Sir Christopher Chataway Part 2: ITN wins its spurs 

2 October 2005

In Part 2 of our exclusive interview, Chris Chataway discusses what made ITN different from its BBC counterpart

One area in which the new ITN service differed from BBC News was in its use of film. “The way in which the BBC News had been done was like Pathé News,” Chataway recalled. “The newsreader read out the news beforehand, and then there would be a newsreel showing you lots of pictures with a commentary over it, exactly in the style of a cinema newsreel. The BBC took the view that news was too important and too serious to be interrupted by pictures, but we, on the other hand, actually had the pictures relevant to the news story. Not that many, because they were expensive to get, and for overseas stories it wasn’t very easy to get pictures in time, but nevertheless there was film attached to the stories.”

Meanwhile, news editor Arthur Clifford devised what we now call ‘vox-pop’ – actually going out and talking to people – but it was not, perhaps, as exciting as it sounds. “I remember going out and doing it,” said Chataway. “It was never much fun.” Indeed, while Day and Chataway were the newscasters, they also handled reporting and interviewing. “I think my first interview – which wasn’t long after the opening night – was to go to Heathrow to interview Field Marshal Lord Harding, who was the Governor of Cyprus,” said Chataway. “I remember Aidan Crawley said, before sending me off, ‘What are you going to ask him?’ So I suggested some question or other like, ‘What do you think that Macarios is going to do next, Sir?’ ‘Don’t call him Sir,’ Crawley insisted – which seemed to me, as a fairly recent Second Lieutenant, to be an extraordinary instruction when speaking to a Field Marshal – but still, I didn’t call him ‘Sir’.

“Sometimes we would do interviews in the studio, and that was technically quite difficult to do. We would have somebody in, and as the item came up during the bulletin, I’d say, ‘And I have with me X Y Z, who is the managing director of British European Airways,’ and you would turn to him and conduct the interview which, of course, had to be very short because the usual length of bulletin was, I think, 15 minutes.

One of the difficulties in dealing with these quite important interviewees was that they had a tendency to ask how long the interview would be, and if they were told ’90 seconds’, there was a real danger they’d go down to their chauffeur-driven car and leave on the spot. Chataway learned an ingeniously different way of telling them. “What I used to say was, ‘Well, it will be about the length of the second Times leader’ which was about 500 words, so that came to about one and a half minutes: but I found this a slightly more acceptable way of putting it.”

By the middle of the following year, 1956, ITV was losing a great deal of money. The financial burden of producing the majority of programmes had fallen on the initial London contractors, and the number of viewers was not yet enough to pull in the funds that the franchise-holders desperately needed, especially during the week. A number of investors were getting very scared indeed, and programme producers were poised to head the network down-market, in contrast to its lofty promises, to remain afloat. The smell of cutbacks was in the air, and nowhere more so than at ITN, where the latest contractor, ABC Weekend, was complaining about the money it had to contribute for its news service – its head, Howard Thomas, wanted ‘less film and more talk’: talk was by far the cheaper of the two.

“At that point, serious efforts were made: one, to curtail costs; and two, to try and be more popular; and on those scores ITN was pretty badly hit,” said Chataway. “It had been proposed that we were going to run a weekly current affairs programme – which would have been an important outlet for Robin and for me, as we would have been able to do more interviews and so on, and establish ourselves as a bit more than jumped-up news readers – and that was cancelled. And the length of the bulletins was significantly reduced.”

Editor-in-Chief Aidan Crawley resigned because he felt that the cutbacks meant the contractors were going back on the undertakings they had given him. As a result Geoffrey Cox came in who turned out to be a superb editor, and remained at ITN for many years.

It was at this point that Chris Chataway received an offer from the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Panorama – an offer he was to accept, on April 5, 1956. “I have finally decided to make the change”, he said in an interview with The Times, “because I am anxious to do more first-hand reporting in current affairs programmes and the BBC does offer that kind of opportunity.” He also announced that he was in training to run in the Melbourne Olympics.

“I remember Norman Collins [one of the authors of British commercial television, and by this time a director of both ATV and ITN] tried, before I left, to persuade me to stay, saying, ‘How can you think of going back to such an organisation as the BBC? I can tell you what it’s like: I’ve worked there for twenty years, and it’s absolutely dreadful.’ I said I wanted to do more than simply deliver a news bulletin, and that it looked as if there was going to be much less opportunity for that at ITN than as a reporter at Panorama.

“His rather sardonic and witty summary of this interview, which he gave to some journalist afterwards, was that I had said I wanted to do more than just deliver the news and that Collins had replied, in splendid biblical fashion, ‘He who runs, may read’. Not what he said to me of course….”

Looking back, what did Christopher Chataway think about the early days of ITN? “Though my part in it was obviously very small,” Chataway replied, “I think early ITN was a terrific achievement, over such a short period. I do think that ITN produced a far better television news than had existed before, and had a wholly beneficial effect upon the BBC: it dragged BBC News into the modern era. In fact, I think ITN really won its spurs in the Suez war of ’56, after I left. That was the moment – and Robin played a major part in it – at which ITN, only a year and a bit after its founding, was really accepted as being a serious news organisation. And I think that, on the whole, the standard that ITN has maintained over the years is something they can be very proud of.”

Part 1 | Part 3: TV ancient & modern

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