From Newsreel to News 24

By Kirk Northrop

Kirk Northrop surveys fifty years of BBC television news

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1954 - with the soon-to-be-launched ITV set to creep up on the BBC's dominance of broadcasting, and ITN as a rival broadcast news provider, the BBC decided that they should beat the opposition and launch a rival television news service. This was a risky move though - the BBC had an exemplary record with radio news, but it would be disastrous to lose this reputation in the newer companion of television.

And so it was, 50 years ago on 5th July at 7:30pm, that John Snagg first introduced the News and Newsreel. It was not, however, much of an improvement on the radio news, consisting as it did of a series of still images depicting the news being read out of vision. The reason for such anonymity was that it was feared the newsreader would subconsciously give facial expressions, betraying that they had feelings about the news being read, and thereby losing the impartiality the BBC was - and incredibly still is - known for.

Short newsreel-like films were played at the end: however, these depicted the less important news. This was because moving pictures were seen as likely to distract the viewer from the serious news shown first, and upon which the BBC's reputation was built.

It wasn't until 5th April 1955 that things changed significantly, and the first reporter was seen on screen. In the broadcast, BBC Parliamentary Correspondent E.R. Thompson reported on the appointment of Sir Anthony Eden as "Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury", following Sir Winston Churchill's departure.

Also in 1955, the TV News department was separated from radio news, and due to the competitive nature of the time - the start of ITV - the new department was to report directly to the Director General.

Early in September of that year, the BBC started showing the newsreaders on screen. Richard Baker, Kenneth Kendall and Robert Dougall shared the job of providing television news to the country from the studios at Alexandra Palace. Yet this dramatic change was still conservative compared to the very different style of news broadcasting from ITN, their newsreaders being journalists affectionately known as "newscasters".

Over the next fifteen years, BBC television news developed, as did the technology used to capture and deliver it. Great news events like the funeral of Winston Churchill, the assassination of President John F Kennedy, and the first manned moon landing came and went, while we saw the advent of on-the-spot reporting from war zones and the news in colour.

In September of 1970, one of the best-loved and longest-running news bulletins was launched. The Nine O'clock News had a shaky start, with debut presenter Robert Dougall having only seen the set a few hours before. But the programme was to run for over 30 years, until it moved to ten o'clock amid much controversy.

ITV, becoming less and less of a public service broadcaster, decided to move its well-known News at Ten to a later slot. This was not a success, particularly when a bad reception for the move from the public caused it to begin jumping around the schedules, earning it the nickname of the "News at When". It's widely believed that the BBC then moved to fill this slot - although the Corporation has never admitted it.

1974 brought Ceefax to the screens of the UK, allowing users to access news and much more at any time of the day. In the seventies, this was a new idea, and it caught on well, with 2 million Ceefax sets being purchased in the first decade. The news within Ceefax was not, however, produced by the BBC - it was instead provided by the Press Association, as with the news service of independent competitor Oracle.

In October 1991 the BBC started its first rolling TV news channel, BBC World Service Television. Partly as a sister service to the World Service radio stations, and also as a British equivalent of the eminently successful Cable News Network, World Service Television was funded by subscription fees and advertising, and received no funding from the licence fee.

This was not the first time that the BBC had run rolling news, however. Earlier in the year, for the duration of the First Gulf War, the BBC had turned Radio 4 FM into a rolling news station, known by insiders as 'Scud FM'. The BBC received both praise for the ingenuity of providing a rolling news station, and criticism from listeners for continually abandoning the schedule in favour of news. At the end of the Gulf War, the service was taken off-air, to be re-launched 3 years later as Radio 5 Live, replacing the mish-mash of programming that preceded it on the former Radio 5. The schedule provided a mixture of news and sport aimed at a younger audience - and retains this remit today.

A major revolution occurred in November 1997 with the launch of two new services within a fortnight. BBC News Online and BBC News 24 were the new faces, and while one was a hit from the start, the other initially didn't fare so well.

BBC News Online today is a news-based web site of enormous proportions, with thousands of pages and millions of readers from around the world. It is the most popular news site outside the United States, catering in depth for all different strands of news.

BBC News 24, however, had a slightly shaky beginning. At the launch, viewers were greeted with idents featuring coloured flags and jacket-less presenters. The idea was to make the channel more informal, and thus more accessible to a younger audience who, it was hoped, would prefer it to the stuffy look of traditional television news. The look did not last, however, and the channel was re-launched in 1999, bringing it into line with the new corporate news identity that the BBC had recently launched. Since then the channel has gone from strength to strength.

Since the early days, 50 years ago, the broadcasting of television news in Britain has changed significantly - but the BBC has still retained the authority, quality and impartiality it has always had. The recent events surrounding the inquiry by Lord Hutton in the run-up to Charter Review has demonstrated this fully, with the BBC's coverage of its own fate being just as impartial - and often more so - as that of its peers.

The DVD 50 Years of BBC Television News, from which the header images are taken, covers major news events decade by decade as shown by the service. Special features show how news programming has been created over the years. It can be obtained from www.bbcshop.com

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Article ©2004 Kirk Northrop

Compilation ©2004 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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