Robin Aitken

Jeremy Paxman is right about BBC newsreaders

Jeremy Paxman is right about BBC newsreaders
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Once upon a time there was a very powerful news organisation that was watched, respected and loved by almost the whole of the people. And that big organisation put a very special importance on its main news bulletin of the day which it broadcast at nine o'clock in the evening. And all this happened in the faraway land called ‘back then’; and The Word was the BBC’s and the man – for it was always a man – who read out The Word became one of the most recognisable and famous faces in the country.

And then things changed and the big organisation became less-loved and its important bulletin became less-watched; which brings us back to today and Jeremy Paxman who has said some very disobliging things about other, lesser, members of his tribe. 

Specifically the ex-Newsnight presenter has said some harsh things about newsreaders who he thinks are boring, overpaid and not half as important as they think they are. And many of us would say he had a point – and go further even and say that his criticisms shine a light on the pretensions of the BBC and its many shortcomings.

Paxman has been particularly cruel in the past about Huw Edwards, the lead presenter of the BBC News at Ten; Huw, says Jeremy, is a lugubrious bore who reminds him of a Welsh preacher man crying doom in a wet and forsaken Welsh valley town. He also says that Edwards and his colleagues are overpaid and, what’s more, any fool who can read could do his job. 

Is this true? Is it fair? Is it kind? Well it’s certainly not the last. Nor do I think his other points are entirely valid. Not just anybody could do Edwards’ job; you need an individual with certain qualities – a pleasant voice, an attractive on-screen personality, and some gravitas. Many people would say Edwards has all these things, others would disagree, but whatever view you take of the man himself the role is not what it once was. Being the BBC’s main newsreader has become a hollow crown.

There was a time when the Nine O'Clock news was oracular and essential; today it is neither of these things and has become merely optional. Its audience is greying and dwindling; no one who has pretensions to be thought politically aware would rely on BBC news bulletins as their main source of information. 

When news is on tap from a multitude of sources, why build your routine around a fixed point in the day to be force-fed a pre-digested and highly selective news bulletin? I confess that it is many years since the evening news bulletins formed part of my media diet and I am not alone; there are millions of people who now shun BBC news output believing it to be biased. To them this spat between Paxman and Edwards and his newsreader colleagues is simply an irrelevance.

But Paxman has certainly spoken the truth when he castigated the self-importance of the individuals involved in the news business. There has never been an ego-inflating mechanism to rival the TV camera. Take an average joe reporter, give him (or her – the female of the species is just as susceptible) his head, fly him to an exotic location as a ‘foreign correspondent’ and very soon you will have an individual with a barrage-balloon sized ego on your hands. And the effect is multiplied if you elevate that same individual to the role of ‘anchor-man’. 

In my experience, humility is not a quality one encounters much among on-screen ‘talent’; the defining characteristic of many TV people is their self-regard which is the ruination of their personalities. The old adage ‘take the job seriously, but not yourself’ is all too often forgotten by the madly ambitious who climb TV’s greasy pole.

You have to go a long way back to discover television’s prelapsarian days – all the way to the 1970s and before. The first generation of BBC news presenters – who were in those days termed ‘announcers’ – were respected by their colleagues but were not highly paid. 

The likes of Richard Baker (perhaps the doyen of British newsreaders), Kenneth Kendall and Peter Woods were men whose faces were familiar to the whole country. Peter Woods was a journalist but the other two were not; they were just men who had good diction, friendly-looking faces, and an air of reassuring seriousness. When they read the news they were the grown-ups in the room telling you how it is. 

But in the 1980s, the BBC decided that newsreaders must always be trained journalists – something which had never seemed necessary before. Did the change improve the news? Not in any way I can remember, but it certainly turbo-boosted journalistic ambition.

Anybody who has worked in TV news knows that the hard work of journalism is done by reporters and producers and the technical crews. Their tasks are often unglamorous, sometimes humdrum but absolutely essential if the bulletins are to be mean anything. 

The newsreader, in contrast, spends his day in planning meetings and makeup parlours being pampered and flattered before taking his place in the spotlight. There is a type, common in TV, whose only and sole ambition is to get their face on the telly as often as possible. For such people being the news-anchor is the summit of ambition. But, in truth, ‘reading the news’ is just that – reading from an autocue; it is a skill many people could master after a morning’s tuition. The fact that people will kill for the role, will see achieving it as the fulfilment of career ambition tells you a lot about human vanity and self-delusion. 

Are they overpaid? Of course they are. But then the same is often said of many occupations like footballers, actors, bankers and so on. The reality is that the mechanism by which society rewards particular roles has never been either logical or fair and that is unlikely to change.

Like actors, the job of the newsreader, on close examination, seems curiously hollow – but fame is the spur and despite a diminishing audience and growing scepticism about its impartiality there will never be a shortage of candidates wanting to be the BBC’s main anchor-man. 

Jeremy Paxman seems to be growing increasingly choleric with age, as many males do, and he seems to have something of a bee in his bonnet about newsreaders and particularly Huw Edwards. But Paxo benefited from the same organisation and pretty much the same professional yardstick which has made Edwards a ‘star’. And there is something about this affair which reminds me of farmyard roosters having a go at each other; a few feathers flying, some squawking and dust in the air, not much damage to either party.

Written byRobin Aitken

Robin Aitken is a former BBC journalist and author of 'The Noble Liar: How and Why the BBC Distorts the News to Promote a Liberal Agenda'. He is also co-founder of the Oxford Foodbank.