[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 August, 2002, 10:03 GMT 11:03 UK
Inside the Newsroom

The news you hear on BBC Radio 2, 3, 4 and Five Live is written and prepared at the BBC News Centre in West London.

Click here to read a full account of what life is like inside the Radio Newsroom

The Changing Newsroom... as seen by the writer, Tom Fort

I wonder if any of our national institutions has changed more thoroughly over the past quarter of a century than BBC Radio News.

Non-stop news... the Newsroom Organiser, Sheila Hind

The newsroom is a 24-hour, seven-day-week operation and finding staff to fill every shift, including public holidays, is no easy task.

Inside the Radio Newsroom

Each station gets a separate service, so the news you hear on BBC Radio 2 will not be exactly the same as on BBC Radio 4. We also provide national and international news to the BBC's local radio stations and national regions.

The newsroom works round the clock, every day of the year. Its journalists work for all the networks. They can be writing for BBC Radio 3 one day and BBC Radio 4 the next.

Sometimes they are writing short headlines for BBC Radio 2, at other times they are compiling half hour bulletins for BBC Radio 4.

No matter how long the news programmes, they have in common BBC news values -- a commitment to fairness, accuracy and impartiality.

Where does the news come from? Every newsroom journalist uses a computer system called ENPS (Electronic News Production System). This connects BBC staff all over the country and in offices around the world. It carries all the latest from the British and international news agencies such as the Press Association and Reuters, so all editorial staff have up to the minute news at their desks.

In addition, BBC reporters and correspondents at home and abroad can be called on for expert coverage across a huge range of subject areas. With over 60 foreign bureaux, the BBC has the largest newsgathering operation in the world.

Flagship news

The aim of the newsroom is to provide fresh material for every summary, in such a way that the news feels part of the network and not an intrusion. Like Just a Minute, we try to avoid repetition, hesitation and deviation.

The Six 0' Clock News on BBC Radio 4 is widely regarded as our flagship news and our most high profile output. It is a 30 minute round up of the day's main news at home and abroad, providing explanation and context. It has a regular daily audience of about one and a quarter million.

The biggest audiences for radio news are during the breakfast programmes. The 0700 and 0800 on BBC Radio 4 are both heard by more than two million people, as is the 0800 on BBC Radio 2. At 0800, the newsroom's output on all networks has a combined audience well above five million.

The big attraction of radio for journalists is that nothing gets in the way of the news. If the story is big enough, we can be broadcasting it to you within minutes. So if you want the very latest in national and international news, the BBC radio newsroom will be providing it.

Return to the top of the page

Tom Fort on how times have changed in the newsroom

If I were now, by some mischance, to be catapulted back to the day of my debut more than two decades ago, I suspect I would be astounded by what was happening.

Here's a trivial illustration. A few months after my arrival the World Chess championship was staged, one colourless young Russian - Anatoly Karpov - against one older, slightly more sympathetic Russian, Viktor Korchnoi.

Chess was then very much a BBC Radio 4 species of special interest - as was cricket, say, but not football. The fact that only a minute proportion of the population knew or cared anything about the game was beside the point.

To report on the contest a former member of the foreign news team was recalled from retirement. He sat at a desk in the newsroom, shifting little pieces around his portable set, writing his script on a pad of paper as he went.

Then, as news of yet another draw was posted from Moscow, he would trot into the studio, record his one minute ten seconds of learned analysis, and leave.

His dispatch was transmitted unfailingly at the end of the six o'clock news bulletin. At last Karpov (who was asleep at the time) was declared the winner, and our chess correspondent was seen no more.

Changing times

Hurry on 21 years, to the clash between the acknowledged colossus of world chess, Garry Kasparov, and a largely unknown challenger, Vladimir Kramnik. The event was staged in London and produced the biggest upset in the game's recent history, but it was considered hardly worthy of a mention on the six o'clock news.

One may dispute the changing priorities (and doubtless traditionalists did, with their customary warmth). But what is beyond dispute is the extent -- for better or worse -- to which the BBC has learned to modify what it does according to what it perceives as its audience's preferences.

In those old, distant days, categories of news now accepted without comment simply did not exist. We had religious affairs and industrial affairs, but no social affairs and certainly no consumer affairs.

The agenda was shaped by what was happening at Westminster and what was happening abroad.

The select few

Foreign correspondents were like peers of the realm, attached to their capitals - Clive Small in Washington, Michael Elkins in Jerusalem, Mark Tully in Delhi.

Unseen, infinitely remote sources of authority, they sent their dispatches when they had something to say and when it was convenient for them to say it.

As the humblest of sub-editors, it would no more have occurred to me to question the utterances of these great men (they were all men), than to have disturbed a cardinal at prayer.

The notion of asking them to provide coverage of crimes or scandals discovered by the popular press would have been a heresy. Our political correspondents were accorded a similar degree of deference -- one which many government ministers would have envied.

Rarely seen

They discussed subject matter with editors, and only condescended to address the rank-and-file in order to dictate the introductions to their grave and measured pieces (and God help you if you dared to alter a word).

The royal correspondent was almost never seen - and only heard when the Queen was visiting some distant outpost of the Commonwealth ("The Monarch was accorded an enthusiastic welcome by a well-behaved gathering of schoolchildren in traditional costume"); or when members of her family were poorly, getting married, or having babies.

