BBC Presenter – News 24, 60 Seconds, StoryFix
What is StoryFix trying to do exactly?
I’m not sure it knows exactly what it’s doing. It started as a podcast and then
ended up being put on News 24 on the website. I don’t really know who watches.
Certainly it’s aimed at younger people, without a doubt. There’ve been a few
emails from slightly more mature viewers who just hate it. They don’t see the
point, they think it really dumbs the BBC down. I think they feel that BBC news
should not be offering them a product that is essentially funny. If it’s a story about
a fluffy polar bear or whatever than it can be funny but it’s also informative and I
think some people, - and they tend to be older viewers. - don’t like it because
they don’t see any news value, they’re not quite sure what it’s offering them. They just don’t think it fits the image of BBC news.
Do you think it works within the image of BBC news?
I think it does. This is the whole thing of BBC news being able to reach out to
everybody. It’s that thing where we’re paid for by the licence fee and therefore we
need to be trying to offer something for everybody and I think that in the past
television news has not done that. It’s stuck with it’s 10 o’clock, 6 o’clock, 1
o’clock news demographic. I think the average age for breakfast news viewers is 55, 10 o’clock must be somewhere in the 50s, the 6 o’clock slightly younger and
the 1 o’clock news is old. For too long it’s stuck with those viewers and ignored
everyone else so things like StoryFix and the other outlets are now changing that,
which is long overdue.
There seems to be a lot of concern now, particularly at the BBC, about the
issue of young people not watching the news, how does that concern get
expressed to you within the organisation?
The worry is that, certainly at the meetings that I’ve been to, is that young people
are getting the news elsewhere. It’s not that they’re not interested in the news it’s
that they’re going to websites and the whole on-demand world. We don’t want to
be seen to be missing out on that because we’ve got a website, we’ve got
podcast capabilities and digital television. We want to show them that we can
also do that as well and it’s important for us to do it simply because we’re paid for
by the licence fee.
Does it really matter if young people are not watching the traditional core
terrestrial TV news, as long as they’re getting their news from other media?
People are now watching digital television, people of my age, in their early 30s,
don’t watch the 1, 6 and 10 o’clock news. Does that matter? No, probably not, but
that’s why energies are now being put into News 24 where it’s on in the office at
work. They may not watch it at home but they may have it on in the office and we
should at least be trying to target them there. I also do these summaries on the
website which are made by News 24 so they’re getting television news but on the
website there. I think it’s important that they should be able somehow to get a
television version of what the BBC does as news, whether it comes via a website
or via a podcast. Just because they don’t sit down and watch the news at a
scheduled time in the evening I think it’s right that we still produce the content for
them by whichever platform they get it.
So is the concern that to justify the licence fee the BBC news has to be
reaching everybody in some way?
Absolutely. That’s not the whole reason there’s this desperate push for younger
viewers but certainly that’s part of it. I think we’re acutely aware that the
demographic that would turn to the BBC in a time of crisis, for example, is quite
old. A lot of young people prefer Sky because it’s funkier, younger, more dynamic,
according to them. It breaks news quicker, allegedly. It’s glossier, it’s more
glamorous, it feels younger. We don’t want to be seen to be stuffy and so it’s
important for just to be seen to engage people because otherwise the people
who watch the 1 o’clock news are going to be dead soon and where’s the
audience going to come from? Ultimately you could argue that that’s going to
threaten the funding we get and of course what goes on in the back of
management minds is that why should they plough money into television news
when the audience is shrinking and getting older? So it’s important from a
business point of view that we keep the audience coming from a young age.
So how do you think you can do that?
That is the absolute million-dollar question. For the last four or five years people
here and elsewhere have been trying to figure out the answer to that. I worked on
the 7 pm news on BBC3. When the channel launched they decided they wanted
a 15 minute news programme and it was to do exactly that, to deliver exactly
what 16-34 year olds want to see in a news programme, whatever that may be.
