Profile: Sweetie among cynics: Martyn Lewis: Top in a tough profession, he campaigns for good news and writes about cats. So why are the claws out for him? By Geraldine Bedell

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The Independent Online
'THE proudest moment at school,' says Martyn Lewis happily, 'was being company sergeant major in the army cadet force, and winning the Bisley .22 championship for all the army, navy and air force cadet forces in Great Britain.' This happened to him in 1963, but he still tells the story with gusto, explaining his scores, and those of the boy who came second. Lewis may now be a main presenter of the BBC's Nine O'Clock News and one of the most famous faces in the country, but he still includes his parts in school plays on his cv He talks about his past with the same self-important enthusiasm he brings to discussion of his current trip to the United States to look at inner- city charity projects - 'my own initiative,' he points out proudly; and he appears, for someone who works in so ruthless and suspicious a world as television news, to be peculiarly devoid of irony, cynicism, or self-deprecation.

Apart from touring south-central Los Angeles for some of his pet charities this week, Lewis also, more controversially, made a speech to the University of Colorado school of journalism, arguing that broadcasters should report more good news. This evidently hit a nerve: the Independent, which carried the speech beforehand, received a clutch of letters in support of his arguments; John Cole and Jeremy Paxman rushed into print to dispute them, and Peter Sissons went on Radio 2's Jimmy Young show to insist that 'it is not our job to go in for social engineering to make people feel better. Even if it makes people slit their wrists, we have to tell it the way it is'.

'The way it is' to one person may not, however, be the same as 'the way it is' to another. Lewis recently compiled two books, Cats in the News and Dogs in the News, relating various amazing exploits of small furry animals; he also once wrote a book called And Finally . . ., based on humorous news endpieces. 'The minutiae is just as important for him as the lead story,' notes a fellow newscaster; and, to hard- bitten reporters, this can be a matter for derision. The crueller of them have been known to refer to Lewis as 'the glove puppet'; this week there was quite a lot of fun in the BBC offices at his expense, as people mockingly discussed stories on the basis of their 'good news' content. Lewis himself meanwhile remains puzzled and slightly hurt about the BBC's wish not to be associated with his cat and dog books.

He is also disappointed that his plea for the news to 'hold a mirror up to society', to look harder for nice shocks, has (as he sees it) been dismissed rather than answered: 'I have yet to have a serious conversation with anyone about this, though I have felt it for 15 years,' he said from Los Angeles this week. 'People are dismissive, and patronisingly dismissive. The people at the top think they are carrying the holy grail of news reporting: their response is 'Who is this cheeky chappie?' '

And sure enough, despite their utter respect for his professionalism as a presenter, and for the effect of his open face and emollient smile on the viewers, the editorial powers at the BBC do seem somewhat dismissive. 'We think that we are right and he is wrong; the only response to this has been to laugh,' one producer says. Others mutter darkly about the concentration of first-rate editorial brains at the BBC, implying that he is in no position to challenge them. Over at ITN meanwhile, one executive noted that Lewis is 'hardly a battle-scarred veteran like some newscasters,' suggesting that his thoughts on editorial matters could not be expected to carry as much clout as those of, for example, the more cerebral and internationally experienced Michael Buerk. As the public face of BBC news, Lewis feels a bit put out by what he suspects is a tinge of contempt from the backroom. 'The public thinks you control the show,' he says mournfully. 'It's not true.'

LEWIS was born in Swansea, the son of a chartered quantity surveyor and a nurse, and grandson of the general manager of the town's grandest department store, who had started there as a teaboy. It was a prosperous and secure background, and Lewis grew up with every reason to believe that the world was a decent place.

At 11, Lewis changed schools and was bullied for being fat, which caused him to develop a stammer. When his parents responded by moving him to another school (the family had by this time moved to Portrush, Northern Ireland), the stammer disappeared. But, gutsily sensible as ever, he took up acting and became a leading light in the debating society to make sure it did not come back. At 14, and still fat, he thought: 'Come on, Lewis] Get your act together]' and took up circuit training and weightlifting until he made the rugby team.

