Katie Derham: And finally... ITV's saviour
After all of its recent upheavals, ITV News could do with a boost to its flagging image. Sophie Morris talks to one of its presenters who could give the network just what it needs
Monday 18 December 2006
Who are the faces of ITV News since Trevor McDonald stepped down as the main presenter and political editor Nick Robinson left for the BBC? Even lunchtime presenter Nicholas Owen announced he was leaving last month to take up a new role at BBC News 24.
The BBC has a team of big hitters from Huw Edwards and Moira Stuart to George Alagiah, Channel 4 News has Jon Snow and Five News has Kirsty Young. Despite his considerable talents, Mark Austin does not enjoy the public recognition of his predecessor Sir Trevor.
The face of ITV News's future could be that of the 36-year-old co-presenter whom Owen will leave behind at lunchtime news. Katie Derham, who also presents the regional broadcast London Tonight with ITN veteran Alastair Stewart, is being groomed for big things.
On New Year's Eve she is breaking free from her desk job to present a round-up of the big stories of 2006, signing off the year for ITV News and bolstering her own presence as one of the organisation's key faces at the same time.
When ITV staff were cheering Michael Grade's arrival at the network's glass-fronted Gray's Inn Road headquarters, Derham was on the road tracking down the amateur news gatherers whose footage will be featured in I Was There: the People's Review of the Year 2006. The show reacts to the growing trend for user-generated content in mainstream news programmes, which began with the 7 July London bombings in 2005. Not surprisingly the story of Grade's side shuffle won't make the cut, but the Farepak scandal, political protests outside Westminster and front-line action in Helmand province, Afghanistan, all will.
After four years as a personal finance then entertainment reporter at the BBC, Derham joined ITN as arts and media correspondent in 1998 and began presenting almost immediately, aged just 27. She brings to ITV the sort of well-read glamour Natasha Kaplinsky and Emily Maitlis give the BBC. It was Derham who, 12 months ago, leapt to the defence of her female colleagues, who had been criticised by Kate Adie, Michael Buerk and Jon Snow for their lack of experience "in the field", meaning in war zones. Derham herself has been largely studio-bound since having her first child in 2000. Now she has two young children and is happier presenting than scratching around for stories, given the more predictable hours. "It's not rocket science," she admits. "But the challenges don't go away when you're in the studio. They're just different."
Derham cites the "wonderful camaraderie you get going with the crew" and "eating bacon sandwiches" as the high points of being back on the road for a few days, though there isn't much evidence of the latter on her slim frame, dressed in grey trousers and a black polo neck. Camaraderie, though, is even more important on screen than off, and Derham says she will miss Nick Owen, describing him as "the loveliest, kindest and most generous broadcaster and friend you could ever hope to meet". Owen's replacement when he goes in February will be Alastair Stewart, with whom Derham already presents London Tonight. How does Derham feel about one grey fifty-something vacating the chair next to her only to be replaced with another?
"Is it a cliché having an older man and a younger woman? Well, maybe it is in some people's views but we have all worked here a long time and it is a very subjective business. The bosses look at who they think works well together and it is a bizarre, intangible thing."
For variations on the hackneyed older man/attractive young woman co-presenting teams she points to Anna Ford and Jill Dando, Sue Carpenter and Fiona Armstrong and herself and Gabby Logan on the weekend news. She laughs when she remembers the time two men found themselves co-presenting. "When I was first here I remember Dermot Murnaghan and Nick Owen doing the lunchtime news together. I remember somebody saying, that looks a bit strange, let's not do that again.
"In the style of a three-legged race on a school sports day, Alastair and I will go everywhere together," she wisecracks, but 2007 will show whether Derham is handed more solo opportunities to present current affairs programmes across ITV as her colleagues Andrea Catherwood and Mary Nightingale have. She has been described as the youngest ever national newsreader, but is not sure herself the accolade is rightly hers - one presenter from the 1950s has contacted her to point out that he holds that title.
Despite such early success she says at university she saw journalism as "terrifyingly competitive and the sort of thing other, very confident people did". She had edited her school magazine at Cheadle Hulme School in Stockport, and left Cambridge with a first in economics expecting a career in finance would follow. When that wasn't immediately forthcoming she got some work experience at BBC North and loved everything about it, hatching plans to become a "hotshot radio producer".
Instead she was encouraged down the presenting route, and when Five Live launched Derham was given more and more airtime. At ITV she has been reading the lunchtime news alongside Nick Owen since March 2005, shortly before the programme was extended to one hour. It was cut back to 30 minutes again in September. She describes London Tonight as a "slightly different beast" to other regional programmes because it is within the national newsroom, and is a "lot smarter and a lot sharper" than it was. It has just been named Best News Programme in London by the Royal Television Society for the fourth consecutive year.
Where newsreaders make headlines for as little as a revealing dress, Derham herself seems to have a squeaky clean record. Her most reported on-air transgression was the time, earlier this year, when she grabbed an errant toddler and pacified him while continuing the live discussion. She hosts a Classic FM show - "my little window of happy calmness in my professional life when I'm not talking about death and destruction" - and has put her family in the media spotlight only recently to help to publicise her husband's business Leon, a mini chain of healthy fast-food restaurants serving superfood salads and spicy meatballs in London.
Steaming kitchens may be a departure from a glossy newsroom but she's in good company - her husband John Vincent's business partner is Henry Dimbleby, son of David, and the venture is backed by former BBC chairman Gavyn Davies.
So Derham does have friends in high places, despite laughing off the idea she might be privy to any strategic discussions at her current employers. She won't be drawn to speculate on Rupert Murdoch's purchase of 18 per cent of ITV just days before Grade's appointment was announced. She does, however, admit to "gossiping wildly" with friends at Sky as to what this might lead to in the future, and one suspects she is a rather good gossip. It isn't yet clear whether she is the type to raise her profile in the way only a starring role in Strictly Come Dancing or I'm a Celebrity... can, or chase the hard news kudos her friend Emily Maitlis is trying for on Newsnight. She only hints: "I didn't sit at home aged 12 and say, I want to be Jan Leeming, which is quite pertinent now, considering what she was like in the jungle."
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