Prepare yourself for Naughtie TV and Evan everywhere
When BBC journalists were previously asked to work across TV and radio, there were disastrous consequences. The corporation's head of multimedia tells Ian Burrell why this time it's a different story
Monday 08 September 2008
Evan Davis made a return to live television last month when he broke off from presenting that morning's edition of the Radio 4 Today programme and walked on to the nearby set of BBC Breakfast in order to tell viewers about an investigation he had conducted into the demise of hitch-hiking.
Davis had earlier produced an audio piece for Today on the same subject, which also ran on bbc.co.uk alongside a slide show of photographs taken by the former economics correspondent and his producer as they hitched down to the south coast from London. This is seen by BBC bosses as multimedia programming at its best.
It's a delicate issue. The BBC environment correspondent David Shukman, a multimedia pioneer, nevertheless recently complained in one of the corporation's internal publications that a report he had filed from the central Pacific, for television (three packages, nine promos and four lives), radio (two long packages, four dispatches and multiple lives) and online (two news pieces, five diary items and countless stills), plus separate video-on-demand pieces and taking part in written and television versions of an interactive Q&A, had been "utterly knackering, at times close to overwhelming".
This probably explains why the BBC head of multimedia programmes, Stephen Mitchell, is anxious to proceed with caution. Mitchell, who is deputy head of news, admits that the corporation has made mistakes in previous attempts to get staff to multi-skill. He believes that the BBC's plans for "bi-media" television and radio reporting, introduced in the mid-Nineties, caused lasting damage, particularly to radio output.
"We went too fast and began to ignore the significant differences between the media. When you are writing for radio you are writing for the ear, but when you are writing for television you are writing to pictures and the pictures are complementing the script," he says.
"We hadn't done enough work and we didn't manage people as effectively as we might have. We rushed into things, which was particularly risky for our journalism."
Mitchell, a former head of BBC Radio News, says he spent "four or five years of my career trying to ameliorate some of the damage done in the bi-media experiment, which meant restoring the skills of radio. I saw people who thought the way to do good radio was to take the audio straight off the television."
He notes that when Jeremy Paxman does an interview for Newsnight "facial expressions, timing and pauses" are important but such devices don't work on a radio interview for Today, which is "a more intimate experience for the audience".
As such he had "reservations" about heading up the latest BBC initiative to encourage staff to work across different platforms but has become convinced of its merit. The Davis hitch-hiking report, he says, was an example of good practice in identifying what works for each medium.
"He was able to do a nice piece of radio journalism for the Today programme, a witty piece for the online audience and then join breakfast television on the same story. None of that felt forced."
When David Cameron recently agreed to be interviewed by Radio 1's Newsbeat team, including taking questions on air from young people in a West Country café, the BBC negotiated for the event to be filmed by Newsnight for a separate piece on how the Tory leader was trying to appeal to younger voters.
So expect radio presenters to increasingly appear in front of the cameras. When James Naughtie (right), known essentially as a radio presenter, flew out to Pakistan to do an exclusive interview with President Pervez Musharraf last November he wasn't expecting to be joined by a television camera on his arrival.
But after negotiations between his colleagues and Musharraf's representatives, it was agreed that the interview could be filmed. The interview was broadcast on the BBC News channel as well as on Radio 4. Similarly a visit to Basra by John Humphrys was filmed by Ceri Thomas, the editor of the Today programme, using a hand-held camera for a piece that was placed on the BBC's websites. During the recent unrest in Kenya, Paul Mason of Newsnight was asked to produce a piece for BBC radio but because of his relative inexperience in the medium, he was assisted by a producer flown down from Cairo, one of around 20 BBC multimedia "pathfinders" who have received specialist training in working across all platforms.
Mitchell says that some interviewees will be reluctant to be filmed, preferring the intimacy of radio and being "put off by the paraphernalia of television".
He also concedes that the initiative is linked to saving money in the wake of the BBC's last licence fee settlement, but says that he will not be forcing journalists into working on other platforms. Though many specialists are already heavily deployed across different media, not all will be so keen.
"Others I think will say 'No, I want to do [just] radio or television'," says Mitchell. "At this stage I'm perfectly comfortable with that, I don't wish to force anybody down a multiplatform route."
His watchwords are that he will "tread cautiously" in rolling out an approach that misfired before but one that he is convinced is now essential to make sure good material reaches the widest audience attainable. "We are open to suggestions. We want to take good ideas and make them available to as many people as possible."
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