That programme was on air for two and a half years, went through four or five
changes, stylewise, the way it was written, the way it looked, the presenters,
because no one could come up with the right formula. Ultimately people were
saying that what people want, if they’re below the age of 35, apparently, is
sound-bite news, headline news. They want short quick bursts, they don’t want
long drawn out packages that they see on the 10 o’clock news. They want it to be
intelligent but they don’t want it to drag on and on. Supposedly that fits with the
younger generation’s way of thinking these days where everything’s text speaks
and 10-second sound-bites or less. So there is still a thinking that that is perhaps
how it should be. 60 Seconds works very well in that sense because it literally is
9 seconds for every story and we do five stories. So you get the three main news
stories of the day, then you get the sport, movies and entertainment. And that
really has been successful.
How do you measure that success?
In terms of viewing figures it’s not on long enough to say we’re getting so many
millions of viewers but I think the channel controllers, people who watch BBC3,
they think it works. It’s between the programmes so it doesn’t interrupt the
viewers schedule but they are getting at least a little bit of news if they want it. Management there certainly like the style of it. They like the writing. It’s just
written in ordinary language and it’s got a slight attitude about it. For example the Budget on Wednesday where some channels just went on and on, it’s important
to do budget coverage but it’s important on 60 Seconds that viewers got what
they needed to know and basically we just said, the budget happened today,
here’s what you need to know, 11 pence on a packet of fags, 5p on wine and 2p
off tax. So we tried to keep it as short as possible.
When you talk about attitude and style is it trying to transpose the Five Live
style onto television?
That was the premise behind the 7 O’clock news [on BBC3]. It was supposed to
be Five Live on TV with discussions, packages that were written in supposedly a
very conversational style and lots of colloquial language all the way through it.
Even breaking down the structure of it, they didn’t want to have this rigid structure
like the 6 o’clock news where you get headlines at the top, then you get the story,
introduction, then the package, story, package, story, package, headlines again.
They wanted to break it all down because they didn’t want the 7 o’clock news to
feel like a news programme elsewhere. They wanted it to be like Five Live but it
is so difficult to do.
Why is it difficult?
Because Five live is very discussion based and it doesn’t translate very well onto
television. Listening to radio is quite a passive activity, you can listen in the car, you can absorb what you want, you don’t have to watch, whereas television is
much more active, you can be listening but if you’re not watching the pictures
you’re not sure what’s going on. So you have to be more actively engaged with
TV and it’s difficult to maintain people’s interest in what ended up being a half
hour programme. Just because it’s written in a chatty style doesn’t mean people
are going to stay watching with their eyes fixed on the TV. I think that was part of the problem we had. We did a lot of discussion-based issues, kind of what are
the issues that effect people in the late 20s and early 30s? Well it’s people who
are having babies and maybe pensions and things they’re thinking about. We did
a lot of that stuff, I thought it was great, but it got axed. But I don’t think it was axed because it wasn’t succeeding, I think it was simply because it was money
being put into a programme that should have been used elsewhere and because
the BBC has been through this value for money savings scheme it was one of the
first things that had to go.
It’s often assumed that younger people are more interested in interactivity
in television, does that apply to the news?
It doesn’t really apply to what I do apart from the way we deliver it. Something
like Newsround, for example is massive on interactivity and that’s because they
want kids to be involved in the programme. On Newsround they want them to feel
they’re part of the brand and part of the show and can take part if they want to. I think for traditional TV news its’ not quite the same. I think once you get beyond
16 or 17 that interactivity drops away and you just want to be told [what the news
is], however that may be. I think if the interactivity goes people just want to be
told what the news is but they want it when they want it, ie, it’s the mobile thing.
They don’t necessarily want to text into the BBC and say ‘oh well I have this view
on this subject on the report you’ve just done’. I’m not sure 20-30 somethings want to do that but they do want to be able to get the news whenever and
wherever and that’s where television news has the problem because we often sit
in fixed schedule channels.
Do you need different news for different age groups then?
