Interviews – Media – Richard Tait

Richard Tait is editor in chief of ITN, the London-based company that produces news programmes for broadcasters including ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. ITN also provides radio and online news services, operates pan-European 24-hour news channel EuroNews and is gearing up to launch its own UK TV rolling news service. Tait came relatively late to TV news, joining the BBC at the ripe old age of 28 after completing a PhD. After 12 years at the BBC, he moved to ITN to work on Channel 4 News and has risen through the organisation

What are the challenges for TV news in the digital age?
Television news is currently going through a dynamic phase – digital technology is transforming the way news is made and distributed. It’s transforming where we make programmes – we are now using digital cameras, digital editing systems and digital systems to get pictures back from the field. This makes the speed we can report the news, and the range of news we can have from around the world, at a completely different level of sophistication and pace from 20 or 30 years ago.

Digital technology also means the distribution of news to virtually any platform you care to think of. You can have news on your WAP phone, your PC and your Palm Pilot. You will increasingly have news on digital radio, on a range of digital television news channels, as well as on the traditional, terrestrial, free-to-air bulletins.

What are the implications for the skill set required for TV journalists?
There has always been a division between what’s been known as the technical and the editorial sides of television news. Technology is blurring that and will eventually virtually erode it completely. Many people working in television news operations will be expected to be able to do everything – report, write, film and edit. The technology is already here to make that possible and changes in technology in the next five years will make that easier and easier.

However there will still be room for specialist reporters and correspondents, and for highly-skill camera operators and picture editors.

ITN has been at the forefront, both commercially and technologically, of a lot of developments in television. How is the company going to keep ahead?
Our main challenge is to maintain editorial quality. In a multi-channel environment where there are many sources of news, many competing news channels and many competing networks with news services of different sorts, it’s vital to maintain ITN’s brand as a trusted, reliable, impartial source of news.

As well as being keen to invest in the technology, we are also keen to invest in people and retaining and attracting the best people is as important, I would say more important, than making the best possible use of additional technology.

What kind of opportunities are there for young people considering a career in television news at ITN?
The opportunities are substantial and considerable. We currently train six graduate trainees a year who are given the opportunity to work right across operations from our bureaux and main bulletin services to our radio and internet services.

Those trainees will increasingly be working in multi media, on interactive television and in the new applications as well as on the traditional ones. We are also likely to recruit more people at entry level because the skills graduates and people who are working in multi media are already acquiring, make them very suitable candidates to be developed into multi media television producers.

What qualities do you need to get on in television?
The first is integrity, there is no point being in television news unless you’re committed to telling the truth as you find it – to be fair, balanced, impartial and to treat people properly as you meet them in your professional work.

The second is flexibility – accepting the changes taking place in the industry are the beginnings of the process of change rather than a one-off transformation. Welcoming the opportunity to learn new skills and to use them for the central task of communicating news and other factual information to the viewer.

The third requirement is a real commitment to the job. It’s a demanding job – not for those who don’t want to work evenings, nights or weekends. And now with 24-hour news, and the ability to broadcast on a whole range of platforms and people wanting news on demand, it has now become a 24-7 job.

What opportunities are there in 24-hour television news coverage at ITN?
The 24-hour channel will give us the ability to work on material generated for programs like the ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 services and from our international services like EuroNews and services we provide for other broadcasters around the world.

There is no better way of learning how to be a fine journalist yourself than to work with other peoples material. Looking at how it can be edited and developed and configured in ways that makes sense on different platforms.

People coming into the company will learn how to work in multimedia platforms – increasingly a story will be on a news bulletin, on a web site as a headliner or on a Palm Pilot, or as an email to a PC. The ability to see news in that way and to maintain the integrity of the news while adapting it to the requirements of different platforms is a talent very few people have at present.

The new entries coming into television news will start with a huge advantage because this is what they’ll also be used to.

What have been the defining moments in your career – the high points and low points and how you have managed to handle them?
The single biggest hurdle was getting into television in the first place. I didn’t get into the BBC or any of the companies as a graduate trainee. I didn’t think they were likely to want me because I knew the standards were incredibly high and the people getting the jobs always seemed to have been the editor of a student magazine, or student radio service. I, on the other hand, had spent quite a lot of time doing other things at university because I was really interested in my subject.

