My life in TV: Sliding towards mediocrity

Richard Lutz continues his tales from the newsroom as he moves from newspapers to TV.

rl ivI was in Kiev.

I had a list of questions that the Downing Street press officer, a bruiser named Bernard Ingham, had thrust at me: “These are the questions your office filed with us. These are the questions you will ask Mrs Thatcher.”

Actually, his staff had said there was no access to the Prime Minister unless we pre-decided on the line of questioning. Which is a daft way to handle things because politics changes day by day.

Downing Street has been idiotically hardline about the interview in Kiev. But we went ahead anyway. After all, the TV company I worked for was organising the conference that the Prime Minister was attending.

I was ushered into the room where the Prime Minister was adding a final dab of make up before she hit the cameras. We were in a grand palace in the Ukrainian capital, hardly Soviet or even glasnost. Just old fashioned and ornate.

“I do love America,” she said as she looked in the mirror and clocked my US accent. “Especially your Mr Reagan.”

I didn’t respond to her comments about ‘my’ Mr Reagan. “I have the outline for the interview.” I said.

She turned from the mirror. “Oh, don’t worry about Bernard. He goes on a bit. Ask me whatever you want.”

I did. And below is a picture of that interview in Kiev with a brooding Ingham (on the right) looming over us as I blithely ignored his insistence on sticking to a line.

Interviewing Thatcher in Russia

Interviewing Thatcher in Russia

I had been released from any forced obligations. I nailed her over the then-current allegations about secret SAS killings. Done. I did my job. Whether you hated or admired Thatcher – and it seemed it was one or the othe – at least she liked a good bunfight.

I had left newspapers in 1983 for tv. I was picked up by Central News (check the cyrillic spelling for Central in the above picture) in Birmingham and stayed during its heyday when there was a lucid editorial line and a load of dosh, no matter what anyone upstairs in finance said.

“Always spend 10% more than your budget,” I was told. “That way the numbers don’t go down.”

It meant not only did I get to travel quite a bit, but I took great pleasure in filing big stories in Birmingham which included IRA trials, the world’s first paediatric liver transplant, the Guantanamo prison saga and major series on the city’s health services which, unfortunately, took in its inadequacies and scandals.

One thing I learned quickly was that there was real money available if a good idea crossed the right desk.

One of my first realisations was when I found out that Coventry was twinned with the Russian city of Volgograd – formerly Stalingrad.

“Pretty good if we could get some folks over to see how their twin city lives,” I offered.

“Yeah, you’re right. Gimme a budget and I’ll sign it off,” a long retired or sacked boss said.

I returned with enough for five pieces about a Jaguar factory electrician who moved in with a Russian family. I was happy with  the effort, the edited outcome and the fairness in which I treated all concerned. I thought it a success despite the fact that my Coventry factory worker and the Russian factory worker clearly detested each other.

But the week the pieces went on air, the Handsworth area of Birmingham erupted in riots. The programme was swamped with coverage. We were feeding the national and international markets and my big Russian series was transmitted almost as an afterthought. TV news is ephemeral, I learned very quickly.

Of course, there still was what all newsrooms referred to as ‘grunt work.’

But Central offered the resources, the staff and the time to do it right. Once, we received a cold call, a random message, from a viewer, saying he’d been ripped off by his boss who ran a factory that made conveyor belts. He had a file, a very good file, of how this sleazy employer ran company after company into bankruptcy leaving workers without pay or compensation.

I went down to the factory in Smethwick where the errant boss, probably filling for bankruptcy once more, had parked his Beemer. Nothing happened. Nothing moved. It was mid-winter with bad light and bad weather. I kept calling back to say there was no joy getting the boss to appear. I was told to stay, stay, stay.

I stayed for three days outside the factory gates. Finally, he emerged in shot and I had enough time to throw a futile question at him. I knew he would never sit down with me. But with TV, you had to be seen to be trying to give it that questionable allure of ‘balance.’