I feel for News 24 because they are trying to be all things to all men but we’re
lucky on 60 Seconds because we have such a specific audience, the BBC3
viewer, which is probably somebody who’s a little bit drunk, not tuning in for the
news, they’re tuning in for ‘I’m a 34 Stone Teenager’ or whatever the next
programme is, so we can ignore a lot of stories that frankly are dull. We
ignore…what would we have ignored? Cash for honours, for instance, is
something we really didn’t touch because when we do research into what 16-34 year olds want it comes out every single time is that they are completely turned
off by politics, they don’t care. Focus groups suggest that they [young people] all
think politicians are corrupt, they’re all in it for their own self-promotion, they just don’t care. All they care about is if, for example, the budget comes through and
they’ve got to pay 11p more for a packet of fags – then they’re interested, but if it’s something about peers giving ten grand to the Labour Party or whatever then
they’re just not interested. So we’re lucky on BBC3 because we can just avoid
that. The problem on News 24 is that they have to do that kind of stuff so, like
Kevin [Bakwell] says, it’s hard because if you put in a story like Richard
Hammond at the top and then do cash for honours you’re going to piss off the old
people but you are hopefully appealing to younger viewers.
I started this entertainment strand on News 24 which is twice nightly, half six and
half nine, partly as a result of Kevin wanting to do as much as he could for as
many different people, but also because entertainment is just missing on
television news. It’s on Radio 2 and it’s on Five Live but it’s not on television, so
we’ve started doing that and it’s gone down quite well. People haven’t
complained. It sits in the running order where it doesn’t clash with anything else
and we haven’t had any complaints, but it is quite celebrity-based news. At the same time we haven’t had people emailing in in their droves saying ‘it’s amazing!’
But once people know it’s there hopefully it can only help the image of the
Research seems to show that while younger people aren’t interested in
politics, in terms of parliamentary politics, they are interested in political
Yes, that would make sense. The question is, I suppose, that that’s all very well
but just because they’re not interested in the parliamentary process does that
mean that we shouldn’t cover anything along those lines? I don’t know. I really
don’t’ know because you have to make a value judgement on what you think is appropriate. I think what they’ve decided to do here a lot of the time is you tailor
what you do to the channel or the output you’re working on. So if you’re on 60
Seconds then you’d ignore it. If you’re on Radio 1, Newsbeat, you might ignore it,
although they tend to do quite a lot of what I would term dull stories, but if you’re
on the 10 O’Clock news you run with it so that people know where to get certain
styles of news. The problem arises when you are something like News 24 trying
to be all things to all men and it just doesn’t work. Perhaps the future is tailored
news programmes for different demographics.
Do you think there’s an over emphasis on parliamentary politics generally
Personally yes. Yes, absolutely. I have reasonable knowledge of what goes on
there but it bores me rigid and I personally don’t particularly care. The whole cash
for honours thing bores me rigid, personally. But again I know that’s the sort of
story that will just entrench that view that young people have of politicians being
corrupt. Yes of course it should be out there and people should know about it but
the coverage of parliamentary politics, there’s too much of it.
Do you think the whole Westminster news machine creates or pushes
stories to justify it’s own existence?
Yes, although it’s potentially reaching saturation point and the reason for that is
24 hour news channels and probably in the future news on demand websites
where this stuff is going to come in on the website live and you’ll be able to watch
it there. Because of that there is this need to fill time so you get a report about a
particular subject, something to do with Westminster, then you’ll get a reporter off
the back doing another two minutes on it, talking about what they’ve just told you
about in the report, and then they get in the studio talking a little bit more. You
get to the point where you think ‘I don’t want to hear anymore about something
that hasn’t really happened’. A lot of Westminster is just speculation - ‘Does this
mean this? Does this meant that?’ I think that can lead to younger people
switching off. We’re partly to blame. I’m not sure newspapers are particularly to
blame actually because I think their Westminster coverage is fairly light.
