Ted Koppel: USA's long-time voice of reason joins the BBC

Along with Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, Lancashire-born Ted Koppel was one of a generation of great American television news anchors. Leonard Doyle talks to him

Back in the mists of television time, when anchors were anchors and most Americans turned to the nightly news to find out what was going on in the country, and even sometimes the world, Ted Koppel's Nightline was a treat.

Before 24/7 news on cable, satellite and broadband, when viewers relied on strangely shaped antennae on top of the television, there was space for snooty news anchors like Koppel to ask probing questions and provide penetrating analysis. He did it with great aplomb and, with a twinkle in his eye, dared his high-powered guests to get the better of him. They rarely did, although he could be a bit soft on old friends like Henry Kissinger, a regular on his programme.

Less blow-dried and pompous than their modern successors, the original anchors gave viewers a sense that some grown-ups were paying attention, keeping politicians in check and, occasionally, blowing foul on the worst excesses of corporate America.

Peter Jennings, now no longer with us, was one of the best. Dan Rather (a shadow of his former self) is battling in court with CBS for firing him, and the gravel-voiced Tom Brokaw gets wheeled out from time to add gravitas to NBC and is looking after Meet the Press for the time being. Then there is the Lancashire-born Koppel, a giant of ABC news who hosted Nightline for 25 years. Since being put out to grass by his network, Koppel, 68, has been producing excellent, if little-viewed, documentaries for the Discovery Channel while showing up as a "senior news analyst" for National Public Radio, America's pale imitation of the BBC. Above the babble of cable news, he occasionally pops up to make his point with the know-it-all air of an unflappable sophisticate.

Never one to rock the boat, Koppel might be faulted for taking the mantra "fair and balanced" to the extreme and giving America's leaders the benefit of the doubt when he needed to rattle their cage. It was never his style to badger a political leader in quite the same fashion as Jeremy Paxman.

But, at a time when the US media is increasingly partisan and shrill, when Fox News is as bad as ever and the liberal rival MSNBC has turned journalism into a shouting match, it's nice to hear that someone has found a use for the wisdom of Ted Koppel. He has started contributing commentary pieces to the nightly BBC World News America, which is spending lots of money trying to insinuate itself into the busy spectrum of news channels. The BBC is bringing its unique brand of seriousness and global reporting to a potentially limitless North American audience. That's the hope anyway.

Talking to Koppel last week there was a sense of relief that he was finally teaming up with an outfit not entirely motivated by profit.

"When I began in 1963, network news divisions were not expected to turn profit. In fact, president of the news division would go to president of the network, and ask, Oliver Twist-like, 'please may I have more?' and they would give us a few million dollars, and tell us not to come back till the following year."

That changed and "now instead of three networks providing news as a public service, there are 50 to 60 competitors chasing a far smaller slice of the audience pie".

Without apparent bitterness, Koppel says that "today's news divisions are only interested in young male anchors and to a lesser extent young women" and the "assumption is that audiences do not care about foreign news and do not care about substantive issues". Producers of television magazine programmes are aiming for a "a young audience, with the assumption being they are not terribly smart".

Ever since the disaster of the Iraq war, objectivity, the guiding principle of the US media, has been in the dock, accused of undermining the press's ability to challenge the Bush administration as it rushed to war in Iraq. The argument goes that supine American journalists were so concerned with giving all sides a say that they neglected their adversarial role – with disastrous consequences for all of us. Koppel concedes that the desire for objectivity prevented a more clear-eyed assessment of what was going on.

However, he has a similar criticism of his new paymasters, the BBC, only in a different direction. Koppel is a newsman first and he was embedded with the US Third Infantry Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"We were sitting on the apron of Saddam Hussein international airport with the first element of the Third and listening to the BBC taking at face value what the Iraqi military spokesman was saying, that the US forces were still 70 miles away, and ignoring claims by the American military. There seemed to be a tendency sometimes on the part of some elements of the BBC back then to want to disregard everything that US military was saying," he recalls. "I think there is a tendency, not limited to US media, to allow politics to enter in. I don't like it."

But change is coming to the US media, whether it is caused by perceived failures in covering Iraq or, more likely, by competition from new media, especially news bloggers.

AP's Washington chief, Ron Fournier, says that, since Iraq and the failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina, it's time for journalists "to step into that breach and say, 'hey, what the hell is going on here?'."

This is not a trend that fills Koppel with joy. "I think there is too much attitude these days already. It's the product of economic pressure, a product of the fractionalisation of the media and frankly The New York Times is not immune to that either."

He becomes almost wistful about what the BBC offers compared to the downsized US networks. "There are thousands of reporters around the world," he says, "People who can actually bring us the news from distant places, what a concept! There has never been a time when there has been a greater need to know what is going on in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Latin America, and Africa, where the BBC actually has [its own] reporters on the ground."

There must be some doubt about the desire of American viewers to know what's happening in these faraway places, and then to have it told to them in a British, or even Indian, accent. But Koppel will be an attraction at BBC World News America, which is anchored from Washington and where he expects to appear 12 to 15 times a year, commenting on major news events, including the presidential election. His plan is to broadcast what he calls "illustrated essays", a fancy name for news analysis using video and soundbites.

Koppel was born in Nelson, Lancashire, and his parents, Jewish refugees from wartime Germany, moved to London a year later. After attending boarding school in the Midlands, Koppel left for America just before he turned 14 in 1953. He felt the tug of Britain for only 10 years or so.

"Having graduated from an American university (Syracuse University and Stanford), gone to graduate school, married an American woman with whom I had a bunch of American children and having no intention of living in the UK again, I am totally American," he says. Let's hope enough Americans know where to tune in to him on that crowded television spectrum.