A fascinating read for aspiring journalists

Here are some extracts (which I have keyed in) from John Simpson's book, News From No Man's Land – Reporting the World. He's the BBC's political editor having once been its foreign correspondent, and while most of what he writes here concerns television news, the book is a fascinating read for all those interested in journalism. He just loves his job and will be an inspiration to those seeking a career in television journalism.

I recommend you pick up this book from the Commits library. And if you're serious about television journalism, you should buy your own copy there are plenty of good tips, including a chapter on scripting ("The Use of Words").
  • Photo courtesy: Daily Mail

Excerpts from News From No-Man's Land – Reporting the World
by John Simpson (Pan, 2002; Rs.330)

  • John Simpson has worked for the BBC since 1966, filling many of its news positions from foreign correspondent to political editor. He also writes for the Sunday Telegraph. His two previous best-selling volumes of autobiography – Strange Places, Questionable People and A Mad World, My Masters were published by Macmillan in 1998 and 2000 respectively.

"When you are deeply involved
in a story, nothing else matters"
The point of being a reporter, then, is to see things. When the starter's gun goes off and a news story opens up, journalists become surprisingly careless of themselves, their comfort, their families, their lives. In the 1974 version of The Front Page, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, Lemmon plays the star reporter working on his last big story before marrying his fiancée and giving up journalism altogether. The fiancée, whose name is Peggy, taps on the door of the room where Jack Lemmon is hammering away on his typewriter.

'Who's there?'


'Peggy who?' asks the man who is about to give up journalism for her sake.

Being a reporter is one of the few genuinely all-consuming professions. When you are deeply involved in a story, nothing else matters.

"Well-behaved, safe, house-broken
journalists are usually bad journalists"
The smile of a journalist means little, and when you are in the presence of a group of journalists you must never make the mistake of thinking you are among friends. The things you say may be taken down and used in evidence against you: out of context, if necessary. The Queen Mother, when in her nineties, went to a dinner party where a well-known journalist friend of mine was a guest. Her table talk, which included all sorts of unreconstructed comments about Germany and the Labour Party, duly found its way into print. You might think that the incautious ramblings of an elderly lady should have been allowed to remain private; they were not. The Spectator published them. The phrase 'public interest' was used, as it so often is when journalists and their readers are showing an intrusive curiosity. And yet I think it was right to have done so.

Of course the whole episode showed deplorable bad manners; but journalists are the kind of people who tread mud onto your best Isfahan carpets and pick their teeth absent-mindedly at the dinner table. Well-behaved, safe, house-broken journalists are usually bad journalists. And as in the case of the Queen Mother, who was after all in the position of a public servant, a free press has to be prepared to print everything, no matter how embarrassing or awkward, otherwise it is not free. She would have had every right to be angry, as everyone who has been given a thorough going-over by the press usually is; me included. But on balance, if you want the benefits of a free press, you have to be prepared to pay the price.

Above all, good journalists should never allow you to feel comfortable in their presence. I am not in favour, personally, of betraying confidences and letting down friends, but I do not wish to be taken for granted.

"Newspaper journalism is a collaborative
business, and most writers tend to hunt
in packs. Not so television journalism"
CNN and the BBC are in fierce competition around the world, of course. Yet when we all met up in the [Kabul] hotel restaurant in the evenings there was no question of any animosity between us. I had considerable respect for Nic Robertson, who...was the CNN correspondent. I knew and liked the German correspondent as well.... But though we were friendly, we didn't socialise too much.

... If we had been working for newspapers, even newspapers which were in direct competition with each other, we would quickly have gathered at the same table and started pooling information. Perhaps because newspaper reporters work alone, they tend to collect together in groups in the field. To that extent, newspaper journalism is a collaborative business, and most writers tend to hunt in packs. Not so television journalism. We travel round in small groups of two or three anyway, so we have no great need of company. We also have an ingrained prejudice against coming up with the same material as every other television organisation, and treating it similarly. Newspaper reporters often huddle together to work out what 'the story' is that is, what line they should take on it; it is, of course, a particular comfort to the weaker brethren and the latecomers. To television journalists, there is something faintly indecent about this. We are not paid to cooperate, we are paid to compete; and if we get things wrong, and offer up a 'story' which is inferior to the others', we must take the consequence.

It probably sounds selfish and cut-throat, and the newspaper approach is certainly much more congenial. Still, few television journalists I know would want to change it....

