Nine former Broadcast journalists recall their best experiences, funniest diary stories, biggest scoops and, of course, the ones that got away.
Radio/news editor, “on and off”, 1982-88
Now correspondent, BBC News
When I first saw the Broadcast offices, in 1982, I had serious doubts about taking the job. But I needed the money. The place was a slum on an impossibly narrow alley off Berwick Street Market in Soho that stank of rotting vegetables and worse. Production methods were primitive, the prevailing ethos one of enthusiastic amateurism. It was more like a student newspaper than a grown-up publication (and looked it too).
The broadcasting industry tolerated this rag because, in the days before C4 and indies and Sky and multichannel and digital and the expansion of commercial radio, it was too small to support anything better. Indeed, the industry itself could be equally shambolic. I remember writing a piece that likened the turnover among local radio station bosses to the rate of churn among First Division football managers: 25 stations had suffered more than 35 chief execs in the space of a year.
Despite all this, there were some talented people on the magazine. Chris Griffin-Beale later became C4’s first press officer. Basil Comely, even then cultivating a studied quizzicality, went on to edit Omnibus and is now BBC Vision studio head for arts.
From our hovel, we organised the first three Radio Festivals, ran awards, and formed an NUJ chapel to fight the boss class: the proprietor, a gentle man who ran a printworks in Surrey, had acquired the title when its previous owners, his customers, had gone bust.
By its 25th birthday, we were in more salubrious premises in Carnaby Street, staring at Liberty’s back wall. I left to help found MediaWeek and when I returned, the title had been bought by International Thomson and was housed in a big building in Soho Square. We later moved into Thomson’s newly built London HQ, a truly hideous building next to Swiss Cottage tube station. Whichever building we were in, the newsroom swiftly became insalubrious (half the staff smoked) and was always noisy. We used typewriters, not computers; if we wanted information, we had to ring people up, rather than silently emailing or surfing the web. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
Now head of PR, C4
I don’t remember my scoops as editor. But I do recall the ones that got away. We spent weeks inching towards standing up a tip-off that the BBC was about to sign a deal with Flextech, to launch UKTV, only to read the press release. I can still hear Greg Dyke categorically denying to me, post Granada’s takeover of LWT, that he was about to resurface at Pearson TV, only for his appointment to be confirmed days later. No doubt Greg would deny that too. The diary stories don’t come flooding back either. Probably because gathering them usually involved an element of inebriation. It’s the ones we couldn’t afford to print - due to limited libel insurance - that linger.
I have two abiding memories as editor. The first is telling a blue joke to an audience of worthies, including Michael Grade and Rory Bremner, in the bar at King’s College. The appalled silence haunts me to this day. The other is being summoned to Carlton Communication’s Knightsbridge HQ to be dressed down by Michael Green, after a series of unflattering leaders. Michael was charm itself, but a certain D Cameron was decidedly cool as he escorted me on and off the premises.
I can’t believe a broadcast PR is about to become prime minister. There’s hope for me yet.
Now editor of RTS’s magazine, Television
The television industry thrives on big personalities - and part of Broadcast’s role involves giving readers a sense of the people behind the politics, the policies and the programmes.
In the late 1990s, Dawn Airey, John Birt, Greg Dyke, Michael Jackson and David Liddiment were among the heavy hitters in terrestrial TV.
At the time, terrestrial television was the biggest game in town. Digital TV, with Sky and OnDigital going head to head, was an infant that needed nurturing.
As for the web, Broadcast, in common with all the other media trade titles, lacked an online presence. The pressure to find a page one exclusive every week was intense. Thanks to the efforts of a hugely committed bunch of reporters, we landed more than a few scoops.
There was the story of Carlton being fined £2m for faking the drug documentary, The Connection, and the news that Tim Gardam was quitting Five to become Michael Jackson’s director of programmes at C4.
Broadcast was one of the first publications to tip Greg Dyke as John Birt’s successor at the BBC. We predicted that Dyke’s appointment would lead to a lot more money flowing into drama at Television Centre. Those were the days…
In these early, optimistic years of New Labour, it was, bizarrely, the BBC that looked light on cash. That, anyway, was the perspective from BBC1 under then controller Peter Salmon. This was the time when the foresighted Birt had ploughed money into new, emerging BBC digital services.
