When Dan Walker left BBC Breakfast to join 5 News one year ago – moving his alarm clock forward from 3am to 6am – he had three objectives to meet.
Channel 5 director of programming Ben Frow set him a target of helping 5 News grow its audience by 20% year-on-year.
Walker also wanted to build awareness of the news programme, which airs at 5pm for an hour each weekday following a 2021 revamp, and for the chance to make non-news shows.
In the year since, the 5 News audience is up 30% year-on-year and, Walker says, the ITN-produced “programme is talked about a lot more than it ever was before because we’re making it good”.
In addition he has presented the separate Channel 5 programmes Vanished: The Hunt for Britain’s Missing People, which is coming back later this year, and archaeology show Digging for Treasure, and has begun filming Pennine Adventure with Helen Skelton.
Walker’s new target from Frow for his second year on the 5 News desk is to grow the programme’s share of the available TV audience in its time slot from 3% to 5%.
“In terms of the programme itself, I want it to be must-watch TV, I want it to be brilliant,” he said.
A new editor joins later this year following the departure of Cait Fitzsimons, who has led 5 News for five years. Walker said Fitzsimons had been “amazing… but I’m really excited about what the new boss the direction they will take in because we’ve got a brilliant structure to the programme now which is really watchable and popular, so what’s next?
“I’ve got lots of ideas about what’s next but I want the editor to lead that and take it wherever it needs to go.” And his goal is to do that alongside some more “nice telly” – perhaps a travel programme with Skelton, or a quiz show.
BBC Breakfast was ‘massive job to say farewell to, but I don’t regret it’
Walker sat down with Press Gazette at ITN’s headquarters in London last week ahead of his first anniversary at 5 News today (Tuesday 6 June).
Leaving BBC Breakfast, the UK’s biggest breakfast TV show, after six years was a major decision that, Walker confessed, left 20% of him thinking “have I made the right decision?” But he is now “convinced that it was the right thing to do at the right time… It’s a massive job to say farewell to, but I don’t regret it.”
Walker summarised what he was told by Frow of his new job: “It’s not just about doing the news: I want you to be a face to the channel and really come and give us a bit of energy. We like what you do, we like the cut of your jib.”
The presenter says he now feels “far more creative and alive” having swapped his 3am wake-up call for a comparatively leisurely 6am.
“When I used to get up at three I never used to worry about it because I enjoyed the job and, for about four hours, you feel like you’re ahead of the game because your mind is clicking and being creative while everyone else is in bed,” he said.
Walker mentioned two headline-setting days at 5 News when asked for his favourite moments on 5 News so far. One was his exclusive interview with Paul Ansell, the partner of the then-missing Nicola Bulley, in February “because it was an interview that everybody wanted – and we didn’t pay any money for it.
“I approached him and I sort of said ‘we can do this, I’ll be fair, I’ll be accurate, do it with integrity, and we’ll try our best to get your story out there’. And we did that and he’s happy with it. So I think that’s a great achievement: to get a scoop, but to do it in the right way and to do it in a way that reflects really well on the channel and the programme.”
The advantage of Channel 5 and 5 News, he also said, is their mobility: they can commission a special Vanished programme with Ansell to air within days, or 5 News itself can run a long interview if it is worthwhile or otherwise alter the format. Walker said they are therefore “different and distinctive to everything else that’s out there at the minute”.
“We don’t have the budget of some of the big channels, but we react and we listen to our audience… [we are] a news programme, but not like any other news programme.”
Walker also recalled messaging with Gary Lineker live on-air after the Match of the Day presenter was told by the BBC he had to step back over a tweet he wrote about Government immigration policy. “I think that’s what I love about TV,” Walker said. “It’s live television, anything can happen, and when it does, it’s your job to try and deal with it. And on that day, we had a whole hour-long programme ready, and it all just went out the window.
“But that’s the fun of TV. That’s why I get out of bed in the morning. I mean, I love making television, but there’s nothing I like more than live TV where anything can take place and it’s your job to hold it together.”
Dan Walker: ‘I loved my GCSEs’
Isn’t it stressful?
“I’ve always enjoyed being tested. I loved my GCSEs. When you sit down and say here’s a history exam, you’ve got three hours, I love that. That is a bit strange. I love being tested…
“I like the idea that you’re put under the spotlight and you’ve got to deliver the goods. And so I’ve never been nervous on telly or worried about getting it wrong. It’s not an arrogance, it’s a confidence. I know I can do it, and I enjoy doing it, and I’d much rather I was doing it than somebody else.”
Even his 2021 stint on Strictly Come Dancing, in which he made it to the quarter-finals, wasn’t enough to make him nervous, although it was, he said, “very unnatural to me to dance on TV”.
Walker felt his “natural, conversational way” of talking to viewers has helped in breaking news situations.
“I’ve done it for a long time and I feel like I know the audience really well,” he said. “And I think whatever is happening in the world, if it’s a terrorist bomb, if it’s the Lionesses winning the Euros, whatever it might be, I always have that feeling that we’re in this together and we can walk you through it. And sometimes we’ll put our arm around you, sometimes we’ll hold your hand, sometimes we might have to cry along with you if it’s really sad. But we’ll do it together.”