"A feeling that maybe the pictures are
being manipulated? That things aren't
quite as they are being portrayed?"
Everywhere you go in the world, you find a certain level of suspicion about television news. Less nowadays than at any previous time, but it's still there: a feeling that maybe the pictures are being manipulated, that things aren't quite as they are being portrayed. There are, I believe, historical reasons for this, which I shall explain; but I hope you will take my word for it this kind of thing doesn't happen much nowadays, unless of course you live in Iraq or North Korea, or Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Even the People's Republic of China is getting better in this respect. In democratic societies, the deliberate misuse of pictures, in which a set of images purports to show one thing while in fact it shows another, is so rare that it is virtually unknown.

"The better CNN is, the better
the BBC will be, and vice versa"
During my time in broadcasting, from 1966 to the present day, I have watched this slow progression of television news from its old, questionable roots to a settled honesty. Partly it's because we in the television news industry were no longer willing to put up with the older habits of fakery, and partly because the technological advances in television have made it possible to capture reality on a regular basis not only great political moments, but crimes and wars.

Television news, in Britain as elsewhere in the world, depends heavily on the news footage provided by the two news agencies, APTN and Reuters; and their bitter competition ... keeps them on the straight and narrow. Neither side could afford to be dishonest in its coverage, any more than they could afford to be tardy or careless.

Now, as I reach my late fifties, there is a new and highly effective competition, between the BBC and CNN. Although I am paid to compete with Atlanta's finest, I have great respect for it. The better CNN is, the better the BBC will be, and vice versa. CNN's big advantage is still its speed of response; the BBC's, the unmatched quality of its correspondents. Yet nothing remains for long, and there are clear signs that CNN is under heavy pressure from another American channel, Fox News: noisy, hugely patriotic, almost embarrassingly American, largely dismissive of the outside world which fascinated CNN's founder, Ted Turner. Turner was bought out, and eased out, by Time Warner...and is greatly missed within the organisation. Nowadays Fox ... gets the ratings; by comparison, many Americans find CNN too careful, too undemonstrative, too European.

"The most difficult thing about
editing a television report is
usually cutting the interview material"
...But of course the pictures are carefully chosen and carefully edited, and that can be highly misleading. And we still employ lots of tricks of the trade which we inherited from our newsreel and movie past. They are there to make the wheels run more smoothly, but they are, in themselves, manipulations. Slowly, painfully, we are weaning ourselves off them; but I for one would like to see an end to all these things.

The clearest such example is the 'cutaway'. When you record an interview with someone, it is almost invariably far too long and rambling to be used in its entirety.... The most difficult thing about editing a television report is usually cutting the interview material
what some of us still anachronistically call 'synch', which is a term dating back to the ancient days of film when the picture and the sound came on different rolls and had to be synchronised on the edit table.... Sticklers for accuracy sometimes use 'SOT' nowadays, which stands for 'sound on tape'....

When you are editing what someone has said, you have an obligation to let them speak as effectively as possible; and they can't always make their point well enough in a single short passage. And so you have to edit two or more chunks of synch together, which causes an ugly jump in the image, jarring to the viewer. There are various ways of smoothing this over, and historically television news all television news, the world over has chosen what I regard as the most dishonest option: the cutaway.

The cutaway is a device which pretends that, instead of having only one camera at the interview, you have two; one pointing at the interviewer and the other at the interviewee. For most of the time the camera has been behind the interviewer's head, pointing at the interviewee, but when the interview is finished, the cameraman shifts around to where the second cameraman would have been, and gets some pictures of the interviewer pretending to listen, and nodding, interjecting and sometimes asking one of the questions from the interview a second time all for the purposes of making the editing process smoother.

If the interviewee is still sitting there, it isn't quite so bad: there is still some interaction between the two of them, and if the interviewer asks one or two of the questions from the interview again you feel that the interviewee can leap up and say, 'Hang on that's not at all what you asked me.' But real life doesn't always work as smoothly as that. The interviewee is in a hurry, and you are left with an empty chair to nod at, and look interested in, and ask your questions of. There is, to my mind, something mildly distasteful about all this: it's getting a little too close to acting, and a little too far from real life.
... So if cutaways are phoney, what should replace them? That's easy enough; all you need is some visual device to represent the series of dots which show that words have been left out of a printed account. A fade down and fade up is the most elegant, but until recently it required three editing machines instead of two, and rarely seemed to be worth it. You could fade very quickly to black and then back to the picture; you could put half a second's worth of black frames in, just enough to register on the minds of the audience that something is missing here.
The trouble is, it requires a cultural change to introduce these things. They happen in documentaries, they happen in current affairs: but they don't happen in news. News, in the television services of most Western countries, is always more conservative than current affairs; partly because the news people have far less time to put their programmes together. Fades and other devices take time. Still, what is needed is an acceptance by the broadcasters that any kinds of falsity, even the harmless, purely cosmetic type, are best avoided.