But I digress. Broadcast is a wonderful train set to play with. We beefed up the features and carried columns by the brilliant Mathew Horsman and Cathy Newman, now Channel 4 News political correspondent.
One of the great things about editing Broadcast is the access it brings. I remember interviewing Dyke a day or two after his appointment as director-general.
Then there was lunch with Michael Jackson, preoccupied with wrestling to keep C4 at the creative cutting edge and launching the broadcaster’s first pay channel, Film 4.
Jackson was famous for having a nano-sized attention span. A lunch date was never going to be either long or leisurely. But I hadn’t reckoned for the length of time he would stand outside the restaurant glued to his mobile keeping yours truly waiting to break bread. The wait was worth it. He came armed with a story and Broadcast was able to give readers the inside track on C4’s first forays into digital.
Some memories from my years as editor are bittersweet. Such as Chris Evans attempting to sue us because his “boss” at Virgin Radio Paul Jackson criticised his attendance record in a Broadcast interview after Evans had gone walkabout with his then wife Billie Piper. We eventually settled with a published clarification some time before Evans was described as a “prima donna” when his Virgin case was eventually resolved. He’s redeemed himself since on Radio 2 but that was a low point.
As was our run-in with then Channel 5 chief executive David Elstein. He took offence at a diary item and banned all copies of Broadcast from 22 Long Acre. But we made it up when he left a few months later.
Great moments were carefully planned - as when we put a letter from C4 chief exec Mark Thompson on the front page because we had nothing else to splash on that week. Thompson accused the BBC of wallowing in a “jacuzzi of cash” and the phrase quickly became TV shorthand for BBC excesses.
We predicted Greg Dyke’s decision to create BBC 1’s News At Ten; the creation of Ofcom; and the relaunch of BBC Choice and Knowledge as BBC3 and 4 - all to howls of denial. Dyke Towers catalogued the lighter side of Greg Dyke’s BBC stewardship with the sort of in-jokes that put Broadcast at the heart of the industry it serves.
Reporter then deputy news editor, 1995-2000
Now editor of MediaGuardian.co.uk
“If I don’t understand the story, Steve, how the fuck are our readers going to understand it!” Blimey - is press day at Broadcast always like this? It was a Wednesday in my first month as a junior reporter and news editor Matt Baker was having a blazing row with Steve Busfield about whether an impenetrable story the chief reporter had filed about BBC finances should be the splash.
Steve had been up all the previous night with an accountant friend poring over the BBC annual report and came in to work triumphantly insisting that he had found a gaping hole in the corporation’s finances. Everyone else in the office was baffl ed. But after a morning spent arguing with BBC PRs and his own news editor, Steve got his way - and the splash. To this day I still don’t understand what on earth the story was about. Steve still stands by it.
My early days at Broadcast were spent living in mortal fear of Matt, a ferocious presence in the office, staring intently at his computer, his nose about an inch from the screen. Occasionally he took a screen break and barked abuse down the phone at some unfortunate PR.
I spent my time trying to keep out of his way down the far end of the reporter’s desk. If I plucked up the courage and interrupted his staring match with his computer, his barely concealed contempt for a useless lump straight out of journalism school soon sent me scuttling back to my hiding place.
Our professional relationship hasn’t changed that much, 14 years later, now that Matt is PR boss at C4 and I’m at the Guardian. But the bollockings have become less frequent - and are now delivered down the phone. Or via Twitter.
Chief reporter 2002-04
Now TV correspondent, Daily Mail
It was just a few weeks ago I broke the story in the Daily Mail that Paul O’Grady is set to leave C4 because his pay is to be slashed. It took me back to my days at Broadcast four years earlier when I revealed O’Grady was leaving ITV for C4. That was one of the many big entertainment stories we broke during my time there.
But it felt like my tenure on the magazine was also often dominated by charting the Carlton and Granada merger and also the way ITV took an axe to its regions. I remember Central TV being forced to call a meeting for all staff following my front-page story that 400 jobs were to go. We also revealed the savage cuts at Meridian before staff were informed. But there were also the slightly less depressing types of story about the BBC signing up Graham Norton or that ITV was replacing Pop Idol with The X Factor.