Do you think the BBC, given that it’s such a huge organisation and that
news is such a formally conservative genre, adapt to appeal to younger
I think it can over time. I think probably over the last 10 years it’s dragged its feet
and done nothing to change its image in terms of television news. I think it’s been slow to respond to Sky’s increasing audience figures and popularity and I think
there’s certainly be a sea change in the last year or two of management
approach to what BBC news does and what television news does and it really is
changing fast at the moment. Until a couple of years ago it was quite dogged and
took the attitude that ‘we are the BBC and we provide authoritative, credible,
grown up news and we will not deviate from that’. It took a change in
management for that to change.
Who were the key players in that change?
When Peter Horrocks and Kevin Bakhurst came in. Certainly Peter Horrocks has
been very active in moving things on. That’s not to say his predecessor didn’t but
I think there was less enthusiasm to really shake things up. He has shaken things
up. A lot of people have gone, a lot of people that some would call old timers,
BBC hacks, have moved on and the people who are coming in have a bigger
view of the future. I’m trying to be careful what I’m saying but certainly in the last
couple of years television news (I can’t really speak for radio) has gone through a
big shake up, and vastly for the better in my view.
Peter Horrocks recently said he thought people saw the BBC as being part
of the system. Do you think that’s true, particularly of younger people?
I don’t know. I think that people my age and younger don’t see the BBC as part of
the system. I started working here five or six years ago but it never really
occurred to me that perhaps the BBC was being controlled from above. The only
time it came to the fore was during the Hutton crisis and you suddenly saw the
relationship between the BBC and the government and exactly how that existed,
but I don’t think people my age and younger think the BBC really is part of the
system. I think they see it very much as it being that they pay for it, because it’s
the licence fee, and it’s owned by society rather than being owned by the state. I
think perhaps older generations saw the BBC as the state broadcaster because
for so long it only had ITV really challenging it. Also, since the BBC has launched
BBC3 and BBC4 and all these other channels and interactive stuff I think people
now see it as more independent and its own brand.
I don’t think people my age and younger think the BBC is ever gagged or forced
to do anything by the state. They probably think, maybe because we’re all slightly
liberal lefties me and my friends, they would think that if anything the BBC is
trying too hard to distance itself from the state and it may not need to for people
my age and younger.
You’ve worked at ITV, how does that differ in approach to the BBC?
Oh completely different approach. In simple terms it’s money. Everything that
was done at ITV Westcounty was down to money. Can we do these stories, can
we afford it? Well, I think we can because Carlton are going to give us some
more money. In terms of style, much more tabloid, not tabloid to the point of real
dumbing down tabloid but it had a much more human approach than the BBC’s
version down there.
Is that more like the Five Live style?
I don’t see Five Live as tabloid, it’s almost more middlebrow. Five Live is quite
middle England, which is actually quite a good positioning for it. A lot of
tradesmen, if you like, listen to Five Live because they find it quite stimulating but
not too highbrow and a lot of Telegraph readers will listen to it because it has
good sports coverage. So I think it’s positioned very well because it does appeal
to either side.
The difference in news at ITV is in the story choice. The BBC will often go for an
international story as the lead where ITV wont. Certainly in the last few years it’s
become a lot more sensationalist in its delivery. Certainly 10 years ago ITV and
BBC were fairly similar, when the ITV regions were funded as well as they used
to be before all the money got pulled they were quite similar. Now they’ve pulled
apart a bit and I think that’s the same with ITV national news as well. They’ve had
budget cuts and they’ve had to pull money from some places so although it’s
international coverage is still good it’s quite Sky-like in terms of its delivery and
presentation, which is good because that’s not what we do here so people who
want that kind of news on analogue, terrestrial TV have got it.