Perhaps, too, we need an acceptance by the audience that although they are seeing something which is different and perhaps more awkward than they are used to on the news, it does tell them frankly that something has been done to the words they are hearing. That way, perhaps, we can ditch one of the last vestiges of the undeniably dodgy past of television news.

"The big difference between
newspapers and television: Space"
Television is an intensive medium: it heightens the significance of everything it looks at, merely by paying attention to it. The viewers get the feeling that they are being shown something of particular importance. And there is an unconscious corollary: anything which television news doesn't pay attention to can't be that important.

It comes down partly to a matter of space. Newspapers usually have somewhere in the recesses of the home or foreign pages where they can slip in paragraphs about events of lesser importance. Television rarely does this. Even its brief round-ups of domestic and foreign news are given a special kind of significance, thanks to the medium. It is true that a newspaper is just as heavily edited and its news just as selective as a television news bulletin; why, otherwise, would the New York Times claim in its fatuous masthead motto that it provides 'All The News That's Fit To Print'? But there is a big difference, and that is space.

... In television news, the rule of thumb is that speech is broadcast at a rate of around three words per second. The average length of a foreign report on the Ten O'Clock News is probably around two minutes, fifteen seconds. That, if my arithmetic is correct, makes 405 words: some way longer than a column for one of the [British] tabloids. When, however, we cover something of greater importance we are likely to be allocated quite a lot more time. My report for the Ten O'Clock News on the fall of Kabul, for instance, was six minutes long: the equivalent of 1,080 words. Neither the Guardian nor The Times devoted much more than that to the city's fall.

And of course what neither the Sun, the Guardian nor the Sunday Telegraph can offer is moving pictures of the event to accompany their words. If every picture really is worth a thousand words, then a six-minute television report would be longer than any newspaper: including the Sunday Times, which weighs so much that when you stoop to pick it up from the doorstep you have to pray to avoid a hernia.

So the notion that television news is just a once-over-lightly affair, which screams a few headlines at you and then tells you nothing serious, is not necessarily an accurate one. It all depends, of course, on who does the telling, and how much time they are allowed.

"What constitutes a 'good' story?"
It always used to irritate me to hear journalists referring to real incidents in the lives of real people as 'stories', with all the connotations which the word brings with it: dramatic incident, neatly rounded narrative, a satisfying ending. Gradually, though, I came to realise that the most important function people like me could perform was indeed to tell stories: not in the sense of making up comfortable lies to keep the viewers happy, but of providing an accurate digestible way to make sense of the confusion and apparent chaos of everyday life.

But what constitutes a 'good' story – that's to say, a worthwhile and interesting one, which will justify spending the kind of money which a television news operation requires, and will make the viewers feel they have seen a satisfying and understandable account of a particular incident or situation? This, of course, is one of the key questions involved in the business of television news, and answering it correctly is critical to running any successful programme. Like the elephant in the old poem, a good story is something which is hard to describe in the abstract, but immediately recognisable the moment it hoves into sight.

Here, for the sake of it, is the abstract definition: a good story should be well filmed, with pictures that please and intrigue the eye; it should contain all the necessary elements to convince the viewer that it is true and accurate; it should interest or shock or stir or please or inform; and it should remain in the memory afterwards, feeding the mind and the emotions. All fine, and utterly meaningless without concrete examples. It was to provide the concrete examples that I began to write this book. I wanted to explain to you what it is my colleagues and I are in search of when we head out into the world with a camera and notebook; and what it is we hope to come back with when we are finished....

Let me start off with an example which I hope will demonstrate some of the qualities of 'a good story' in negative terms, by showing how I turned a superb and important event into something extremely dull. Back in 1979...

"The viewers need to know who is involved.
They need to have it explained to
them why they should care about it"
... A good story is just that – a story, a narrative that has to be told. It isn't enough to say, 'We were walking down the street when we heard the sound of gunfire and poked the camera round the corner to show you – this.' The viewers need to know who is involved. They need to have it explained to them why they should care about it. They need to see where the event fits into the wider scheme of things. They need to follow the event through. I don't think a story can be genuinely good if it doesn't have a sense of completeness, so that the audience can see the event you are describing as something separate, an episode in its own right.

