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Last Updated: Friday, 28 January, 2005, 09:32 GMT
Serious journalism and reporting America

By Gavin Esler
Presenter, Newsnight

North was given a three-year suspended sentence for his role in the Iran Contra affair, but was later pardoned
Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North at the Iran Contra hearings in 1986
In the past 25 years the United States has frequently been described as Britain's "indispensable ally". It has certainly been indispensable for Newsnight.

If all serious journalism in one way or another ends up being a commentary on power - it could hardly be otherwise. The most important power centre is - obviously - Washington.

What America does, says and is, has for years been at the core of much of our diplomatic, military, political and economic coverage. But the way this works has changed hugely, as a result of technological developments.

Charles Wheeler, the distinguished former BBC Washington correspondent and Newsnight stalwart, once told me that when he worked in the United States in the 1960s he did not really do "the news". Day-by-day developments were usually handled from London.

The real story of America is the American people... Newsnight gets out and reports from the American heartland
Charles produced what we would now call news features, all on 16mm film, sending the undeveloped film and his voiceover back to London. He never saw his work transmitted because he was always on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

By the late 1980s, when I was working for Newsnight in North America, satellite technology and videotape had changed everything.

Iran Contra hearings

I covered the Iran Contra hearings featuring Oliver North and a baroque cast of characters that you just could not make up. I was filing sometimes more than 20 minutes a night of TV reports for Newsnight - half the programme or more.

We would edit the highlights of the hearings almost like the highlights of a football match - taking notes with time codes then frantically assembling the first half during the Congressional lunch break.

I would rush up to Capitol Hill to record interviews with key players, finally enticing one or two live guests into the BBC Washington studio.

Gavin Esler in 1996
Gavin Esler reporting from the 1996 Republican Convention
By the time of the first Gulf War (1991) satellite links had become even cheaper - a process which continued throughout the 1990s. It meant that Newsnight could be - and usually was - live every night from Washington, or on the election campaign trail in New Hampshire or Iowa or New York.

Political coverage changed profoundly.

The big political interviews with people like Colin Powell would typically be pre-recorded, but satellite technology meant access. Senators who were unwilling to travel to the BBC studios often were happy to walk a few hundred yards out of the Capitol building for a live contribution.

Some - like Arizona Senator John McCain - became regular contributors and special favourites.

One Democratic Senator (who better remain nameless to spare his blushes) once told me he really enjoyed appearing on Newsnight. I was hoping for some flattering comment about incisive questions, the vast intelligence of the Newsnight staff, the great superiority of British to American TV news.

American heartland

Senator McCain
Newsnight regular Senator McCain
Not quite. Instead he admitted to me that his children's nanny was from England. It increased his credibility with the nanny's British parents when he appeared on their favourite BBC TV news programme.

One thing has not changed. Newsnight has always recognised - for 25 years - that the real story in the United States is not just what happens in Washington, what the politicians say, what the opinion pollsters and political consultants claim.

The real story of America is the American people. Newsnight, more than any other programme on British television, gets out and reports from the American heartland.

Jeremy Paxman did it recently with his report from a military base in California which told more about the US service families attitude to the Iraq war than anything else I have seen or read.

I have managed to film for Newsnight everywhere from the Aleutian islands and Nome, Alaska, to Hawaii, and the Utah desert.

In 25 years we've offered Newsnight viewers the opinions of everyone from the Ku Klux Klan to Michael Moore, Don King to Colin Powell.

And I hope we've only just begun.


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



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