'We have more cameras than any broadcaster in the world'
The 162-year-old Associated Press news agency, an American icon, has chosen London as the hub of its global television operation. Ian Burrell pays a visit to its historic offices
Monday 12 April 2010
At the side of the Regent's Canal in north London, close to where European teenagers are haggling with Camden market stallholders, there is a 19th-century warehouse which once stored Gilbey's gin and can now lay claim to being the epicentre of global television news.
When a big story next breaks somewhere in the world, chances are the images will pass through this building for editing, before being disseminated to 500 broadcasting operations and 200 news websites worldwide, revoiced into myriad languages and transmitted to an audience of around one billion.
This is the hub of the global television output of the Associated Press, which claims to be the biggest news agency in the world, set up by the New York press in 1848 to bring news from the Mexican-American War. So a building named the Interchange – because it marked the point where Victorian freight passed from the rail network to the waterways – is now the key junction for international news.
"I would contend that we have more cameras around the world than anybody else operating on a daily basis," says Nigel Baker, the Englishman who runs the operation having previously worked for ITN and Sky. "With major stories there's a high chance that the key images on all the major channels will have come from AP." That can include footage screened by the BBC and ITV.
And yet, in an era when branding is supposed to be all, many people on the streets of Camden will have no recognition of the AP red lettering on the giant satellite dishes at the Interchange. "We are not branded on broadcast screens because that's the way the broadcasters like it," says Baker. "So the majority of the public don't know that the images come from this organisation."
But awareness of AP is about to grow in Britain for several reasons, one of which is to be formally unveiled later this month. AP has built what must be the most spectacularly located set of television studios in Britain, overlooking Trafalgar Square but offering an unobstructed 360-degree panorama of the London skyline. It's from here that much of the international coverage of the upcoming elections will be relayed.
Alla Salehian, the Briton who directs AP's global media services, looks out at the view from the twelfth floor of New Zealand House, at the foot of Haymarket. "We've got every single landmark," he says. "Trafalgar Square is there, Horse Guards Parade over there for trooping of the colour, and Buckingham Palace on this side for anything royal. We have a large Middle East client base and UK politics and business are very important for them. There's also a lot of interest in British entertainment and fashion and we are close here to Leicester Square and Covent Garden for all the premieres."
Salehian expects 200 international broadcasting organisations to want to cover the elections using these facilities, which are being frantically constructed in time for 6 May. Nearly all will supply their own correspondents, standing before one of the iconic backdrops. "Broadcasters don't need to worry about staffing and how they send the signal out or permission to put a truck on the street," says Salehian of AP's facilities, which include edit suites, fibre and satellite links, and high-definition capability. "It is a one-stop shop."
This is a significant development in reinforcing London's position as a global media centre. "The client interest in London is phenomenal," says Salehian. "Middle East broadcasters treat the city as a major hub, it's important to them in terms of Arab relations with the UK, issues regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and business. For US broadcasters, London is a launch pad for Europe and a base for their journalists to fly into events that occur in the Middle East or Asia."
The big British broadcasters rely heavily on that familiar patch of grass at College Green in the shadow of Big Ben. Jeff Randall of Sky News has found himself a perch in The Gherkin in order to save City-based guests the slog to BSkyB near Heathrow airport. And the privately run Westminster Live facility has a view of Parliament from the Albert Embankment. But AP's operation has three single-camera studios from where the likes of Al-Jazeera, France 24 and Germany's ZDF will do stand-upper shots that look out over Westminster or St Paul's. There are also two multi-camera studios where foreign broadcasters will make weekly shows on European news.
In contrast to AP's standing in the US, where it is the national news agency and considered an institution, Salehian accepts the business has a low profile in the UK, despite the important role it plays. "It's over 160 years old but you would be surprised how many people don't know about it."
It's largely because AP is a business-to-business operation, though that is increasingly moving to business-to-consumer thanks to "AP Mobile" – an iPhone app with three million users – and the AP channel on YouTube, which generated most of the 800 million video streams which the agency produced online last year. "That is branded and a lot of younger news consumers associate AP with video reporting rather than the original wire service," says Baker.
The YouTube numbers show how far-sighted the agency was in setting up its video-based APTV operation in London back in 1994. "There were many people who queried the decision but people realise now it was vital to the future of the organisation," says Baker. "That marked a huge period expansion for the AP in London. It had already been an important centre with a bureau covering the UK and distributing material across Europe but it's gone from about 80 people in 1994 to nearly 500 people in London in 2010."
AP's video content lacks recognition because it has no star journalists – reporters ask questions but stay off camera. "We're just chasing down Brangelina," says the international entertainment editor Antonia Ball, pictured right, striding across the newsroom in Camden. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are doing charity work for the UN in Bosnia and, with 200 reporters pitching up to cover the story, the organisers have decided it's better to allow AP to accompany the couple and file pooled reports. "We're somebody who's going to report the facts and get the coverage out there. We deliver the material to everybody," explains Ball. "We are making sure we have all formats tied up."
Ball was among AP's 70 staff at the Oscars and she has seen entertainment news grow in importance. The death of Alexander McQueen led the AP news bulletins. "When I started on the entertainment desk we would be looking at three to five stories a week. Now we are looking at three to five a bulletin and we have five bulletins a day." Three of those bulletins are made by the London team, and two from New York, where AP has its business headquarters.
Scotsman Sandy MacIntyre is in charge of the London newsroom. In front of a wall of 15 television screens, he explains that AP will, on any given day, have 150 cameras filming around the world, more than any other broadcaster. "Sixty per cent of what we cover is pre-planned and the rest is breaking news – it's the latter which separates the men from the boys," he says.
The bank of screens above him are dominated by shots of Downing Street: Gordon Brown has just called the election and, around the world, broadcasters are interrupting their output to take in AP's live feed from No 10. "They don't have their own live facility in London," says MacIntyre. "They're relying on us."
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