50 Years of BBC TV News

Wednesday, July 7, 2004 by

The main purpose of television news is that of a window on the world, plain and simple – pointing a camera at what’s actually happening. But of course, we all know that there’s much more to it than that, as can be illustrated when we occasionally get to see a complete news bulletin from times past, and marvel at the huge differences from today’s programmes.

A few weeks back, as part of its ’60s season, BBC4 screened the main evening news from March 1967, featuring what now appears to be an incredibly trivial news agenda – a Merseyside derby as the second story. Meanwhile, BBC Parliament’s recent real-time replay of the 1979 General Election was enlivened by the addition of the news bulletin from that evening, where Richard Baker’s script included some lines presumably no longer in the Corporation’s style guide – “The terrorists, 12 in number, included five girls.”

Indeed, over its 50 years on the air, BBC News has probably gone through more changes than virtually every other television programme. The publicity surrounding the anniversary celebrations majors on the comparison between today’s round the clock, presenter-led bulletins, and the earliest, brief newscasts where executives were nervous about letting anyone on screen at all. An examination of how and why these changes came about would no doubt make for fascinating viewing.

Sadly, this isn’t what we’re getting from the commemorative programmes to mark the birthday. The format is about as simple as you can get; each decade gets half an hour (though due to golf on Thursday and Friday, the first four installments were shown two at a time) where a veteran reporter – Michael Buerk, Charles Wheeler, Kate Adie, John Simpson, Jeremy Bowen – introduces clips of some of the major stories that BBC News covered.

However, the most obvious flaw is that it’s way too short (it works out as three minutes for one year) to cover anything in any great depth. The summary of ’70s politics on Tuesday’s programme, for example, was about as simplistic as you can get. Basically, Ted Heath was Prime Minister, but after the three-day week and two elections, Harold Wilson took over, until he resigned and was replaced by Jim Callaghan, but his supposed indifference over strikes in 1979 led to the election of Margaret Thatcher. A decade of major political upheaval distilled into less than 60 seconds.

The same thing is the case throughout the series – ’70s pop culture was covered via a brief clip of Abba winning Eurovision, a brief soundbite from John Lydon (“You just look so bloody boring”) and a shot of a cinema queue waiting to see Star Wars. It would have been nice to see how ’70s television covered punk during the era, but obviously it was time for something else.

One other major flaw of this approach is that it relies on the viewer having to fill in a lot of detail themselves – two minutes on the Gulf War is clearly not enough to discuss how the conflict came about, what happened during it, and what its legacy was. You might argue that most people already know what happened and so that’s not entirely necessary, but if that’s the case, why did the episode on the ’60s need to remind us that England won the World Cup in 1966? Given Geoff Hurst’s third goal is one of the most repeated moments in television history, do we really need to see it again with absolutely no further comment? Even The Rock and Roll Years used to be more in-depth than this.

The fast pace of the series also has some rather unfortunate side effects. The entire recent history of Northern Ireland politics was reduced to little more than a constant stream of explosions, with little attempt to explain what they were for. While much of the footage in the series remained moving and affecting, after a while it began to wash over you somewhat, and you ended up trying to remember if we were looking at images of Rhodesia, South Africa or the Middle East, and what stage of their history we’d got to. Surely that shouldn’t be happening, but by rushing through it there’s no other response.

The choice of stories seems somewhat unusual too – we were told again about Michael Fagin breaking into Buckingham Palace, but rather obviously no footage of this exists, and so it was represented on screen by a drawing. Given we’re celebrating the anniversary of television news, why was such a non-visual story included? And that’s the major problem with this series – it’s a history of the news, yes, but it’s not really a history of The News.

How did we get from the formal announcement of Anthony Eden becoming Prime Minister (“That’s the end of the statement from Buckingham Palace”) to the media circus that surrounded Tony Blair’s election? We don’t know, because the series neglected to tell us.

What we get from the programmes are a compilation of the major events of the past five decades. Fair enough, that’s what the series promised. But it’s a series that could also have been compiled, if not with the same lengthy time span, by any other news organisation. Most of these stories would have happened with or without cameras being present. What would be much more interesting and satisfying would have been finding out how the BBC covered them, and what they tried to achieve. In the clips from Tiananmen Square in China, Kate Adie announced that they had only seen one other camera crew. Why? And why were the BBC there in the first place? What effect did their pictures have on both the people in power, and the general public? It was much the same when covering the Ethiopian famine – here was Michael Buerk’s report, here was Live Aid, with no mention of how the former was clearly responsible for the latter.

Most obviously, there was little mention of the BBC itself in all this. In the time span covered in Tuesday’s programme, 1974 – 93, Angela Rippon became the first real celebrity newsreader, there was a move away from straight newsreaders towards versatile journalists, breakfast television was launched and John Birt attempted to completely change the culture and presentation of television news. Yet there was no mention of any of this. We simply got brief clips of the various newsreaders introducing some of the stories, and that was it. Similarly in the final episode, Jeremy Bowen mentioned that now BBC News was a 24-hour operation, but there was no discussion of how this has made a difference to news gathering and how we watch the news. The Hutton Inquiry, which cost the Corporation its two top executives, was ignored altogether. Little too was made of the various reporters and their skills – Brian Hanrahan’s memorable “I counted them all out, and I counted them all back” line from the Falklands War was included, but Kate Adie didn’t even name him, just referring to “the BBC reporter”.

Ironically for a series celebrating a 50th anniversary, these programmes could have been made at any point in the last couple of decades, such is their old-fashioned approach. They hark back to a time when viewers were amazed by any clips from the archive, as so little ever got an airing, and as such they didn’t require lengthy extracts or discussion. Nowadays, though, we expect a little more than just a brief snippet from a news report. Sadly, you end up thinking “So what?” – distilling the Iranian Embassy siege to the explosion is just creating a “Greatest Hits” package, surely not the most appropriate way to celebrate half a century of impeccable journalism?

Indeed, perhaps the most incredible aspect of the 50th anniversary programmes was that, for once, here were programmes from BBC News that weren’t informing.


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