I got in as a researcher on the BBC’s The Money Programme. A very fine man called John Dekker was the editor and took a chance on me and gave me a job at the age of 28 because I had been doing post graduate work. I don’t think I could get in now – at that age and with that experience. It has taught me to be a little bit more open-minded about what people have done before coming into television.

I had 12 years at the BBC, which was a wonderful training ground. I went from Nationwide and The Money Programme to Newsnight and ended up editing the General Election night programme. The main thing I learnt was to accept any job and any opportunity, even if sometimes the job wasn’t very challenging, even if I was disappointed when somebody was appointed ahead of me, not to let anyone get you down and just keep giving it your best shot and to regard everything as a learning experience – even the bad programmes, even the unsympathetic editors. You learn as much from people who aren’t helpful as you do from people who are.

The second defining moment was leaving the BBC where I could have been very comfortable for the rest of my career and going to work for ITN in commercial television. I could see television was changing very rapidly and the notion of working for a public service employer from cradle to grave was no longer a sensible way of looking at a career.

The BBC has great qualities, but also some pretty serious drawbacks in a world where commercial broadcasting was clearly going to expand and it’s role in the broadcasting mix was inevitably going to decline.

I left the BBC even though I was offered a rather interesting job to stay, because I knew in the long term I could develop my skills much more widely. There is a moral there for other people – don’t put all your commitment into one particular form of broadcasting when it’s such a complex and fast moving business.

You need to broaden your experience wherever you can, even when it is quite a scary move to make. I spent eight years on Channel 4 News. I had to be very committed to one particular service, but I also learnt I should care about the organisation in the round. I should care about ITN’s overall strategy and help my colleagues whenever I could and develop ITN as a whole.

That is one of the reasons why I became editor in charge of all ITN’s programmes. The people around the company could see I cared about the development of the organisation as a whole. Sometimes people can have rather tunnel vision about their roles, believing as long as what they are doing is fine they don’t care if the rest of the organisation is in trouble. You have a wider responsibility as a TV journalist to ensure your whole organisation remains healthy.

Now Greg Dyke is at the helm of the BBC does that represent even greater competition for ITN?
We have great respect for the BBC’s resource base and respect many of the people who work for them. They have some fine practitioners. Greg Dyke is a very fine TV executive and a good motivator of people. He will make the BBC an even more formidable competitor, but I welcome that because good competition benefits everyone.

It’s good for broadcasting to have two very strong news organisations – one commercially funded and one publicly-funded competing with one another. It is also good that Sky has arrived to give both of us competition. Competition makes you better and sharper.

It certainly has helped ITN over the last five years that the BBC has enormously expanded its coverage. It’s helped us justify the expansion in our coverage base. We now have more cameras and more bureaux than we had five years ago and I’m very proud of that despite the fact the budget is very tight.

What tips do you have for anyone thinking of a media career, particularly in television news?
You must have a genuine interest in what you’re reporting. There is no point saying you want to be a journalist and not being interested in politics, economics, public affairs, sports, art and entertainment.

If you come to an interview and say you didn’t have time to read the paper that morning you’re not going to get a job at ITN. You’ve got to really care about the raw material of news that is going on in the world.

If you haven’t got a foreign language, acquire one. Much of British journalism, and particularly newspaper journalism, is quite parochial. A lot of ITN’s journalism is about international affairs. If you don’t have an interest in events beyond the UK you will be unlikely to be a successful journalist in my view in the long term.

Thirdly, you have to be absolutely certain you are prepared to accept the frustrations of a profession where at the top people have jobs of fantastic satisfaction, with a lot of power and responsibility, but to get there you may have to process information, rewrite other peoples material and generally help out. Don’t despise that.

You have to do it to get to where you want to go. If you find that frustrating and it’s not what you want to do and you are not prepared to make that commitment, again I think you’ll have an unhappy, unsuccessful time.

This is a career open to talent. We have people in their thirties already at the top of their profession as editors of services, senior broadcast editors, presenters. There are no glass ceilings. We promote regardless of gender or ethnic origin. There are fantastic opportunities now for all parts of society in television. It’s refreshingly free from prejudice and old-fashioned ideas. My advice is go for it.

Share with:

career, interview