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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 January, 2005, 02:42 GMT
Newsnight, Snow and sandpits

By Peter Snow
Broadcaster and first Newsnight presenter

Peter Snow presenting Newsnight from East Berlin in 1989
Reporter Olenka Frenkiel with a chunk of the Berlin Wall
Newsnight was a dream come true.

A 45 minute programme in which we television journalists could explore the news of the day in depth.

Back in 1980, it was a spectacular opportunity. There was no Channel Four News, no TV news longer than half an hour.

One lunch with Newsnight's two very persuasive architects, George Carey and Ron Neil, brought me bouncing across from ITN to join a sparkling team of some of the best minds in the BBC.

And we were off. Well, almost.

The new programme's marriage of news and current affairs caused an upheaval at the BBC: an industrial dispute held us up for a frustrating few months, and we were reduced to pilot programmes which never got on the air.

We even persuaded the Irish Foreign Minister to take part in one. When he learned it had been a rehearsal, he swore never to appear on Newsnight again.

Britain's Foreign Secretary was more canny: when we invited Lord Carrington in, he said the last thing he was going to do was a "fictitious interview for a fictitious programme".

Permanent fixture

But Newsnight finally became a reality in January 1980.

We knew it would work: all we needed was a fixed start time. It took several years to anchor ourselves at 10.30pm, but once we arrived there we knew Newsnight would become the permanent fixture it's been ever since.

Peter Snow with Dolly the cow
Peter Snow reports on BSE with the help of a live cow

The programme has always been at its best when a very big story breaks, and people demand explanation, analysis and challenging debate.

The battles within the Labour party in the 80s and in the Tory party in the 90s, wars from the Falklands to Iraq, the transformation of Europe after the Cold War were classic Newsnight stories.

My most lasting memory is the moment when I was in Berlin at that anxious time in 1989 when nobody quite knew how the East German Communist government would react to the huge pressure for change.

Berlin Wall

I was interviewing - live in an East Berlin studio - a civil rights leader who was telling me how he hoped for a breakthrough in the bitter division between East and West Germany.

Suddenly, into the studio, burst Newsnight reporter Olenka Frenkiel holding a bundle in her arms which she dumped down on the table between us.

It was the first piece of rubble from the Berlin Wall being bulldozed away that evening by order of the East German government which had recognised that the game was up. The civil rights leader burst into tears.

Peter Snow reporting the first Gulf War with the aid of the famous sandpit
Peter Snow's famous sandpit is now in London's Imperial War Museum

Another moment of live television that could only happen on Newsnight was when we opened the programme from the beach outside the Commonwealth Conference at Nassau in the Bahamas in 1985.

I was sitting behind a trestle table we'd erected on the sand and just as we were going on air with Newsnight's signature tune playing in my ear, I spotted Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore's Prime Minister jogging towards me along the water's edge.

What a moment for a live interview with a key player at the conference right at the top of the show!

But then just as I was about to send the cameraman running to intercept him, I noticed that there was a bodyguard running close behind Mr Lee who was clearly equipped to deal decisively with anyone who interfered with his boss.

We decided this was one Prime Minister we'd let run past us.

New ways

We've had a cow live in the studio and all manner of difficult moments with human studio guests.

We once invited in a transvestite who was refused access to his office because he was dressed as a woman.

He was banned by his employer from talking about it in public, so he sat opposite me in silence with his wife beside him speaking on his behalf.

All successful Newsnight editors have a flair for spotting new ways to cover a story and in this respect Ron Neil was second to none.

I went with him to report Zimbabwe's first election in 1980.

He had the inspired idea of getting a witch doctor to predict the outcome of the election. The man muttered over some bones for two minutes and finally predicted that Mugabe would win, which he did.

Ron was so delighted that he immediately remarked we should get him in on the next British General Election programme to forecast the result.

Maybe we should have. He might have done better than one or two of our exit polls.


Newsnight is broadcast every weekday at 10.30pm on BBC Two in the UK.

Newsnight is 25 on 30 January, 2005. Click on the links on the right-hand side of this page for more on the show's history.

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