David Stanley is a writer for ITV News at Ten.
I’m lucky. I get to work with some of my heroes. From the feedback they get, the awards they receive and the esteem in which they are held, they are other people’s heroes too.
Newsreaders are a special group of people. They are the frontmen and frontwomen for the work of a whole newsroom of fiercely talented, driven, ambitious, thoughtful and friendly people. Quite a responsibility.
The endless debate about how difficult it is to read out words written on a screen in front of you can really only be answered by those who have tried it and all too often failed.
The brave answer of those who think they have succeeded – that it is not that difficult until something goes wrong – tells a small fraction of the whole story.
In live television and perhaps in particular live news there is the potential for things to go wrong just about every second of a half hour programme. That in turn can be all the more problematic in news because of the sensitive nature of many of the items.
Newsreading isn’t just about coping when things go wrong, it is also about helping to stop it going wrong. So not just rocking up a few minutes before the “reading out loud” is due to start but being right across the brief of every news item in the programme.
It means understanding how tonight’s take on a running story isn’t just different to last night’s but to how it was covered just a couple of hours earlier.
If we want people watching at home to invest in our programmes and the items within them, then the newsreaders have to be demonstrably invested in them too. In our everyday lives, we’d all rather listen to someone who knows what they are talking about, as the saying goes, than someone who doesn’t.
Many types of journalism are a lifestyle choice as much as a job. Of course, we all have time off but newsreaders wake up every working morning knowing it is going to be another full-on day. There can be no pedalling at half speed. And they have to know everyone else’s job: reporters, camera crews, producers, floor managers, directors, picture editors, sound engineers and so on, as well as their own.
What marks out a good newsreader
So far, so possible, for many on-screen reporters from whom ITV News chooses its newsreaders, in the long and pioneering tradition of ITN, the company we work for.
Journalistic and technical excellence can be part-learned, part natural or more likely a combination of the two. One of the things that marks out a great newsreader from a good one is their on-screen personality and how they manage it. While I can’t speak for those of my colleagues who appear on screen, they’d probably all agree that it is the news that is the star and the reason for watching, not them.
But changing styles of presentation, often pioneered by ITN in news and by others in other types of live television, mean we do want to play to the strengths and personalities of our newsreaders. It is only sensible to let people watching see and relate to the credibility, knowledge, warmth and yes humour of those whose job it is to tell us terrible things, fascinating things and funny things. To appear genuine, authoritative and with a sense of fun, newsreaders have to have those attributes as people.
By a wonderful coincidence two of the newsreaders who exemplify all of what I am talking about and more, and with whom I have been extraordinarily lucky to work, are celebrating landmark birthdays within the space of five days of one another.
Julie Etchingham will be 50 on 21 August (yes, really) and Sir Trevor McDonald will be 80 on 16 August (yes, really). Coincidences abound.
They were brought together for the relaunch of News at Ten on 14 January 2008; they have both presented ITV’s Tonight programme, Sir Trevor at the beginning in 1999 and Julie for the past nine years; last year they worked together again on ITV’s Invitation to a Royal Wedding and in May ITV’s highly watchable Victoria’s Palace about Buckingham Palace; to cap it all they have for years, by chance, both lived in the same part of south west London.
Two empathetic team players
While they are very different people and different kinds of journalists, I have loved working for both of them. They have different but similarly high achieving careers. They are both extraordinary and ordinary. In real life they are both charming, friendly, fun and, to use a Trevor word, “collegiate”.
As journalists they are compelling and natural storytellers. In their different ways, they have storytellers’ voices, of range and depth, light and shade. They have personal as well as professional authority.
When they talk, we, their colleagues, listen. They have good judgment. They know instinctively when to argue their corners forcefully with editors and when to accept others’ decisions gracefully.
They are confident but modest and neither theatrical nor demanding. They put their trust in the team around them which for us is both flattering and a huge responsibility.
It is often in the tightest of spots that that trust is forged. Once in a while, some evenings around the News at Ten desk are very tense; a big breaking story before the programme starts, a technical problem threatening a large section of it, the top report not ready.
It is in those moments of flushed and shiny-faced anxiety (on our side of the desk not theirs – they have TV make up on by then!) that the newreaders and the production team have to trust each other to deliver.
Julie and Trevor are both team players, my highest compliment. But perhaps above all they have great humanity; empathy for those affected by the worst life can dish out and that I believe comes across on screen.
Sir Trevor retired from News at Ten for good more than ten years ago. We are still in touch and of course I see him, as we all do, in his career as a documentary presenter.
The man in the programmes is the man I was so pleased to work for for 16 years (1992 to 2008). His inquiring mind is as sharp as ever; his ability to charm, relate to and put at ease those he meets is as obvious as ever.
Fortunately for me, I still work with Julie every week – and of course the brilliant Tom Bradby – and hope to do so for more years yet.
Julie is at the top of her game as ITV’s Conservative leadership debate Britain’s Next Prime Minister showed and as she demonstrates every week on ITV’s Tonight programme, on ITV’s Exposure programme and on our programme, News at Ten. Her professionalism, drive plus her connection with and understanding of the issues of our age are as strong as ever.
So happy big birthdays to two of the very best in the business and many happy returns.