Margaret Thatcher and TV News.

Here are two pieces I’ve done recently which are pegged to the death of Baroness Thatcher. First an article for the ITN 55 Club magazine which is read by former ITN staff:

If you had to sum up the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and ITN in one episode it would be the night in 1987 that she came to visit the Superchannel News portacabin. Perched proudly on the roof at Wells Street it seemed to symbolize to her a cost-effective, enterprising, commercially-funded international news service in contrast to the BBC’s plan for a publicly-funded BBC World channel. The fact that the BBC never did get that public funding for their channel is testimony to the impact the visit made on government policy. (Pity that the ITV companies couldn’t agree on the future of Superchannel and later sold it to an Italian family that didn’t want a news service). Mostly the Thatcher-ITN relationship was based on people. Gordon Reece was a television producer who’d worked at ITN and other ITV companies and became her adviser on all things television. Apart from his advice on how she should look and sound, it was his idea that during election campaigns she should focus as much on photo-opportunities as she should on the speeches which until then had been the staple diet of TV news at election time. I remember the day he came to ITN and told us his plan. From that meeting grew our idea of so-called ‘target teams’, three or four person units who would each follow a party leader and provide not just the pictures that Reece and his counterparts laid on but also insider analysis. Michael Brunson was to be our target team reporter on that famous 1979 photo-op as Margaret Thatcher cuddled a calf. But it wasn’t just an ex-ITN man that provided a link between Downing Street and Wells Street. Alastair Burnet had always been close to her predecessor as Conservative Party leader, Ted Heath. Despite that, rather than because of that, he had good contacts with the next Tory at Number Ten. Sue Tinson also had contacts there and received a damehood in the Thatcher resignation honours list. She remained a close friend for many years and ensured that when Lady Thatcher gave her first interview after leaving power it was to Michael Brunson. To those who wondered if ITN and the Thatcher Government were too close at times my view, as somebody who was never that close, was that the relationship never strayed into pro-Tory bias. But undoubtedly that’s how it looked to the up and coming New Labour spin doctors like Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. Or how they chose to see it.

Undoubtedly the most lasting Thatcher legacy at ITN was the change to the ownership of the company. Alastair –working mostly through Press Secretary Bernard Ingham-persuaded her that the ITV companies should no longer  be able to own all of ITN’s shares and should be limited to 49%. I don’t think the Prime Minister was ever involved in the detail of it but I do remember David Mellor,  the Minister in charge of the Broadcasting Bill, being challenged in the Commons about the clause and replying that MPs who didn’t like it had better speak to Number Ten .I’m not sure anybody dared. The second piece is my text for some opening remarks at a Royal Television Society event at the Houses of Parliament about political reporting on television. ‘I was a broadcast journalist for three decades and a broadcast regulator for three years.My first relevant experience as a broadcast news editor goes back to 1979 when I edited ITN’s News at Ten the night when the Callaghan Government lost a vote of confidence live. Of course the subsequent election brought Mrs Thatcher to power.My most recent experience is as a regulator and goes back to the 2010 General Election when I was the head of Ofcom’s content regulation group.  When I was asked to say a few words tonight I thought I would highlight five of the changes over those three decades – which stretch from the election of Margaret Thatcher almost to the death of Margaret Thatcher. 1. The first and most obvious is the sheer scale of the news output and the speed of the news cycle; in 1979 there were just 3 news transmission a day on ITV-lunchtime,early evening and primetime- 3 on BBC1 and one bulletin on BBC2 .That was it on TV. There was nothing in between and no other channels. No words on any screen of any kind other than those early pages of teletext. By the time of the last election I counted more than 20 English language TV channels available in the UK, the most significant based here but many based abroad, which reported the election in some form or other. In addition TV political correspondents work online, on-demand and on twitter.  2. The second you could call ‘the changing of the guard at the gatekeepers’. Those political correspondents now work to two different agenda: one is the airtime agenda –and even with the greater space available this is still limited – and it consists of stories which their editors decide are important. Then there is the online agenda where space is unlimited and this is one where the correspondents themselves decide what their twitter followers and blog readers will be interested in.  3. Parliament is less important and less reported ,politics is more important and more practiced. When I joined the BBC in 1969 there were parliamentary correspondents and there were political correspondents –the twain might meet but they rarely crossed over roles. Indeed, the very existence of the lobby was rarely mentioned.There had always been political spinners, Neville Chamberlain did a great job in 1938 spinning the Munich agreement to press and the BBC. But spinning has gone from a pastime to a trade.  4. In 79 the regulatory emphasis was on ‘balance’ now it is on ‘impartiality’. In 1979 balance was measured in units of time ,minutes on screen, especially speeches on screen. Parties complained about how long they were given to say things, rarely about what was said about them –partly because what was said was often so bland.By  2010 speeches on screen were long gone. There is no easy metric for ‘impartiality’, in fact the last BBC review of impartiality didn’t actually define the term.  5. Political correspondents have become much more direct.John Simpson talked recently about his time as the BBC’s Political Editor –a job he took up just after Mrs Thatcher’s election.He said ‘you were utterly, utterly shackled, the BBC had to be so careful, I suppose, that it didn’t feel able to report on things. I couldn’t take it anymore’. He gave up after a year.I don’t think Nick Robinson would say he was utterly,utterly shackled. As a result –and I very much welcome this- political editors occasionally tell politicians they have got their facts wrong. Indeed Channel Four’s Factcheck makes a feature of this. But I once got into a very stormy debate with the late Philip Gould at one of David Butler’s Nuffield Seminars at Oxford. He claimed it was no part of a reporter’s job to point out politicians mistakes. I completely disagreed.  Which leaves us with a question. ‘Comment’ by political correspondents may still be a taboo word but has the freedom for ‘analysis’ and ‘professional judgment’ gone too far or not far enough? I think the most interesting period in recent times were the few days immediately after the last election produced a hung parliament. Negotiations were going on between the three main parties about the formation of a government. Some TV political correspondents seemed offended by the horse-trading that inevitably went on.One asked on air ‘is this what we voted for? To which the answer probably was, ‘well nobody actually voted for it but the way votes were cast made it inevitable’. I don’t think the coverage breached the rules on political impartiality, thus there was no regulatory action. But as a former editor, I did think it was caused by political naivety. Fortunately there is no statutory regulation about that.

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