Interview: After bulletins it's back to bullets for ITV's Mark Austin

For 18 months Mark Austin has filled Sir Trevor McDonald's shoes as ITV's main news presenter, tonight he goes under cover and back to his reporting roots to reveal the tyranny and tragedy of life in Mugabe's Zimbabwe.
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The Independent Online

Mark Austin will this afternoon take up his position close to the great Limpopo River which separates South Africa from Zimbabwe, where crocodile-infested waters have not been sufficient deterrent to prevent thousands of refugees crossing from one bank to the other. Standing beside a gap in the 12-feet-high electric fence that signifies the border between the two countries, Austin will present both of this evening's main ITV news bulletins, exploring how the deterioration of Robert Mugabe's regime has prompted this Zimbabwean exodus.

In doing so, he will also introduce some of his own reports, filmed undercover during the past week, exposing the deteriorating economic and humanitarian conditions inside Zimbabwe. For Austin it has been a disturbing assignment, returning to a country he knew as the breadbasket of the continent during his time as ITV's Africa correspondent in the mid-Nineties.

For ITV News, the special broadcast is a major statement of intent. "By sending our top presenter undercover and anchoring our main bulletins on location this week, we are hoping to focus the news agenda on the catastrophe that is Zimbabwe in a way that no other TV network has done," says Deborah Turness, editor of ITV Network News.

Austin, 48, square-jawed and 6ft 3in tall, has been the face of ITV News since January 2006, when he inherited a weighty mantle from Sir Trevor McDonald, then Britain's best-recognised and most popular newsreader. As well as being primary anchor of the 10.30pm bulletin he co-presents the ITV Evening News at 6.30pm and receives a reported £300,000 a year for his efforts. Despite this ubiquity, attaining the sort of instant recognition and trust that McDonald enjoyed is not easy.

He is more of a frontline soldier than Sir Trevor and during his time as a correspondent he was airlifted into Kosovo with the Gurkhas and sent despatches from the civil war in Rwanda. Potentially, he is an ITN newscaster in the traditions of such war-reporting legends as Sandy Gall, though since he took up the anchor role his opportunities for adventure have been limited despite his desire to combine studio-based news-reading with presenting from the field.

His most memorable – and most dangerous – piece of work since he started his new role was in presenting the news directly from the Antarctic in January, when he was almost buried alive beneath a collapsing iceberg. The incident clearly left him as frightened as he has been by any of his experiences in war zones but he is quite aware of the value of such footage in further building his public profile. "I nearly got killed," he says, speaking before he headed out to Zimbabwe. "People laugh at it now – I get stopped in the street – but it was quite terrifying. About 250 tons of ice came down. We were filming and I was talking about global warming and this thing just came down. It was one of those moments in television news that you would just wrap up and keep and treasure because they don't happen very often. That's the kind of distinctive journalism where ITV News can score."

The Big Melt, ITV News's special edition presented live by Austin from the shattered ice shelves of Antarctica, very nearly didn't happen at all. It was a massive logistical exercise which came to fruition after the Navy's HMS Endurance "came riding to our rescue" and delivered the satellite dish to Austin's remote and icy "studio". "Everyone said 'you're off your heads'," says Turness, sitting alongside him. "But we like conquering new heights."

Austin's other big moment on the road was covering the Virginia Tech university massacre in April, when he used a motorbike to outsmart his BBC rivals. "I presented the 6.30pm news and came outside to find a motorbike. I was told to get on that motorbike and get to Heathrow because the flight was leaving 10 minutes ago. I got on the flight and did the 6.30pm from Virginia the following night," he recalls. Turness interjects to put added gloss on the anecdote: "It was the last flight to the East Coast. Virgin actually held it up for him to make it, they were brilliant. The BBC the next day asked how did you do it? It took them another day to get there."

The newscaster also presented for a week from Iraq in March and on one occasion broke the bulletin's lead story about a group of children hospitalised by chlorine released by a suicide bomber. "We found these extraordinary scenes of children we were told had a 50 per cent chance of surviving. They ended up surviving and it was an extraordinary story and images," he says. "There's nothing more satisfying than presenting a programme and also having the lead story."

But he is not sure that it is enough. "I do miss [being a correspondent] and every time a big story breaks I want to be out there." Turness, like a supportive mother at a school parents evening, reassures him: "But you normally go ...if it's a big enough story, you go."

