Mentor Ros Atkins – “There’s nowhere to hide in modern TV journalism.”

Thursday, July 30, 2015


This article, written by mentor Ros Atkins, first appeared in The Telegraph on 31st May 2015.


Ros presents the BBC News programme Outside Source. Here he explains his day.


When I first started news presenting for the BBC, I’d often seek out the advice of our famed international correspondent Lyse Doucet. “You can’t hide yourself on TV,” Lyse would tell me. That’s certainly how it felt on my first outing as the director counted “5-4-3-2 and cue” in my ear. While the idea of slipping quietly under the desk held a deep attraction, it wouldn’t have been a great career move. So on I ploughed, sweaty palms, shallow breaths, doing an impression of what I thought a news anchor should do, all accompanied with a feeling of being very alone with a large number of people for company.

There was of course no escaping the cool constant stare of the lens, but Lyse didn’t mean there was nowhere to physically hide. She was talking about who you are and what you’re like.
Initially this made no sense to me. I was an arriviste from BBC World Service and I believed radio was the most intimate of mediums. The simplicity of one voice talking to the listener or a guest offers a connection devoid of distractions. TV on the other hand is the master illusionist.


The first thing I do on a day that I’m doing the news is put on clothes I’d rarely wear otherwise. To be clear, I’m sure many of my TV presenter colleagues are really smart all the time, but I’m definitely not in that category I’m afraid. And if you look around the BBC’s spacious newsroom, the rule “if they’re wearing a tie they’re on TV or doing a job interview” holds very well.


Next, I head to our make-up artists. Maxine and Liz on the afternoon shift have the not inconsiderable task of making me look good under the lights, my skin tone becoming a study of blemish-free matt consistency.


So successful is the suit and make-up that on the rare days that I’m at work and wearing “civvies” almost always one colleague or another will walk by without recognising me. It can feel the reverse of what Lyse says: by preparing for TV, I am hiding myself.


From the make-up department, it’s onto the set: a magician’s collection of lights, camera angles, screens and desks that create something for the viewer quite different to what I see when I stand there. And yet.


And yet, Lyse is right: you can’t hide yourself.


Radio allows us to project a hundred and one things onto the voices and the personalities we love to listen to. TV leaves far less to the imagination. And your eyes and your face will always give you away if you’re trying to be something you aren’t.


For a while I learned the hard way that reading other people’s words and constraining my real reactions to stories looked like, well, someone doing just that.


Fast forward to this Monday. I’ve got a new show starting on BBC News Channel. It’s called Outside Source. It’s born out of a slow-burn understanding that for all its bells and whistles, TV doesn’t just demand authenticity in return for success from presenters, it also offers a chance to show our journalism in its truest form. All of it. No hiding.


Outside Source is the news equivalent of baring it all. Through a purpose-built screen, I can show you everything that is inside the BBC News machine – video reports, raw footage, live feeds, internal briefing notes, news wires, agency stills, social media, correspondent deployments, the works. It’s in real-time and, yes, what you’ll see is real too. If I press the wrong button, the wrong thing comes up. 


I’ll also show you the best information that everyone else has got on the stories we’re covering. Let’s be honest, everyone at the BBC is looking at a huge number of sources online, just as you are, so it’s time to see them all on TV.


You’ll also see the editorial processes behind our storytelling that are traditionally kept out of sight and if a story feels bemusing, intractable, heart-breaking or, dare I say it, boring, I’ll say so, just like you and I do every day when we consume the news with no mics to be seen.


Some journalists believe the way we consume the news has been so fundamentally changed by the Internet that, inevitably, TV’s time will pass. It’s certainly true that the 50-year domination of the classic TV news format makes it understandably hard to walk away from its language, structures and sets. Look at the brilliant ratings of the 10 O’Clock News and there’s another very good reason not to. And different is definitely not a guarantee of better.


But there are risks here. An increasing number of people don’t make TV a regular part of their news diet because it feels out of sync with what’s happening when they turn on their phone or their PC. We need to cater for them, and everyone else, otherwise we risk undermining a fantastic news medium because we stuck to one way of using it.


Come 9pm on Monday, I’m still going to be wearing a suit and some of the best foundation money can buy, and as Lyse warned me long ago, I still won’t be able to hide. This time though, nor will BBC News itself.


The Trust would like to thank The Telegraph for giving permission to reproduce this article.

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