Training as a TV news reporter 

1 January 2004 tbs.pm/3406

Christopher Chataway was one of ITN’s first four newsreaders. In this article, written in 1956, he tells of his experiences in the early days of ITN.

chataway.jpg

Discussing television topics with people at various times, I have often been asked how I come to be working in this business, anyway. The fact is that I had always been interested in journalism – a long-standing ambition was to be a parliamentary lobby correspondent. But for a number of reasons, when I left Oxford after reading politics, among other things I joined a business firm.

As a rather infrequent television viewer, I was impressed by many of the current affairs programmes on the BBC and in particular by those of Aidan Crawley and Christopher Mayhew. This was a vivid, powerful type of reporting with not much room perhaps for subtle analysis, but capable of bringing ideas and issues to life which might otherwise appear to many remote and dry.

Television reporting, I began to realize, had one obvious but enormous advantage: you could see the central characters involved in any story. You could watch them answering under pressure, and judge for yourself what sort of people they were. Instead of reading, for instance, a correspondent’s theory that the Prime Minister of some desert oil state was being bribed to foment riots, you might actually watch the Prime Minister’s spontaneous reactions as the commentator questioned him about the sack-loads of cash in the back of his car.

As well as being interesting and exciting, I felt that such an interview could often approach nearer to the truth even than a newspaper. The revealing, intimate and – by and large – honest eye of the camera could in these sorts of circumstances show many things in a face, which a newspaper subject to the laws of libel might find it unwise to print.

In May 1955 I went to see Aidan Crawley who was to run the commercial TV news company. I learned that he was intending not to have announcers reading bulletins prepared for them, but to employ “newscasters,” who would receive their raw material from the newsroom and, after consulting with the sub-editors, would themselves be responsible for what they said, subject only to the editor’s direction. They would be quite largely responsible also for the content of the programme, and would undertake a certain amount of the interviewing. This seemed an opportunity.

My application for a test was accepted. I prepared a four-minute summary of the news of the day before, and reported to a handsome residential house on the top of Hampstead Heath. In what must once have been a pleasant drawing-room, there were lights, a TV camera, and a rather daunting array of smart, efficient-looking young ladies with boards and pencils and stopwatches. I was told that the editor-in-chief and the director of operations and one or two other people with imposing titles were sitting in another room watching me on a TV screen.

I sat in front of the camera waiting, very conscious of the unseen arbiters whom I pictured scrutinising my every feature, my every casual gesture – until one of the efficient-looking young ladies told me that they were out after all, having tea. It was not in the end a very successful audition as I forgot my words half-way through. But after another trial I was put on a short list and was eventually one of the four newscasters appointed.

itn_cc_220955.jpg

Chris Chataway goes on the air for the first time, on Opening Night, 22 September, 1955 (Daily Mail).

The first four or five months of ITN’s operations were probably the hardest working of my life, and certainly some of the most exciting.

There was a feeling throughout the company that a wholly new style of television news could be evolved. Time was the enemy. Probably 80 per cent of the staff were new to the medium, and had to learn from scratch. Three weeks only before the opening night some kind of rehearsals was started. But there were no cameras, no monitors, no films. The last of the equipment arrived 48 hours before the first bulletin.

The day would start with a news conference at 9 a.m. and duties rarely finished before 10 at night – often later. The content of the bulletin, the form of each news story, the type of presentation – all these things and a hundred others were discussed and argued over. I found that there was a great deal to learn. Interviewing was not so childishly simple as I had imagined from my experiences as an interviewee. I don’t pretend that I can do it with great proficiency yet, but at least I have learned that it is not simple.

Even talking into a camera was not so easy when it mattered what you said, when you were dealing in facts, and when there was a strict time limit. The new relationship between the newsroom and the newscaster did not always work without friction. Each side felt that the other was trying to influence too much the final form of a story. I rapidly discovered that my lack of previous journalistic experience was often a great handicap. It led to my making a lot of mistakes in rehearsals, and a few on the air.

And I found that – at times anyway – I enjoyed television. It is something to be in a profession where you can enjoy learning; for, though the waiting, the travelling and sometimes the frustrations can be arduous, my continued TV “training” is by no means drudgery.

This article was originally published in ‘Television Annual 1957’, published by Odhams

Your comment

Enter it below