Of course, it usually came down to a few rare colleagues who really made things like this happen. Some I really admired and missed when they left, as opposed to some charlatans I was glad to see the back of.

One who stood out was Chris Stocking, a news editor who had an unerring ability to get to the heart of a story and how it would fit into a news programme. Each morning, he always seemed to have just emerged fully clothed from a bed or a club in rumpled shirt and trousers, a cigarette dangling from his fingers and seemingly answering three phones at once. He was quiet, if not innately kind, and never raised his voice. I would say he picked the right stories and the way they were handled correctly 95% percent of the time. Eventually, he went to Washington for TV-AM and then became a senior manager for the international news provider APTV.

UnknownAnother superior journalist  was John MacLeod. He had the skill of telling even the most complicated story simply so that everyone could understand its nuances. He covered industry and, with Rover always on the brink at its Longbridge plant, with heavy industry imploding and steel works, mining, ceramics and glassmaking on the ropes, he had a constant stream of serious issues that needed explaining in a clear lucid fashion. He was a master. I leaned a lot about scriptwriting from him.

John, though, was always restless. He left journalism to open, of all things, a scooter shop in a city suburban street. Then, amazingly, he suddenly inherited an uncle’s farm in Norfolk. One minute a  industrial reporter and the next getting the cows fed. Not bad considering he came into journalism from the Royal Marines.

He taught me, by the way, that most people couldn’t take ‘yes’ for an answer. A bit of a philosopher, he felt a lot of folks, including many of our colleagues, didn’t really want the freedom to make their own decisions. They would rather be told to do something, though they always bellyached that they needed to be let loose to fire on all cylinders. That advice helped me a lot when I started working on the news desk.

During my on-screen stint, I ran into the whole range of politicians from the pre-Blair era. I noticed one thing; the tougher they were, the more they usually feared the camera. They knew who edited the final interview, the final picture. Us.

Brown, Kinnock, Currie, Howe, Ashdown, Major. They always looked at you as if you were a three year old with a shotgun; someone slightly out of control (their control) with a big weapon aimed at their head. Thatcher, as above, didn’t fit that mould. Nor did, funnily enough, her arch-enemy  union boss Arthur Scargill. To them, bitter opponents that they were during the miners’ strike, TV was a conduit for their ideology. They steamrollered interviews not worrying about silly things such as actual questions. In a way, they shared a similar approach to the media.

Of course, owners came and went. One corporation that bought us was Carlton. Its boss was Michael Green, a commercial buccaneer who rose from the rag trade to TV, albeit with a lot of criticism from tv insiders.

His entourage swept into Birmingham one day to view how the new fangled digital revolution was changing his newsroom. At that time, it wasn’t so much changing it as almost grinding it into mincemeat with its nascent inadequacies. A team of journalists was picked to show how footage was fed into the system, digitised and then (if still recoverable) edited on a desk top. It was big stuff in those days.

An hour before this semi-regal visit, the whole editing process looked as if it had packed in. You could view the raw material, but whatever keys you hit, whatever shortcut you triggered, whatever appalling oaths you shouted at the screen, nothing  moved. It was as good as dead. One brave soul came up with a suggestion:

Fake it. Show the Carlton management (long gone, I have to admit), the unedited stuff, tap a couple of keys with serious intent and then show him on another monitor a pre-edited package that had been cut in the safety of an edit suite. Then, if the new process suddenly worked, you could have it as back up.

The whole newsroom watched as Green and co. gleefully observed the manoeuvre.  Suddenly, the  new digi-editing gear kicked in. it worked.  But with one ‘that we made earlier’ there waiting in the background.The boss marvelled at his newsroom’s expertise with this expensive new stuff and lit a cigar (it was a long time ago).

