Obits - Reporting the dead

Reporting the deaths of public figures is one of the BBC's most important functions. Bob Chaundy explains how it's done
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The doorbell rang at my Spanish holiday villa early on that August morning 10 years ago, followed by a furious knocking. Bleary eyed, I opened up to find my neighbour whose first words to me were "Have you done Diana's obit?"

He and I had been discussing my work as the BBC's obituary producer the evening before over several bottles of Rioja. Now one of the world's most famous people had died unexpectedly. Once the shock had been absorbed, my immediate reaction was to turn on the TV.

For, not only was the answer to his question "Yes", lo and behold, none other than the TV obit I'd written and produced a few weeks earlier was halfway through being broadcast. I felt a curious blend of disbelief at the death itself and an immense professional satisfaction – here was an obit I'd crafted more than once and never thought for a moment would ever make the air, going out to the world.

Luciano Pavarotti's death last week was less unexpected but, nevertheless, the obits team prepared the piece, which was screened on the BBC bulletins last Thursday, more than a year ago when it was first known that he had a serious illness.

The obituarist is often characterised as a kind of media vulture hovering over its prey, waiting for it to die. "Grim Reaper" and "Doctor Death" are the kind of sobriquets attributed to our like. A colleague of mine once remarked, "When Bob says 'How are you?' it's a loaded question."

But I had been disabusing my neighbour the previous evening of the notion of there being anything macabre about working on obituaries. Obits are about life, not death. Not for us the "slap and clammy slither of the circumscribing clay", as my former colleague Andrew Marr, in Heaney-esque mode, once put it. Death is merely the pretext, dealt with on the front page, perhaps, or in the case of TV, in the newsreader's introduction. As Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat, a paean to obits and obit writers, "a good obit is an act of reverence, a contemplation of this life that sparked and died".

Diana's death pointed up one of the main differences between the television news obit and the written ones you read in this newspaper; that it appears on the day the person dies and, in this world of 24-hour news, needs to be on the stocks ready to roll.

Yes, a TV news obit can be thrown together quickly in the event of an unexpected death. But a properly crafted one needs to be prepared beforehand. For, before the piece can be written and edited, the production process requires trawling through hours of archive, searching for that famous speech, that all-important film clip, that most revealing interview or the picture sequence that says it all. The average news obit is about two minutes long, so whereas a newspaper obit writer can luxuriate in a several thousand word spread, on TV the emphasis is on brevity, letting the pictures do the talking.

Obviously, they'll be longer in the case of the very famous. Diana's was something like 10 minutes. Ever anxious for feedback, I asked one programme editor when I was back at work the following day, how the Diana obit went down. Her eyes lit up as she remarked, "Oh it was marvellous. It gave Peter Sissons time to get up and go to the loo." Praise indeed!

Whereas my print colleagues will debate such esoteric questions as to whether or not the obituary should "out" their subjects when he or she never did so in their lifetime, whether suicide should be acknowledged, family skeletons be revealed and so on, the broadcast news obit writer is simply not afforded the time.

Neither can it incorporate such a broad range of subjects as the print media. We can only deal with the famous because only the famous have lots of TV footage, or audio for radio. Sometimes even famous people make life difficult. There is almost no video of authors like J D Salinger and Harper Lee, but rest assured that the BBC does have a radio obit of Marcel Marceau! The criteria for deciding for whom obits are produced are if they are old, ill or vulnerable. But there are exceptions to this guideline, including members of the Royal Family.

News 24 might be a relentless monster, but television obits have to fight their way on to the half-hour daily BBC1 bulletins, giving the programme editor almost complete discretion. This can lead to inconsistencies. This year, on the Ten O'clock News, for example, Ingmar Bergman made it, Mstislav Rostropovich didn't. Editors will always argue that there were more important stories on the day.

The years of producing obits for BBC News has been a wonderful experience, made easy by the support of management. It hasn't been just the fascination with people's lives, but also with the range of those lives. From Saddam Hussein to Ronnie Barker, from Brian Clough to Princess Diana, I've learned that variety isn't just the spice of life.

Bob Chaundy leaves the BBC today after 18 years heading the corporation's news obituaries unit.