th September 1955 she interviewed a man called Fred Russell on his 93rd birthday about the possibility of making it to 100,which was obviously less common then than it is now.

That transmission would have made Barbara the first female television reporter on air but for the fact that the database shows that the day before Lynne Reid Banks (later a successful novelist) had interviewed a boxer who had just got engaged.

Barbara did a wide range of interviews with people in the news and went on to do reporter packages on Paris fashion shows in the sixties.

She retired in 1980 and wrote travel books and made travel films with her partner, former  ITN cameraman Martin Gray. She had been divorced from Alan Mardell, better known as the broadcaster Alan Dell.

ITN is entitled to feel pride that a woman read the news a full 20 years before Angela Rippon became the BBC ‘s first permanent woman news reader. But maybe that pride should be tempered by the realization that it was 23 years after Barbara’s lunchtime news before Anna Ford joined the company as what was widely described in 1978 as ‘ITN’s first female newsreader’.

One footnote : in the same week as the Radio Four series went out I was on a train north when I thought the face of the woman sitting next to me was familiar. One name came to mind so I asked, rather clumsily, ‘did you used to be Victoria Brittain?’ .To which she replied ‘I still am Victoria Brittain’ .

Victoria was one of a group of women reporters hired by Nigel Ryan in the early seventies and was sent to cover the Vietnam war. She told me that afterwards she decided she wanted to go back to newspapers and she also wanted to go back to Vietnam, so she became the resident correspondent there for The Times. She went on to become a foreign editor at the Guardian and is a now a journalist and author specializing in ‘the war on terror’.

When Sir David Frost (just for once) was on the wrong side

I count myself as being in what Chris Mullin would call ‘the foothills’ of Sir David Frost’s acquaintancies. For example I was among those guests for his summer garden party who would arrive nervous that he would have no idea who we were or why on earth he had invited us.I needn’t have worried.Whether or not he remembered,his legendary charm got both of us through the encounter without stress.

And so it was in all our professional dealings. But just to show that none of us is perfect I can also remember a Sunday morning in 1991 when we were on very opposing sides.

We were both working for the same channel,Channel 3 in the UK.But such was the bizarre structure  that I was the editor of the channel’s news service for for twenty and a half hours each day,the ITN News on ITV,and he was one of the founding presenters of the news service for three and a half hours each breakfast time,on the separate franchise TVAM.

During the Gulf War of 1991 ITN kept a correspondent,Brent Sadler,and crew in the Iraqi capital,Baghdad ,despite constant pressure from John Major’s Government to withdraw.A number of people who should have known better called me privately to add to that pressure.We did not change our mind.Newspapers ,like the Mail on Sunday,who did not have their own person in Baghdad, asked us to get Sadler to write for them and displayed those articles prominently.

But then the Mail on Sunday seemed to change sides.They ran an article attacking television as ‘a messenger for Saddam’s lies’.According to the paper television was ‘ a poor medium for news.It corrupts the intellect.It destroys real debate’. The Mail characterised the previous week’s TV coverage from Baghdad as ‘they had war in all its brutality.And how they loved it’.

David’s response was not to stand up for television but to join in the criticism. After one of ITN’s many overnight programmes on the progress of the war,he opened his  Sunday show on TVAM by proudly announcing  that TVAM did not have a correspondent in Baghdad.I cannot remember any other TV station in the world  making such a proud announcement  about any news event. The main front man for one part of the ITV system was publicly criticising another part for its commitment to independent eye-witness reporting,

I put it down to David ,with his excellent contacts in Government,  telling them what they wanted to hear by distancing himself from us.

It was a pity because David had been a major part of one of the greatest successes for cooperation within the dysfunctional ITV system-the 1969 coverage of man landing on the Moon. The combination of David Frost and Alastair Burnet ,with brilliant production by David Nicholas of ITN (all three later knighted for services to broadcasting), won the creative and ratings competition with the BBC.