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
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.
'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.
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.
... 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....
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 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'....
... 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.
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.
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...
[SEE PAGE 96]
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...
[SEE PAGE 99]
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.