Supposedly ,I heard that looking over this last ditch effort to please the mogul was our boss, blanching, a rictus grin on his face, watching as his career teetered at the edge of a cliff. If the wobbly demo succeeded, he had a job. If it failed, or worse, it was shown that a jacked-up fraud was at the ready, he’d be flipping burgers for a living. But it did work. Green was delighted, so delighted in fact that he probably phoned one of his former trusted bagmen who had recently found a safe Parliamentary seat – one David Cameron.

Editors of these tv newsrooms, of course, were a funny lot. One colleague explained: “They all share one specific thing. A piece of DNA embedded in their brain that eventually turns them mad.”

They had a tough job. News was 24 hours. It was a continual grind. Senior executives ignored the quiet successes and chewed carpets over disasters. A simple message in the middle of the night to an on-call news desk could cost thousands of pounds in overtime. But the huge late night fire in Wolverhampton could have been a wrong ‘un…. just a smoking tyre dump. There could be hell to pay. But there would be huge inquests if a major overnight calamity or news exclusive was missed ignored.

The editors handled the precarious job differently One practically lived in Central’s own drinking club downstairs. Another spent lunches in a lover’s bedroom. Another had a thing about violence and famously thundered: “I want the programme to bleed into the second half.” He was shown the door.

His successor wanted no crime and, for about 18 months, our hard-pressed specialist reporter tore his hair out and lost months of footage that he wasn’t given an opportunity to shoot. Then there was the hard drinking Cumbrian  editor who strangely challenged me to a swimming race at the Holiday Inn. I won and spent weeks wondering if that had killed or helped my new career (it did neither). Another editor had the world view of a comic book. And another was more interested in a restaurant he was opening.

But each one turned out programmes day after day. It was a marathon. A huge job.

In those pre-crisis days, by the way, Central was so cocky it had its own awards department – a team with its own office which scoured the planet seemingly looking for material that would fit TV and journalism competitions. I won a handful and always remember two quips about these shiny statues that simply gather dust.

One was a quote from Hollywood director Billy Wilder: Awards are like piles…only assholes have them.

And the other from a wily old Central boss: Awards are meaningless. Until you win one.

Both are true. It’s that kind of profession, that kind of game, that kind of job. Back then, a long time ago.

4 thoughts on “My life in TV: Sliding towards mediocrity

  1. Very interesting.
    You make it sound like TV was then was controlled by journalists and media companies, whose personalities shaped the news. I wonder if its changed? My impression is that there are fewer journalists around now and there is a much enlarged PR sector that is able to feed interesting angles on news items to the media.
    As a result the journalist has become more of a conduit for other people’s ideas and less of a source. I think the PR industry employs more professionals than there are journalists.

    There is also the internet. The FT seems to carry quite a few items that I have pre read on internet blogs. In other words there is much less room for personal idiosyncrasies now than before.

    And I wonder what happened to Green? He seemed very powerful at one time, but then got swept aside when Carlton and Granada merged

  2. Good stuff Lutzy, although not entirely accurate. Perhaps the mists of time and the odd half of lager (you never drank pints) have taken their toll.
    I can’t remember the inestimable C.Stocking being News Ed. Owen Smith did that and Stocko – brilliantly – teed the balls up for him from the distance of the Forward Planning desk. I respectfully waited for anything that went past the wickets at what cricket lovers will recognise as Long Leg.
    I agree with some of your points about how stories were treated and I remember your curtailed series well – I was out with Bungy shooting those Handsworth tracking shots when the streets were on fire.
    Much of what you have said is true, but you have only named two people from that era.
    Warman (x2), Trimmer, Wilkinson and the late, but great Owen Smith amongst others, deserved a word.
    However, one correspondent is right – it was an age when journalists decided on stories. The news agenda now is – apparently – decided by Likes or Retweets. Jack Nicholson/Cuckoo’s Nest/Asylum.
    All the very best Lutzy – and don’t forget the Alloa Argus (or was it Express) – please sub as necessary.

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