The Diary of David Heathcote (13)
3 Dec 2016 0 comments. tbs.pm/10204
Googling local news
I’d been on a 12-month maternity leave contract at ITV Central, and at the end of the year the journalist came back, so I was out of a job. I’d applied for other, permanent roles at Central during my time there but didn’t land any. Alan Rook, the Head of News, had meanwhile moved on, first to Forces Broadcast News, and then to launch the new Daybreak breakfast programme for ITV. While at Forces Broadcast News, Alan very kindly suggested that I might apply there for a reporter’s job. However, the UK station was based in High Wycombe, which Alan admitted was a very expensive area in which to find housing. I knew I could not afford to move, so there was little point in applying. If I had been younger, it might have been a different matter…
Nationally, there was a big staff campaign underway within ITV and, although I was due to leave Central in a few weeks, I was invited down to ITV headquarters on the South Bank for a “We are One ITV” motivating experience. I was delighted to accept, and spent a day with the bright, young things of the industry, hearing plans for the future of ITV from the senior executives. As a result of that visit, I also got a tour of the ITV Studios operation, specifically the Newsroom for Daybreak and the production area for Lorraine. On condition that I had to be there at the crack of dawn. No problem. The Daybreak studio space is long and narrow, with – at that time – Adrian Chiles’ personal dressing room and shower next to it (it had previously been an office): the production team member who showed me the dressing room just shook her head silently. It spoke volumes.
Phil Braund took over from Alan at Central. Both were total gentlemen, and I enjoyed working for each in turn. Although I’d left Central, when “People’s Millions” time came round again the following year, both Phil and Chris Hesketh remembered me, and I was invited back to project manage the OBs yet again. Most importantly, it was great affirmation that I had done the job well.
Then suddenly, one day Phil Braund wasn’t there. Word had it that he had simply resigned: he’d had enough. ITV was changing dramatically. Having begun as 15 independent companies, with mergers, acquisitions and consolidations, ITV at least in England, Wales and the Channel Islands became just one plc. Each Newsroom head had to fight for their own region, Central was no exception, and Phil got to the point I think where he didn’t want the job any more. I never found out where Phil went, if he began working elsewhere within the industry.
Liz Hannam, the Head of News at ITV West, later moved up to lead the Central operation. I’d never met her, she knew nothing of my work – and, try as I might, I could not re-establish a connection which kept me in the frame for “People’s Millions” work. Again, that’s show business. This was becoming repetitive.
Even though I’d stopped presenting for High Peak Radio, I kept in touch through my website editing work, and the opportunity arose for me to do some shifts in the Newsroom. This time round, I was a qualified and experienced broadcast journalist, so I was very happy to take on the job.
By this time, with cut-backs, there was only one journalist to cover all the news output for both High Peak Radio and Ashbourne Radio. My working day should have begun at 9.00am; I got there by 8.00am, and because I drove across from Hucknall which was an hour away, it made for a very early start. First job on arrival was to clear the newsroom email inbox of fake invoices and adverts for Canadian pharmacies – spam is such a blight on 21st century life! There might also be the odd press release of use, but I made it a rule to delete instantly any PR copy where the first quote began “I am delighted…”
Then the proper work could begin: preparing scripts for the day’s afternoon bulletins for HPR and AR, and recording them in the smaller Studio 2. Studio 1 was used by the live presenters, and contained the main ENCO DAD computer. News input came from other news organisations, and occasionally a local press release. I did a Google Search for news stories that mentioned Buxton, Ashbourne, Glossop, Wirksworth etc. and got most of my material that way. I hadn’t realised until that point how parasitic the news industry was: if local newspapers close, there is nobody left in the field locally to ferret out stories. If we have to rely on social media and press officers for leads, the world will be a sorry place.
Mid-morning, there were interviews to record, usually with people who came into the studio, but sometimes over the phone – with only one journalist covering a shift there was almost never an opportunity to get out and cover a story on location.
Local news bulletins, of about 3 minutes’ length, went out at the bottom of the hour at breakfast time, and then a new edition at tea time. Once the interviews had been recorded, they had to be edited down and then they would play out, replacing the news bulletin, in the late morning and early afternoon.
The studios were in premises just off the High Street in Chapel-en-le-Frith. One of the last things to be considered when the station was first set up was security: it was seriously lacking. Anyone could walk in through the front door, and often did. They would be there in the main office, with direct access to the studios. Local broadcasters have to be accessible to their public, that’s part of the ethos, but some listeners could be very demanding. Their story MUST be heard, even when it had no news value or had already been covered the previous week: these people would not take no for an answer. If you were the only person in the office, and had to deal with an unexpected visitor, that 10 minutes of “PR” could be catastrophic to your schedule. I had a few heated discussions with people who were insistent on being interviewed: pro- and anti-fox hunting lobbyists were the worst!
A 2-door system of security is essential for keeping staff safe in a broadcast organisation. At High Peak Radio, when I was working late, I just would lock myself in.
In the afternoon, there were the morning bulletins for HPR and AR to prepare for the following day. And appointments had to be set up for future interviews. And finally, the scripts that you’d used for the bulletins had to be filed away, in case there was ever any complaint or challenge to a story that had been broadcast: we did not just rely on the mandatory audio recording.
To my knowledge, I only ever got one fact wrong in a story. After that news bulletin went out, I got a phone call from a local trader who’d heard it. He was rightly aggrieved at my error, but his tone was measured. While he was on the phone, I checked the detail, found I was wrong and immediately apologised to him. I then assured him that the mistake would be corrected in the very next bulletin, which it was. He went away happy, and I felt very relieved.
Writing and reading the news was a long day: I was usually only leaving the studio at about 7pm, 11 hours after I’d started. For which I was paid a standard “air-shift” – i.e. the same as a presenter would get for a 4-hour programme. It was what I wanted to do, I didn’t have a mortgage to pay, so I didn’t complain.
Fridays were even more demanding. Not only did the sole journalist have to prepare afternoon bulletins for that day, and morning bulletins for Monday (when the news was at least 3 days old, but nobody cared!), but also the Saturday morning bulletins, and a Sunday morning review of the week’s news (which was just a rehash of stories previously used in the week, but still took time to edit and record).
The idea of a lunch-break to my mind was ridiculous, and even the time taken to go for a pee had to be carefully considered! The other people in the office – sales and admin staff – had different pressures, and they could take time to chat to one another. With deadlines to meet, there were many times when I did not have time to talk: I must have seemed very antisocial, but the job had to come first.
I only did these Newsroom shifts as holiday cover: I could never have kept up the pace week-in, week-out during the year. When Winter arrived, the byroads were often impassable, and even the main roads from Chapel-en-le-Frith back home to the East Midlands could become difficult driving challenges.
The local economy continued to deteriorate, and the radio stations were in trouble. Nothing was explicitly said, but it seemed there was a chance the business would go under. Steve and Paul Jenner were fighters, though, and they were looking for someone to come in and save the day.
Such a saviour arrived, in the nick of time.