Austin has the aura of the school head-boy, sporty and bright, the alpha male who has risen relentlessly to the top of his chosen vocation. In reality he is not such a swot, having shunned university in favour of joining his local newspaper the Bournemouth Evening Echo, where he cut his reporter's teeth for four years before joining the BBC. He now regrets not having studied for longer. "I'd have liked to have gone on to university – history I would like to have done. All I did at school was 'Choose a Stuart'. I would have loved to have found out more about the Industrial Revolution, the First World War."

Instead, he was picking up journalistic skills around the courtrooms and council chambers on the South Coast, a grounding he believes helped him to stand out from some of his peers. "Had I gone to university I would have come out with an average degree with a lot of other people who wanted to go into journalism and by joining a local paper I got straight into the trade of storytelling and then I got a job in BBC radio. I think that learning the job on a local paper stood me in very good stead in a way that perhaps going to university and coming out with a second-class honours degree wouldn't have done. If people say to me should I do a media studies degree I would advise them, if they want to be a journalist, to get stuck into the job as soon as they can."

He was driven by an ambition to emulate the works of great foreign correspondents like "Brian Barron, Martin Bell and Mike Nicholson". He is gracious to enough to acknowledge that he now works alongside a new generation of first-rate correspondents and he is happy to provide a platform for their efforts. "I think we have in John Irvine, Bill Neely, James Mates and Julian Manyon some of the most talented foreign correspondents on British television. I'm quite happy to sit in the studio and introduce stuff they've done."

Austin is a father of three. When he was reporting from Iraq during the 2003 invasion he was with fellow ITV journalist Terry Lloyd the night before he and two colleagues were killed by American fire. Austin had to go and pick up one of the surviving members of the crew. Afterwards he questioned himself on "whether I really wanted to carry on doing it".

In his studio-based role he says he takes "an active interest" in the editorial process but does not insist on writing all his own headlines like his BBC counterpart Huw Edwards. "I'm not going to sit here and claim that I write every word of every intro. I've spent years writing my own stories as a correspondent and now there are people writing intros for me and I'm very grateful for that. "

Turness again speaks up for him, saying "Sparing Mark's blushes, you are more involved in the editorial and writing process than any other news presenter I've worked with." She is a tough cookie with an unrelenting appetite for taking the battle to her better-resourced rivals.

It was Turness who personally negotiated the acquisition of that remarkable balcony footage of the 7/7 London bombers. She is thrilled by the undercover work ITV journalists have done in China, Zimbabwe, Romania and Bulgaria and she is continually on the lookout for new scoops. She says she is not hampered by the "other noise" which slows up the decision-making process at BBC News. "I think our journalism is slightly more instinctive – you smell a story and you react to it. You stand there and say 'Fuck me, that's a good story, let's do it.' It's as simple as that."

Asked to define the type of story that excites ITV News she talks of human interest. "Whether it's a mother in Iraq who has lost her child or somebody switching off the standby button on their television because we are doing something about Antarctica melting, there's always a human element about everything we do. It doesn't mean by any means that we've dumbed down our coverage, we just never forget the human."

The BBC Ten O'Clock News, now edited by former ITV man Craig Oliver, is consistently beating its ITV opposition, bolstered by the fact that it comes on half an hour earlier. Asked about this handicap, Turness instinctively comes out fighting, pointing out that ITV News benefits from "very strong inheritance" when it comes on air at the end of a 90-minute ITV1 drama. Later she concedes that "there's no doubt about it, 10.30 is a big switchover point in television terms. On an average night between 4-7 million people will stop watching television around that junction ...because they've gone to bed."

In a time when BBC News is screaming about going under the knife, she does not complain of lack of resources. "The means of gathering news has become cheaper," she says. "Satellite dishes don't cost so much, we can feed material around via the internet. We don't have a lot of those heavy-duty international costs. It's cheaper and easier, so you can send more people to more places do more eyewitness journalism."

By doing so, she thinks that ITV News can still make a difference. "It's time to do something that has real impact – to make people stop and really grasp the extent of the man-made disaster that is Zimbabwe today," she says. "The average life expectancy is now under 40. Millions are living in fear and dying in poverty. Mugabe wants to stop the world from witnessing the slow death of a nation – and it's our job to go in there to tell our viewers the truth about his regime."

And in Austin, whether he is hosting a bulletin from Africa or Antarctica, she thinks she has the right man for the job. "His reporting experience and ability to anchor live programmes in the most challenging circumstances are a powerful combination."