Given the popularity of things like Have I Got News For You and, in America,
the Jon Stewart show, and given what you’re doing with StoryFix, do you
think there’s much potential for taking news in that direction to appeal to
No, I don’t think there is. They’re basically satire aren’t they? Do you mean
potential for us to go down that route? The trouble is you start stepping on the
toes of Have I Got News For You and that kind of thing and I’m not sure BBC
news is the place to do that. I think StoryFix is as far as it should go and that’s
not really satire it’s just kind of puerile humour. Whilst it may engage younger
viewers that’s going so far down the route of comedy and satire that you really
will alienate older viewers. I think there’s a way of doing television news without
pissing off older viewers or boring younger viewers rigid and again it comes back
to this whole Five Live thing of being slightly middle ground. I think inevitably
there are going to be older viewers thinking ‘Why are we seeing a story about
Anna Nicole Smith on the Six O’Clock news? I don’t care who she is, I don’t know
who she is.’ Well, that’s one minute out of their news programme so you won’t
piss them off but I think it’s right that we do those kind of stories because it’s what people are talking about. I was quite surprised by the Anna Nicole Smith thing
because News 24 did quite a lot on it the night they announced she died. I didn’t
think they would because I thought do people know who she is? But they ran it as
breaking news and kept coming back to it which I think was a really good idea
because there’s this whole thing about water-cooler news and what people are
going to be talking about the next day in the office and we should be doing that
kind of stuff so long as it’s not tittle-tattle and it’s actually a news story.
Young people often complain that whenever they appear as a news story
it’s always as a problem – drugs, binge drinking, violence, etc. Is that justified?
I can see why there is that [perception] but you could also argue why is it that old
people, if you watch the news, tend to be in nursing homes and they’re being
slapped by care workers or not being fed for three days, or all old people are
struggling to pay their gas bills over Christmas? That’s not true either, there are
plenty of rich old people and plenty of non-pissed young people. Unfortunately I
think the problem may arise with us in the way it’s described and the language
used because if you get someone who’s 21, say, binge drinking at university
you’re going to get A N Other news correspondent to go down to Brunel and
stand outside, a crusty 50 or 60 year old saying ‘It’s youngsters like these…’ and
pointing at students behind them. That’s not the right sort of image we should be portraying. That’s not to say 50 and 60 year old correspondents should be fired
but there needs to be a sea change in the way that news is presented in terms of
ITV news does it. Their presenters, bar Mark Austin I suppose, are all quite
young. There are a few in there in their early 30s. I think younger people tend not
to worry so much about the age of the person presenting except that when
they’re so old, like some of our correspondents, that it just reinforces the whole
stereotyping. There’s an issue in that older correspondents at the BBC may use
language which may not help the BBC’s case in terms of trying to appear in touch
with younger people. There have been plenty of times when I’ve been sitting at
my desk watching the Six O’Clock news watching a piece about binge drinking
and the language that’s used isn’t very helpful and I think that should change.
What do you mean by the language?
It’s using words like…I mean I’ve heard ‘youngsters’ used. Actual reporters using
the word ‘youngsters’. No one would use that sort of language. People find that
patronising and no wonder they think the BBC is fusty if they’re all being called
youngsters. If I had to boil it down to how I think television news should evolve to
try and keep or to start young people coming to us for their news and to stay with
us over the course of for however long, I think there are various things. One is
simply the tone we use, and that comes down to not putting a 50 year old
reporter outside Brunel talking about binge drinking saying ‘it’s youngsters like
these’. There are plenty of people in their late 20s to early 30s who don’t look like
an old git. Ok, that’s a cosmetic change but what comes with that is an
understanding, an understanding that perhaps it’s not so long ago that that
reporter or that correspondent would have been at Brunel doing that kind of thing.
Younger viewers will engage more with somebody who looks a bit more like them.
So that’s partly cosmetic but what comes with that is the tone and I think the way that people write.
But also another thing that really needs to change is simply being brave enough
to really do stories that are going to piss off older people and that is starting to
happen, such as this entertainment slot. Two or three years ago they would
never have put an entertainment slot. There was Liquid News but it wasn’t really
news it was a hybrid of an entertainment programme but they would never have
put a ten-minute entertainment slot on News 24 at 6.30 in the evening because
most people in the building would say we don’t do that on News 24. There are
still some people who say that but my argument is we absolutely should be doing
it, we do sport, we do business, be brave enough to devote 10 minutes of an
hour to stuff that other people are interested in. The whole explosion in Heat
magazine style stories, whether they’re gossipy or not as long as they’re founded
in some sort of truth, why not? Why shouldn’t we be doing them? I think it’s really
important that we’re brave enough to do that as well has the harder stories that
the BBC has always done and is well known for. We’ve got to start branching out
and touching all bases and covering all genres of story.