Walker is, by Press Gazette’s count, approximately the tenth most-followed UK journalist on Twitter (his old breakfast TV rival, Piers Morgan, tops the list).
But Walker is careful about what he does and does not say on social media. “I’ll tell you what cake I like and that sort of thing, but I don’t see it as something where I go ‘this is my opinion’,” he said, adding that he writes about golf, Channel 5, his new Pennines programme – basically what he is doing and working on.
“There are a lot of people out there who use it really negatively… But I think it can actually be a really powerful and positive source and a really good way to connect with your audience – also to understand what your audience are thinking, but never to think that that is the audience,” he said.
“Take Twitter, for example. I’m not even sure what percentage of the population are on Twitter, but it’s not much. And they’re very vocal, very loud, and they tend to follow people who are of the same opinion as themselves. So therefore, they get really confused when something happens that’s outside of that echo chamber.
“I think TV execs need to be really careful about judging their programmes and judging what they put in their programmes based on social media, because the world is much wider, thankfully, and more diverse than that.”
Dan Walker minutiae in the media: ‘I don’t understand why that’s of interest’
As well as Twitter, Walker has to contend with being in the odd position of being a journalist who is often written about by the newspapers, even on the minutiae of his life.
“It’s a bit unnatural but I don’t really think about it, because I never got into this industry for the fame or the fortune or the froth that sometimes goes with it. It never appealed to me,” Walker said.
To back up this claim, he pointed out he was asked to go on Strictly four times before finally saying yes – whereas “that’s some people’s doorway to getting super famous. I did it because my kids asked me to do it and we’d just come through the pandemic and I was bored of talking to politicians.”
He continued: “So I think I try and do things for the right reasons. And I know that with the job comes a certain level of fame.”
A recent story about his encounter with a group of fellow Sheffield Wednesday fans and their pork pies on a train to Wembley was one such story that left him baffled. “I don’t understand why that’s of interest to anybody, but I appreciate that that is territory that comes with the job. But I don’t worry about it… I know there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s not true. If I wanted to put it right, I’d spend my entire life putting it right. Sometimes I’ll say this is bobbins, this is the truth, but most of the time I don’t read it and it just happens.”
He added that he did not mind as long as 5 News is mentioned somewhere in the stories so more people hear about the programme.
Dan Walker vs ‘perfection’ of machines
“There’s a perfection in AI which isn’t human, and I think one of the great things about television is we’ve made mistakes and it’s about how you deal with those mistakes and how you cope with them,” he said, adding: “I think that’s all built into the framework of how we do it and I think if you start AI-ing everything and being robotic, then you take that subtlety out of it and I find that difficult to watch. You might watch the first one but then when you realise it’s very robotic, and very straight bat, and, or just un-human.”
Overall, he shares the view of many in the media: “I’m wary of AI but I’m also quite excited about it.” Similarly, like others, he is aware the potential for fake information will make trustworthy brands even more important.
“I think built into us is that intrinsic trust of what we see – maybe we’ve got to be a little less trusting of stuff we see – but that’s where the trust you get from a broadcaster and a programme you can believe in is even more important. Because I want you to watch 5 News and think ‘okay, I trust him, I trust her, I trust the programme’.”
A Yougov survey last month gave Channel 5 a net trust score of 11, sitting between Sky on 13 and the i on seven. Walker also said: “I think trust is integral to everything that you do. And I think the audience have to trust you to be fair, to be accurate, to be impartial, and to tell them what’s happening in the world without the filter of your opinion. And I think that’s what we try and do every day.”
Ultimately, Walker’s “obsession” is to make 5 News the “best programme on telly – so I’ll do whatever it takes to help that happen”.
“Year one – okay,” he said. “Year two – let’s see what we’ve got.”
Quickfire questions with Dan Walker
Career high? Lasting three months in Strictly Come Dancing.
Career low? “When I left university – I’m glad I didn’t get it now – it’s like a BBC correspondents’ course where eight people got the role and then you were guaranteed to be a BBC correspondent down the line. I did really well in the first round of interviews, and then I got kicked off the interviews because when I came out of the examining room there was some nice food laid out and I decided to eat it. And then the examiners came out and they said ‘why are you eating our lunch?’ That didn’t go down well. Then the second round of interviews was really bad because they were all annoyed with me that I’d eaten their lunch. You walk away from that thinking ‘I’ve blown it’, that was a chance to be a BBC correspondent, but I’m glad – at the time it felt like a disaster, but when one door closes, another door opens.”
Favourite newspaper? The Sheffield Star. “I live in Sheffield and I care about what happens in the city. And the Sheffield Star write about what’s happening in the town and the city that I live in and the people that I live with.”
TV news programme (apart from 5 News)? “I’m going to have to say BBC Breakfast, aren’t I?”
Magazine? Golf Monthly. “I used to be a columnist at Golf Monthly and I love golf. Golf is my out-of-work passion.”
Podcast? Elis James and John Robins. “My wife and I were early adopters, we listened to them on XFM. I just think they’re brilliant. I listen to loads of sport podcasts, but I love Elis and John.”
Sportsperson? Dead – Eric Liddell. Alive – Jessica Ennis-Hill.
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