Here’s your Starter for Ten. What is it Jeremy Paxman doesn’t like about newsreaders? After previously having a dig at the profession, the University Challenge host has been at it again. This week he was trending for describing newsreading as “an occupation for an articulated suit” adding that “any fool can do it”. One assumes from the comments that his criticism was specific to the world of TV news but it is still infuriating for me to hear as someone who has spent years ‘presenting’ the news on the radio.
He told Richard Herring that newsreading is essentially reading "out aloud" and "requires no great skill". Let’s firstly make the obvious observation that this comes from someone who read an autocue for large parts of his presenting on Newsnight (and other programmes) and who currently reads question cards ‘out loud’ to eager quizzers. Putting petty swiping aside, it is also important to say that there is a clear distinction between types of newsreaders. There have been many over the years that are people just reading ‘out loud’ – but happen to be very good at it. They might also have a particular look or sound that suits the network. In other words, their journalism skills are not the top priority.
However, in my world of radio, ‘news presenters’ as I prefer to call them (as just reading out loud is most definitely not what they are there to do) have a broad range of skills that often get overlooked. If you present the news on a commercial music radio station or a speech station you are doing four different types of job. You not only present the bulletin and are in editorial control, but also write it, edit and produce it and also research the details. You are often fully in control of the desk too. So make that five jobs! It is a role that comes with a lot of trust. As a Head of News I need to know my team are going to deliver all of these things to a high quality without constant support.
Finding quality broadcast journalists is hard, if you expect them to be 10 out of 10 for all of those skills. Many are strong at 2 or 3 of them but only the very best have the full spectrum. I recently had a conversation with someone who wanted to get into radio and said they heard the news bulletins and thought ‘I could do that’. I carefully explained what was involved and broke down each part of the hourly duties. I could tell that they suddenly realised they had not considered everything involved. I remember those days when people used to say to me; “but what do you do for the rest of the hour”. Cue a large amount of rolling eyes emojis. In most radio stations a broadcast journalist is running a desk on their own and making decisions minute by minute. I have seen many people think they can do it but soon drown in the workload.
There are some ‘newsreaders’ who only read the words put in front of them and don’t do all of the things I have outlined, but those types of people are slowly disappearing as resources are stretched. When Moira Stewart used to be given her BBC Radio 2 bulletins from someone else, you could tell she hadn’t written them. The number of mistakes she’d make often left you running out of fingers to count. At the BBC broadly there used to be ‘readers’ that were effectively voices who read bulletins fed to them. But that is happening far less now.
Jeremy Paxman was probably focused on these types, or the ‘autocutie’ as they are often called, but nevertheless his comments rather devalued a job that I enjoy doing and feel deserves great respect. It rather smacked of someone out of touch with the modern newsroom. No bonus round for you Jeremy – and perhaps you should brush up on your knowledge of a newsroom before spouting out of date sweeping statements.