At Trinity College Dublin, he acted, shot, played rugby, and emerged with a third in economics, geography and philosophy. At home afterwards, discussing job offers in advertising and PR with his parents, he was asked to present a programme for BBC Belfast through a contact of his father's; his mother and father then 'had quite an argument' about whether he should do it. He was sacked after 10 months,'but I didn't want to have to go home and tell my parents they had been right after all', so he wrote to 56 television stations around the world. Eventually, he says, 'on my father's advice,' he wrote to Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, who was then starting up HTV in Wales, 'reminding him that his father had played the organ for a choir in Wales at which my great-grandfather was choirmaster.' He was in.

Lewis threw himself into his work: he boasts of not taking a holiday in the two years he spent at HTV. He did however, find time to meet his wife Liz, a former model who was presenting what he describes as 'a kiddies' programme'. (He uses the word 'kiddies' again later; its cosiness is characteristic). He moved to ITN to open and run their Northern bureau, where he 'drove 100,000 miles a year, and provided over 500,000 hours of reports'.

In 1976, he moved to London to become a newscaster on News At 5.45, and a year later, on News At Ten. (He moved to the BBC in 1986). In those days the ITN tradition was to employ former veteran correspondents as newscasters: 'It was all about credibility, and never mind the look. You knew Sandy Gall had been one of the last people in Saigon, and that was enough,' according to one ITN executive who watched Lewis develop. There was little of this in Lewis's background, 'but he studied the Americans, their calm control, and he got his suits specially made so that they didn't bunch at the back'. ('I simply wanted to look presentable on the box,' is how Lewis explains this). And rather like William Hurt in Broadcast News, who was similarly preoccupied with suits, he was vastly professional - unflappable, even when people were dropping things and talking in his earpiece - and highly successful.

'He enjoys the glamour and stardom,' says Sir David Nicholas, the former editor of ITN, who gave Lewis his first newscasting opportunities. Others testify to his enjoyment of moving in charmed circles (among the people Lewis suggested I should ask about him were two duchesses, a baron, two knights and two ambassadors). And, according to another newscaster, 'he was one of the first to have an agent'.

But a degree of vanity and egotism may well be necessary for a newscaster; people who know Lewis also testify to his decency and absolute lack of malice. 'I don't know anyone who doesn't like him. He is straight as a die,' says Sir Michael Scott, a co-founder with Lewis of Drive For Youth, a charity helping long-term unemployed young people: 'His wife is lovely, too. He is a very keen family man.' The Lewises have two daughters, Sylvie, 17, and Kate, 14; Lewis describes his family as 'the solid backbone of my life'.

He first became involved in charity work in 1982, when he was approached by the Duchess of Norfolk on behalf of the hospice movement; he now works with nine hospice and cancer charities and three charities concerned with improving opportunities for young people, plus assorted others. He recently produced a book listing all kinds of opportunities and organisations for young people. Some people impute less than honourable motives to him for this work - 'One very senior PR person told me I needed a hospice movement, too,' notes another newscaster acerbically - his motives are probably as mixed as anyone's. He certainly does not mind the publicity, but he also genuinely feels he can help. And, he says, 'charity is a useful antidote to the negativity of the news'.

He would like to see more charity stories on the news: 'Business gets slagged off,' he complains, 'yet thousands of businesses do unsung voluntary work.' He is, perhaps, a natural conservative, who thinks that we can indeed 'talk ourselves down' - although he insists that his speech is about more than that. Ironically enough, Lewis, whose salary reputedly runs to six figures, may well be prized by the BBC for his ability to make particularly difficult or unpleasant stories palatable. 'There is a view that he is a sort of Trojan horse,' one producer says; 'that the audience will stick with stories they wouldn't otherwise, because he is so plausible, and everyone likes him.' With his good-

humoured, open face, and all the eager-beaverness of a boy scout, 'there is something about him that makes you feel he should really be on Good Morning with Anne and Nick,' another executive says. 'Naturally, he prefers being on the Nine O'Clock News; it suits his sense of importance. So there he is, surrounded by all those cynics.'

(Photograph omitted)

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