Do you think news providers spend enough time and effort trying to get the
younger person’s point of view over?
No, to be honest, probably not. That comes back to that whole thing of hoodies
being banned from a shopping centre where you’re going to get AN Other
correspondent outside saying ‘it’s shopping centres like these and youngsters like these…’ What you should get is somebody who is much younger just going
and talking to people. I think One Extra is very good at that. Their demographic is
much younger and tends to be black people, but irrespective of that their
reporters are within their demographic, within the age group they’re targeting so
their reporters go out and say, yeah, I’m a reporter but I’m actually your age so
just tell me about this. People will respond better. If there’s a story about hoodies,
for example, and you send out a crusty old reporter you’re not going to get a
response. It doesn’t do anything for our image and it doesn’t do anything for what
actually ends up on air because what ends up on air is a slightly patronising
piece where you don’t really get to the heart of it and that correspondent won’t
get the best out of the people in hoodies they’re trying to vox pop because they
probably won’t respond. There’s nothing wrong with having a 20 something
reporter doing stories about 20 something people but there isn’t enough of that
here whereas there is at Sky. I think that’s why it works for Sky because a lot of
their reporters are young with a lot of ambition and energy, being worked into the
ground probably. But it translates on air and I do personally have a bit of a
bugbear about it because I think there’s a lot of untapped talent within BBC
television news, younger people who know about stuff and really could be out
there getting stories in but it hasn’t quite pushed far enough yet to engage those
What would change that?
Just getting more people on air. Why is there for example somebody downstairs
in our office who really knows a heck of a lot of stuff about business, economics,
personal finance, they’ve worked in the city for a while, they’ve changed career, they’re 27-28, they’ve done a lot of radio so they sound good, they look alright,
why is that person not on air doing stories, provided they’ve got the experience?
They’re not on air because there’s a hierarchy here and you only get on air to do
stories about business or personal finance if you’re of a certain age and type.
And I think that’s crazy because you get some business correspondent on the 6
O’Clock News who don’t work.
At what level in the hierarchy would decisions have to be made to change
At the top level. It would have to come from on high. Or it comes back to taking
risks. Sometimes there isn’t enough risk taking here. The old well x knows a heck
of a lot about it, they’ve done a bit of radio, go and do a piece, see what happens. There isn’t enough of that. There’s a lot of ‘oh well x isn’t a reporter, x isn’t the
right face, so we’ll send that person who knows nothing about the subject but is
our regular correspondent.’
Do viewers want to see regular correspondents, don’t they want to see their
Evan Davises and the like, people they recognise?
I think older viewers do, older viewers want their Evan Davises. I think as far as I
know from a lot of research that we’ve done, a lot of younger people don’t know
who anybody is anyway, they don’t care. So as long as they [the reporter] sound
like they know what they’re talking about, so long as it’s somebody they can
believe in then it doesn’t matter who it is. I think to push that on one further level
if you’re going to put somebody on air that they’re going to believe in why not put
somebody who’s similar to their age because then it’s almost like a double
whammy, you’re putting somebody who knows what they’re talking about but
also people can engage with them because they’re of that age. This all sounds
very cosmetic but I think one of the fundamental things about engaging younger
viewers is the cosmetic and how it looks.
When you were young, or rather even younger, how interested were you in
I was kind of interested in the news because that’s what I always wanted to do. I
don’t know how interested I would have been were I not aiming for a career in
news. I didn’t watch Newsround as a kid. Practically everyone in the news desk
here did but I never did, and I ended up working on it as well. I don’t know what I
would do now [as a young person] given that there are so many ways of getting