Back to the real world

ITV's iconic newscaster Sir Trevor McDonald can't wait to return to reporting, he tells Ian Burrell
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Looking at Sir Trevor McDonald's brilliantly polished shoes, it's not easy to imagine him getting them muddy in the frontline trenches of journalism. But getting his shoes "dirty" is exactly what the 64-year-old newscaster is proposing to do when he moves on from presenting ITV's 10.30pm news at the end of next year.

Looking at Sir Trevor McDonald's brilliantly polished shoes, it's not easy to imagine him getting them muddy in the frontline trenches of journalism. But getting his shoes "dirty" is exactly what the 64-year-old newscaster is proposing to do when he moves on from presenting ITV's 10.30pm news at the end of next year.

That doesn't mean he will be spending his dotage dabbling with a fishing rod on a river bank. Nor will he be paddling on a beach in his native Trinidad. McDonald wants to go back to being a reporter again.

"I love reporting. Those are the finest days of one's career," he says. "People say, 'How do you become a newscaster, how do you acquire the ability to keep people interested in what you do?' You do that by having been seen as somebody on the ground, in the field, getting your shoes dirty and your feet wet in covering the stories."

McDonald plans to get back to doorstepping and note-taking as soon as he has more time to devote to Tonight, the flagship ITV current-affairs show he fronts. "I hope to continue doing Tonight for some time. [Retiring from 10.30pm news] will give me the chance to get much more involved in actually constructing some of the stories."

The veteran presenter has had an almost unrivalled vantage point on the great world events of the late 20th century. Not only was he reading the news in the measured tones that have come to sound like those of a trusted relative, but he often interviewed the key participants as well.

Even so, he says there has never been a time for reporting news like 2004. "I cannot remember a time when I felt so strongly the need to tell people what's going on. There are so many arguments about weapons of mass destruction, about what is really going on in Iraq, what was the genesis of the whole Guantanamo Bay idea, what is happening in Afghanistan, what is happening to the health service." He says he cannot remember the country being "so divided" as it has been over the Iraq war.

But the story he most wants to cover is the progress (or lack of progress) towards a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians. "It has drifted off the agenda," he says.

McDonald began his reporting career as a local newspaper and radio reporter in Trinidad. After joining the BBC World Service, he joined ITV News in 1973, reporting the early troubles in Northern Ireland, among other assignments.

As well as returning to reporting, McDonaldwants his own talk show - and even the arrival of Michael Parkinson at ITV hasn't quashed his ambitions. He happily acknowledges that Parky is "the best" but claims that "there might be some other times of day for interview programmes - I hope opportunities may arise".

For eight years, McDonald compiled a poetry column for The Daily Telegraph, and he is fond of quoting lines from Tennyson's Ulysses: "How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use." He says: "I feel that very strongly." Which is why he chose last month to extend his news presenter's contract for a final stint, a deal reportedly worth £750,000.

Clearly, what excites him most about his job is the chance it offers to put questions to the most powerful of American politicians. "I get the choice of big interviews. In the last two years we have done President Bush, Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice... you know, a number of American senators; and we did Tony Blair before the last war."

He has gained most pleasure from "teasing out" the discomfort felt by some senior American politicians over Abu Ghraib prison and the absence of WMD, in spite of the loyalty they feel obliged to show their president when being interviewed by foreign journalists.

The first newspaper he picks up each day is the International Herald Tribune, saying that it gives him a broader perspective and doesn't see entertainers as front-page material.

McDonald objects to the parting shot of the former television watchdog, the ITC, which last December accused ITV of devoting too much of its current-affairs coverage to lifestyle issues. "I would take issue with the ITC. We think we have really established a point of contact with audiences about subjects they are interested in.

"Even The Independent can't ignore health and lifestyle issues these days. We have a good balance between that and stories on Iraq, business stories on M&S. To pretend that people are not interested in epilepsy, anorexia and diets is perhaps misreading the situation."

Not that ITV is fireproof. McDonald says the broadcaster is preparing to publish a revised set of journalistic guidelines after a review of its reporting methods, carried out after the BBC's Hutton experience. "We would be silly, to put it mildly, to say that post-Hutton is a BBC problem and nothing to do with ITV. My mother used to say, and it's an old West Indian expression, 'If you see your neighbour's house on fire, wet yours.'"

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