When you achieve that, you have something worth more than rubies. Sometimes it can be a small and not necessarily important incident – but it must have a significance of some kind, which sheds light on a wider subject. After thirty-odd years of doing these things, a few random examples come swimming to the surface of the memory: some of them light, some of them terrible. But they all had the quality of completeness, which made them incontrovertible proofs of a much larger proposition.

For instance, during the Tiananmen Square crisis of 1989, which ended a couple of weeks later in massacre and horror...

"There is no better way of conveying
an atmosphere than a good
and effective television report"
... Altogether it [the Tiananmen Square coverage] was a perfect report: the pictures were stunning, and the impression remained in the mind long afterwards. You can't cut out a television report and pin it on your notice-board; you can't reread it and jot down the points it makes; you can't refer to it when you have half forgotten what it said. That's the great weakness of the medium. But there is no better way of conveying an atmosphere than a good and effective television report; and the atmosphere is what stays with you long after you have forgotten the precise detail of what you have seen.

Memories of other 'good stories' come to mind: the time in March 1991, for instance, when my BBC colleagues and I went to the ruins of the Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq immediately after the Gulf War to check the truth or otherwise of Saddam Hussein's accusation that the American bombing had damaged the superb monuments there. ...
[SEE PAGE 101]

"Planners and organisers inevitably
have to operate according to
advance schedules and future diaries"
... Because television news is an unwieldy medium, needing time to organise itself and its equipment, the planners and organisers inevitably have to operate according to advance schedules and future diaries. Plots, massacres and assassinations do not appear on advance schedules and future diaries, and it takes a little time to get the cameras into place. Not too much time, admittedly; our reaction times can be impressively short nowadays. But enough so that the crucial first incidents are often lost.

"A lesson in the
practice of journalism"
It [the Gromyko story in 1985] was a lesson to me in the practice of journalism, too. After that, I never thought of news as something that simply happened, and of which we were simply the passive observers. I started to think in terms of the end result we would ideally like to achieve, and then work backwards from there to see how we might obtain it. Of course, in the years since then fifty or more of my best-laid plans have gone wrong for every one that has worked; but those which do work can be quite satisfying.

"We have a duty"
... I would say... that those of us who have the job of providing people with information have a duty – the very word sounds embarrassing and outmoded in most ears nowadays – to tell them as much, as widely, as deeply, and as honestly as possible about what is going on in the world around them.

"The least imaginative way of giving
people the news on television"
The joke [on That Was The Week That Was, a BBC satire of the sixties] was at the expense of the literalism of television news: the way in which, directly something was mentioned, you would see a picture of it. Mention the Palestinians, or France, or world hunger, and up come shots of demonstrating crowds wearing k'firs and waving pictures of Yasser Arafat, or the Eiffel Tower, or emaciated skeletal children, regardless of the coherence of the film, or the unities of time and place. It's the dullest, least imaginative way of giving people the news on television, because it is so formulaic; and it happens when there is a shortage of people and imagination, and an overworked and uninventive news reporter writes and records a script without thinking about the pictures which will accompany it, and an equally overworked and uninventive picture editor gets the recording and simply matches pictures to the words, regardless of coherence, quality, sense, or anything else.

The fact that you don't see this sort of thing too much on the BBC is partly due to a sketch on That Was The Week That Was in 1962. It was a spoof news item about the Conservative politician Edward Heath, who at that time had the ludicrous and outmoded title 'Lord Privy Seal'. The newsreader introduces an item about Heath, in which every single word is illustrated with a picture. So when his title comes up, there is first of all a picture of an old man in an ermine gown and a coronet for 'Lord'. Then a lavatory for 'Privy'. And for 'Seal' there is, of course, a large shiny black animal balancing a ball on its nose.

Nothing affects us quite as strongly as mockery, and the sketch drove that kind of literalism out of television news in Britain forever: or at any rate up to the present day, forty years later. Now only people in their late fifties (and there aren't many of us left at the BBC) even remember it; yet a few years ago I heard a young editor and a youngish reporter discussing whether a picture sequence was 'too Lord Privy Seal': that is, too literal and obvious.

"When writing a television

news script felt like playing
chess in several dimensions"
Personally, I found it very hard to learn how to write for television news. As a radio journalist who did a good deal of work for newspapers, it seemed strange not to be describing in words exactly what had happened. By comparison, writing a television news script felt like playing chess in several dimensions. But then television news is more complicated than any other type of journalism. That's its attraction. It requires far more effort, both intellectual and sometimes physical, in logistical terms as much as in terms of investigating the event you are reporting on.