News Review of the Year

Friday, December 17, 2004 by

“Who can spy on the spies?” George Smiley once mused out loud, in an echo of that perennial philosophical teaser of old: who guards the guards? That tricky business of performing a self-appointed function not on others but yourself – in other words, of putting yourself under your own microscope – seems to afflict the BBC more than most. The mid-1980s exercised the Beeb’s ability to report about its own struggles with the Government and its Governors. The mid-1990s tested its capacity to broadcast accurately on the many machinations of John Birt. But the last 12 months have seen it placed in a more difficult position by far: of ensuring its own news department report truthfully on accusations that its news department had been reporting untruthfully.

Charged with conveying the significance of this cruel conundrum within the context of a jovial and accessible round up of 2004 was Huw Edwards. It couldn’t really have been anyone else. Alone amongst the first 11 of the Beeb’s news presenters, Huw has developed the gift of being able to slip effortlessly between the worthy and the whimsical, and leave neither sounding absurd or out of place. He’s brought a calm authority to the business of reporting on iconic national events and wry local eccentricities. He’s also been able to establish a reassuring conviviality thanks to helming a programme with a permanent slot in the schedules.

Sadly Huw only had 30 minutes in which to escort viewers through a roll call of 2004. Trundled out at 12.30pm with every sense of being got out of the way before Christmas, News Review of the Year was a far cry from the ponderous almanacs of a decade or so ago, faithfully berthed in a prestigious evening slot, blessed with numerous eye-catching graphics and tenuous themes (“Science: A New Frontier?”) and running at least twice as long, if not more. Ironically if anyone deserves to front a revival of that sort of weighty effort it’s Huw, who’d surely be able to ensure an hour of retrospective became anything but cumbersome and tedious.

“It’s been a remarkable 12 months for the BBC’s journalists across the world,” he began, speaking from the car park of Television Centre itself. This was a brilliant move. To be honest, there aren’t enough BBC programmes set in and around Television Centre any more, giving us a chance to see how the Corporation lives its life and to peek into the corners of the greatest building in the world. Huw then got straight to the nub of the issue, attesting to how 2004 had been “a real test of professionalism, of fair reporting, and original journalism.” There was no skirting around the problem. He dived straight into the thorny business of recapping the Beeb’s role in covering of the war in Iraq, and of becoming a news story itself in the process.

It’s hard to imagine many at the BBC toasting the passing of 2004 in a spirit of rose-tinted good humour and warmth. Most will probably be glad it’s gone. All the same Huw kicked off his review of the year by taking us right back to its start: the delivery of the Hutton report in January. Treading with utmost care, he reminded us of Lord Hutton’s “highly controversial” verdict, of how Greg Dyke was “forced out by the Governors”, and also the wider picture by way of George Bush’s perspective of foreign affairs – “a highly contentious view to say the least.” All of this was delivered while pacing thoughtfully around the famous “concrete Doughnut” courtyard of Television Centre.

The reference to Dyke being “forced out” rather than resigning (the official line at the time) showed the extent to which the events of January have undergone a degree of revisionism which even the BBC hierarchy are apparently happy to tolerate. Few would quibble nowadays with the notion that Dyke’s exit was not of his own choosing. After all, nearly everyone involved has now testified to that fact. A consensus also seems to have grown up surrounding the Hutton Report itself: a somewhat knowing acceptance that the document was too skewed and partial, one which allows media correspondent Nick Higham to appear in a programme like this and imply that anyone who attacked “the BBC’s journalistic standards across the board” were themselves guilty of misrepresentation.

Still, there was the hint of the bemused in Huw’s diligent account of the whole affair. As if goaded by a feeling of being wronged, both he and the rest of the Review set out to prove BBC news really was the best of its kind. Here was a shot of the newsroom to prove it, crammed full of assiduous employees meticulously crafting the fairest reportage anywhere on the planet. Here were montages of stories boasting, it was implied, real terror and harm, far removed from the paper circus of Lord Hutton. Here, also, were esteemed BBC journalists like Jeremy Bowen and Gavin Hewitt recalling how it felt to cover events like the death of Yasser Arafat, hostage-taking in Iraq and the terrorist occupation of the school in Beslan, Russia.

The authority and emotion of such reminiscence was somewhat undercut by the appearance of rather unnecessary mood music decorating images of screaming children and weeping mothers, turning them into semi-real, other-worldly clips as if from a film or dramatised documentary. There wasn’t enough time to do “secondary” stories much justice either: hasty compilations had to suffice for everything from the collapse of Italian dairy firm Parmalat, to the banning of headscarves in French schools, to the prosecution of a German cannibal. “What a wonderful summer of sport we had,” pondered Huw a few moments later, followed by a token vox pop from Sophie Raworth remembering how she watched the Olympics sitting at home with her baby. To introduce a short section on celebrity, Huw mugged for the camera while getting made up in a dressing room.

Then suddenly, all-too quickly, it was over. A montage of famous faces that had passed away during the year, set – as is tradition – to a piece of music performed by one of them (in this case, a shaky rendition by Sacha Distel) dovetailed into Huw’s farewell. His tour of TV Centre complete, he was back at his news desk. “Let’s hope 2005 produces a greater share of uplifting stories, and fewer reasons to report on conflict and human suffering.” Given everything he’d valiantly, if hastily, had to revisit during the previous 30 minutes, it was a poignant sign-off. After all, the labyrinthine business of, as it were, reporting on the reporters doesn’t make for a particularly happy Christmas.


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