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Last Updated: Friday, 21 January, 2005, 20:47 GMT
Newsnight's difficult birth...

By George Carey
Founding editor, Newsnight

Newsnight was nearly still born.

It was meant to start in the autumn of 1979, but a decidedly lukewarm BBC management team was still struggling to reach agreement with the unions when the appointed date arrived.

Peter Snow presenting the first Newsnight
Peter Snow introducing the programme, at last...
All we could do that night was conduct another paper pilot in a bleak basement of Television Centre, graced by an arm-waving weather forecast from Peter Snow and a few tears of frustration from wannabe-on-the-air producers.

The nature of news has moved on so far in 25 years it's hard to recall how many entrenched attitudes Newsnight threatened to subvert.

The disciplines of television news had developed very much from radio, and although the days when the news was read by a plummy-voiced male in a dinner jacket were long gone, it nonetheless viewed the separate, and rather glamorous, department of television current affairs with some suspicion.

The feeling was mutual at current affairs, where news people were thought to be a bit on the stodgy side. So the idea of creating a team drawn from these two different parts of the BBC, and getting them to pool their skills to tackle the news in a different, more imaginative way stirred up some hostility.

Old rivalries

On the surface, the delay was caused by banal arguments about crewing and comparative overtime rates but underneath you could hear the grind of old rivalries.

David Sells presenting the first foreign report on the first Newsnight
David Sells has reported for Newsnight for all of its 25 years
We finally got on air on a Wednesday night in January 1980. (Monday and Tuesday had been blocked by a last minute strike over some ridiculous detail - hey ho, those were the days of union power!)

From then onwards, it was a gloriously dangerous ride. The Newsnight team lived like castaways in offices carved out of a corridor about as far as you could get from any known studio.

There was no streamlined electronic delivery for scripts. They had to be typed onto some sort of plastic paper, copied and taken by aged messengers down half a mile of corridors and lifts.

Not surprisingly, the programme sometimes wobbled its way onto the screen, like some amateur rehearsal in the village hall. And because the start time was different almost every night - anywhere between 10:45pm or 11:05pm - it took time for Newsnight to register with the viewers.

But right from the start, I think we all knew it was here to stay.

There was no Channel 4 News in those days, the Nine O'clock News was indeed a bit stodgy, and News at Ten had been doing its stuff for an awful long time. In other words, the opportunity to make a name for ourselves was there for the taking if we could just get our act together.

Roger Cook
Roger Cook reported on the first ever Newsnight
There is a plus side to not getting many viewers when you start a new show: you can try pretty much anything. One of the few rules I laid down for the producers who took turns to run each night's programme was that whatever they did, they should not lead on the same story as the Nine O'clock News.

Being different

Some nights the result did look a bit rum, and I suppose I was lucky the bosses were still out to dinner. But it accelerated the message I was trying to get across to our viewers - that this show was different.

It was the news all right but it was not the news they were used to, either in content or style.

I remember a pool of talent like no other I have worked with before or since... they're dotted all over the television landscape now, top dogs, running things
The on-screen stars of that first year were Peter Snow, crackling, chuckling and gesticulating his way into the nation's heart; John Tusa, cool and cerebral, bringing a sense of history and theatre to almost anything he touched.

And Charles Wheeler, that humane, passionate, brilliant correspondent who even then seemed ageless; Vincent Hanna, whose wit and caustic turn of phrase made Newsnight's political reporting a joy to watch; and David Sells, unfailingly intelligent, whatever he was writing about.

Margaret Thatcher
Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was filmed in the first Newsnight
In their own way, they were all established before Newsnight started, but the programme gave them all a new dimension. And the reason was the crazy world that lay behind the screen.

What passes these days for my memory is wonderfully selective. If there were frustrations, anxieties and tantrums - and what live programme doesn't have them? - they have been wiped.

Instead I remember a pool of talent like no other I have worked with before or since. No need to go through all the names, but they're dotted all over the television landscape now, top dogs, running things. Sometimes they wave, for old times' sake.

I just hope they don't forget the chance, and the time, they were given 25 years ago to get things so resoundingly right.


Newsnight is broadcast every weekday at 10:30pm on BBC Two in the UK.



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