Perhaps my fondest memory of Broadcast was when I was chosen to take part in the Edinburgh TV festival version’s of Stars In Their Eyes. A lifetime ambition was fulfi lled of appearing on the same stage as Richard Woolfe. At the time, I thought my performance as Neil Hannon from the Divine Comedy had gone quite well - then I was sent a CD of the audio of my performance and I was left slightly crestfallen. Not sure how Richard would have felt if he listened back to his either. Anyone else remember that high note on Don’t Stop Me Now?
I was also slightly disappointed when people suggested that my makeover had made me look more like Robin Gibb from the Bee Gees than the Divine Comedy frontman.
Reporter then news editor, 2000-06
Now TV editor of the Sun
Veteran ITV bods
will tell you the old Carlton-United-Granada axis was hell on earth. These three decaying franchise owners argued like warring siblings - when they weren’t printing money, of course. But for me, as Broadcast’s ITV reporter, it provided a bounty of riches. Not a week went by without a spiteful briefing from one mouth of the broadcasting Chimera against the others. I, of course, was everybody’s friend.
One story that will stick with me forever involved United’s avuncular and thoroughly decent then broadcasting chief John Willis. He was bumped upstairs into a frustrating non job after Granada outfoxed Carlton and swallowed up United.
I knew he was growing fed up as he drifted further and further away from his one true love: making programmes. But even I wasn’t prepared for exactly how disheartened he’d become. Late one Friday night as I was on the train on the way to the in-laws, my phone rang.
“Colin, it’s John. I need to speak to you. I’m leaving Granada,” went the voice at the other end, before adding frankly: “The reality is, I’m bored.”
What a scoop! We splashed the story the next week with the classic no-nonsense headline: ‘Willis quits Granada through boredom’.
The issue became a must-have for all the United refugees - and many of the put-upon Granada mob - who pinned the story up in their offices in quiet defiance. John was bored, but for me, there was never a dull moment.
Deputy news editor, 2001-05
Now media reporter at the Guardian
Stories come and go, but the big issues never seem to change. At Broadcast, I was writing about the future of the BBC and the challenges faced by public service broadcasting. Seven years on at the Guardian, I’m doing the same.
But while there is often a sense of Groundhog Day around the media industry, there are some stories that end up defining the period in which they occur, and the biggest of my four years was the Hutton Inquiry and the subsequent resignations of both BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and director-general Greg Dyke - a seismic event that turned everything upside down.
The time was one of crackling tension and daily trips to the Royal Courts of Justice where, along with scores of hacks, I spent hours hanging off Andrew Gilligan’s every word.
One of the most spine tingling moments was when the voice of David Kelly, the government scientist who committed suicide, was played to the hushed room. The week of the publication of the report saw Broadcast devote most of its issue to the inquiry and its devastating aftermath for the BBC - a rarity for a magazine where premium was, and still is, at a premium. Another story I recall was getting a tip that the BBC was to sell off BBC Technology - something the corporation went to ground on and refused to confi rm. We had the tough decision of whether to go with the tip or leave it - in the end we stuck to our guns and splashed on the story and thankfully later that day the BBC confirmed it.
Exhales of breath all round.
Editorial assistant, 1994, to deputy editor, 2003
My first day on Broadcast made me wonder if leaving Estates Gazette, where I was features writer, had been a terrible mistake. It was the occasion of the strategy meeting, a navel-gazing exercise where the magazine spent a day musing over potential new business development opportunities - most of which I later learned would never be implemented.
One thing always implemented on strategy days was a trip to the pub. I was immediately struck by the team’s selfl ess dedication to tobacco and alcohol. But vices have their consequences. Later that evening a mild disagreement erupted into a full-blown row between two senior members of staff - it nearly came to blows.
“It’s not like this every day,” I was assured. But it did underline that I had arrived on a title peppered with mercurial personalities as distinctive as the magazine itself. That’s one feature that has maintained Broadcast’s reputation as essential TV industry reading.