John Ryley (pictured), head of Sky News, reflects on the broadcast news industry 30 years on from the retirement of legendary anchor Sir Alastair Burnet.
It’s August and the world has been rocked by a sudden, unforeseen international event in a capital. The crisis threatens international stability – and gains hard won after decades of conflict. But in the summer of 1991 the city was Moscow, not Kabul. A coup against Mikhail Gorbachev transfixed the world, with its threat of a return to an era of nuclear standoff.
By the end of the month momentum had swung away from the old guard – to an enthusiasm for democracy. Thirty years ago, on 29 August 1991, Kazakhstan was deciding whether to leave the USSR and the Soviet Communist Party had been suspended.
Those events naturally dominated the News at Ten that night, a programme I worked on as a producer. There were two pieces from Moscow and another on a meeting between George Bush and John Major in Maine.
But the chunkiest item on ITN’s News at Ten that night was not about the disintegration of an empire, or the linked war in the former Yugoslavia. Instead, it was an “and finally” piece paying tribute to Sir Alastair Burnet. He was presenting the programme for the final time. Many now will not remember him, but then his retirement was a significant story. He had anchored the programme for many years since its inception in 1967.
In the then four-channel-world of the 20th century these programmes enjoyed enormous audiences. Burnet was probably as famous as the pre-eminent TV entertainers of the age, Morecambe and Wise. He was a regular on the satirical puppet show, Spitting Image.
Just as much of the nation then went to church every Sunday, millions sat on in the sitting room each night to watch the evening news on the BBC, or more likely, ITV. It was akin to a daily act of worship, with Burnet performing the role of the nation’s vicar. It has come to be considered the golden age of network news. For a young journalist such as myself, it was indeed a thrilling experience, with a sense that the country was hanging on your every word.
TV is ‘in just as rude health’
These reminiscences might prompt you to expect a lament on how everything has changed, and for the worse. Ratings have declined; reduced barriers to entry have allowed all manner of horrors the same access to eyeballs as mainstream providers. The latest generation are perhaps more likely to turn to influencers on social media than the Burnets of the 21st century still trying to deliver a fair, impartial record of events.
But, as ever, the past was not so golden. TV news is a far better product now than then – and in just as rude health.
The pandemic has seen huge audiences turn to television for news. Millions watched the Prime Minister instruct us to “stay at home”, just as millions had watched him a few weeks earlier insist he was still shaking hands. Millions watched the Queen reassure us “we will meet again.” A TV broadcast still trumps a tweet. As we hopefully emerge into a post-Covid world, millions will continue to use TV as their principal source of news – and in a form Burnet would recognise.
ITV’s News at Ten was an idea of the sixties. Like the Beatles, it not only lives on but is much imitated, principally by the BBC and indeed Sky News. Sky News at Ten with Anna Botting and Gillian Joseph is our flagship bulletin, a vital part of our offering along with non stop digital coverage. When there was once one News at Ten, there are now three, and all of them excellent.
That triplication speaks of the revolution in choice, spurred by digital technology and individuals such as Rupert Murdoch, who is rather oddly oft described as an enemy of media plurality.
In August 2021 viewers could select from a huge variety of TV organisations bearing witness to the sudden end of a war expected to last forever. Naturally I would say they should have been watching Sky’s Stuart Ramsay describe the arrival of the Taleban live from a Kabul rooftop. But if the BBC, ITV or Sky were not to their taste, Al-Jazeera, formed just over a decade ago, secured a stunning exclusive with the Taleban inside the Presidential Palace.
This remarkable flowering has required Darwinian evolution. The bulletins of Burnet were actually a triumph of form over substance. They were clear and crisp accounts of that day’s events. But should your curiosity be pricked, you would learn little of depth.
The reporters were supreme story tellers – but generalists, not experts. The lead package from Moscow on 31 August 1991 was by Tim Ewart – a brilliant foreign correspondent who graced many a bureau. He was not though like the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford, recently banned by Putin – someone who has spent a third of her life in the country.
TV news was then the refuge of the generalist – I gravitated towards it as one myself. Specialists would head to newspapers, or maybe Bush House and the World Service. A lack of sophistication in graphic technology made difficult concepts desperately difficult to explain. Live broadcasting on location and the chance it provides to analyse was fraught with difficulty. The focus of a bulletin was the what, not the why.
Scoops tended to be of the “first to get there variety” – laudable and still much in demand. Now TV regularly sets the agenda, from the BBCs’ interview with Prince Andrew to our own dogged pursuit of companies behind the Primodos pregnancy test, which left many babies with severe disabilities.
Now, facing a fight with a multitude of rivals, let alone the attractions of social media and streaming services, TV news has responded with a compelling offer that combines video, specialist knowledge, data and up to the very second information. Facing an invisible enemy in the form of Covid-19, Sky, the BBC and ITN have navigated a story dominated by figures rather than images – and millions have tuned in.
TV news now wins an audience not because it’s there, providing a fixed point in routine, but because the journalism deserves watching. If you’re behind the curve, the audience will leave for something better. Today, not the days of Burnet, are the golden age – one where the journalism is all that counts.
Fake news presents an opportunity as much as a threat. Some may be attracted to the comfort of conspiracy theories – but most will seek accurate impartial reporting characterised by depth as well as information.
Strangely the TV news diet of today is perhaps closer to The Economist Burnet once edited than the proudly populist News at Ten he presented. But his role would now be smaller, and any tribute piece much shorter.
The age of the all-powerful anchor is gone – instead they share the stage with journalists in the field, providing the audience with the high fibre news they demand. As a journalist first, presenter second, I reckon he would have loved it.
Picture: Sky News