Friday 4 September 2009
Brian Viner: Confront the autocue, ride the storm
Fronting today's bulletins is not nearly as easy as Terry Wogan thinks
While I yield to nobody in my admiration for Sir Michael Terence Wogan, the larrikin of Limerick is quite wrong, in his forthcoming book, to stick the boot into television newsreaders. Wogan calls newsreading "a piece of cake, the easiest job in the media... read it clearly and distinctly, ask the reporter the questions you have written down in front of you... and before you start with the 'fair play, old boy, there's more to it than that', I was a radio and television newsreader – and there isn't."
Fair play, old boy, there's more to it than that. Things have changed since Wogan read the news, back – as he would doubtless be the first to concede – in the time of the early Plantagenets. In the old days, indeed, the BBC hired actors to read the news. But modern BBC newsreaders such as Huw Edwards, George Alagiah and Sian Williams have impeccable journalistic credentials. They wade through reams of wire copy and speak to the correspondents before writing their own cues, not simply reading out loud stuff that has been written for them. Which is not to say that there aren't some without backgrounds as journalists, hired largely for their excellent cheekbones and ability to read other people's words. Yet Wogan lumps them all together, which is unfair.
Moreover, the test of a newsreader's mettle is not when all goes smoothly, but when the gremlins strike. On Wednesday's Ten O'Clock News on the BBC, when a report from Nick Robinson disappeared into the ether, Edwards was serenity personified, dealing with the situation in that reassuringly mellifluous Welsh way of his while all hell broke loose in his earpiece.
That might not be rocket science, but it's not a piece of cake either. And consider the way television now deals with breaking news. Only 10 years ago a story that broke during the news would have to wait for the next bulletin. That's no longer acceptable in this world of instant information, so the newsreader must roll with the changing news agenda, sometimes reacting to, or even making, snap editorial decisions on air.
Wogan's jibes, in part, reflect the snobbery felt by many in radio towards television. But it's considerably more challenging to read the news on TV. You can't wear a velour tracksuit, for one thing, and when was the last time you saw a TV newsreader crack up with laughter? It's simply not done, although heaven knows it would add to the gaiety of the nation, as when the estimable Charlotte Green on Radio 4 got the giggles during an item about the Papua New Guinea politician Jacques Tuat, regrettably pronounced "twat". By the time she embarked on the following item, about a beached sperm whale, she was in stitches. It would never have happened on the telly.
More than anything, though, by sneering at newsreaders Wogan, most uncharacteristically, is falling out of step with the public. For decades we have invested immense trust in men like Richard Baker, Robert Dougall, Kenneth Kendall, Peter Sissons and Trevor McDonald, and in women such as Anna Ford and Moira Stuart, yet Sir Terry is effectively suggesting that we have been duped. And how much less thrilling would the sight of Angela Rippon's legs have been on The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, had we suspected for a moment that her day job was a doddle?
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