On the home front, we were happy to provide information about the economy, strikes, the health service and other weighty matters. But crime made us uneasy, lacking -- as it too often did -- proper significance and dignity.


Incredible though it now seems, we sub-editors did not ourselves type the scripts for the newsreaders. We dictated our contributions to a gaggle of mainly female typists - some amazingly fast-fingered and sharp-witted, others slow and slipshod almost beyond endurance.

In the half hour or so before the main news bulletins the newsroom - at other times as slumbering as a library reading room - would resound to the clatter of typewriter keys and a babble of competing voices -- "The Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced.... Reports from Peking say..... In Delhi, the government led by the Prime Minister, Mrs Gandhi.... The Soviet newsagency TASS... The president of the National Union of Mineworkers, Mr Arthur Scargill..."

Then away to the distant studios we would pound, brandishing the finished article. And a minute or so later our words, gathered together amid such frenzy, would issue forth in those incomparably unruffled and mellifluous BBC Radio 4 newsreader tones. And little by little our heartbeats would return to normal.

Appliance of science

Times changed. The typists followed the chess board into oblivion, along with their typewriters. Computers arrived, filling us with fear, but they were eventually embraced.

The ancient order of editors and faintly fossilised correspondents was ushered away. We young ones took over, scarcely noticing how easily we became the Old Guard. Magnetic tape and tape machines gave way to digital editing on a computer screen.

Endlessly we were told that we must do more, feed our public's supposedly ravening and insatiable appetite for more and more news. Again and again we wailed that we could do no more. Yet in the end we always did it.

Shared pride

Along the way some of the fun inevitably went out of the process (a diminution exacerbated by our enforced migration from Broadcasting House in the West End to White City); but sufficient remained to make it all bearable.

Other important things did not change. We retained the shared pride in what we did, the belief that standards of care and accuracy mattered, however often and shamefully they might be breached.

And we retained the loyalty and jealous affection of our unseen public, without which the whole exercise would be without point.

Twenty-two years was enough. But it was, in the main, worth doing, and I'm glad I did it. The memories are warm.

Return to the top of the page

Running the Radio Newsroom

The majority of staff in the Radio Newsroom work 12-hour shifts on a three-on, three-off pattern. These can be either day or night shifts. Matching people's skills to the work required, and keeping the staff happy, without jeopardising the quality of the news bulletins, has been the preserve of one person for almost 30 years.

Sheila Hind, MBE, had joined the Radio Newsroom as a junior secretary in 1962 after training at a secretarial college. "I only meant to stay for about a year," she says now, four decades on, "but the people were so friendly, the job was very interesting and somehow I'm still here."

In the days before computers, each journalist had a secretary to whom he, and it was invariably a he, dictated his stories. The typists had to be of a high standard. "Each story had to have 12 flimsies," Sheila recalls, "so it was pretty serious if they made a mistake and had to correct it 12 times." Sheila also remembers how the newsroom could be intimidating for newcomers, in particular when she first came face-to-face with famous war-time newsreaders such as Alvar Liddel and Frank Phillips.

Rota problems

In 1973, Sheila was asked to do the rotas on a temporary basis. She has being doing them ever since. "When I started, I found it quite stressful. I used to have nightmares in which I came into the office and found that no-one had turned up for work," she recalls. Those days are long gone and Sheila now has the job down to a fine art, although it isn't without its headaches.

Doing the Christmas rotas is still the worst part. "Every year I swear I'll never do another," Sheila says. She embarks on the task at the beginning of October, trying to give everyone a chance to have some kind of Christmas dinner. "But I do know I'm ruining people's lives," she says. "It's not my fault, but I feel responsible. It's hard not to become involved."

Ruining people's lives is a year-round occupation for the shift organiser. When someone falls ill at short notice, Sheila must make every effort to find a replacement. She says that each time she rings someone up, she can hear the change in tone in their voices when she announces her identity. "Mine is the telephone call that everyone dreads," she acknowledges. "I know people resent having to abandon their plans, but it's what they signed up for."

Sheila has been the repository of large numbers of secrets over the years. Staff, involved in personal relationships, have asked to be put on similar shifts; others, caught up in personal feuds, have, on occasion, asked to be kept apart. "I tend to be the first to know about births, marriages and deaths," she says.

The modern workplace

When Sheila arrived in the newsroom, there were no more than a handful of women, and those who became pregnant, stopped work. Today, women make up about a quarter of the workforce of around 80, and many are working mothers.

The other big change in Sheila's career at the BBC has been the arrival of the computer. It has led, she believes, in the newsroom as elsewhere, to a less sociable working environment, with people spending less time talking to each other and more time sending messages to each other via their screens.

But the rotas themselves have so far resisted updating. They are type-written on sheets of A4 paper, heavily amended by hand, encased in plastic and attached to a wall in the corner of the newsroom. When the newsroom was evacuated because of the bomb attack by the Real IRA, one of the biggest problems facing the journalists in their temporary office was the absence of those bits of paper.

In 2000, Sheila Hind was awarded the MBE, for services to broadcasting. "Some people have said I deserve a medal," she says, "and now I've got one and I'm delighted."

Return to the top of the page


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific