Broadcasting Today

Professor’s Blog – Media in Transformation


Kurt Barling is Professor of Professional Practice at Middlesex University London.  He is the BBC’s Special Correspondent for London.

In the fifth in the Series of Broadcasting talks Professor Barling was in conversation with former BBC Newsnight Editor Sian Kevill

Sian Kevill and I attended the same comprehensive school in North London in the 1970s.  It was a bizarre experience when we both ended up working, in the late 1990s, on BBC Newsnight, the girl I’d known at school, the first female Editor in the history of the distinguished programme.

Sian was a star pupil at school and went to Cambridge University to study History where she got a first class degree.   A couple of years after graduating she stumbled into journalism when an offer of a place on the BBC’s News Trainee Scheme came up (the scheme has recently been revitalized).

Sian was honest enough to tell students that it was not an over-riding passion that got her the first break in journalism but a decent job-training offer.

By the time she had finished her BBC career 24 years later she had risen to the Director of World News just a few spots short of the most powerful job in British television, BBC Director General.

She told students that she believes the barriers to a steady job are much higher now but that conversely the barriers to entry are much lower.

There are many more places to experiment and find an outlet for the product of a creative imagination than when she started out.   These platforms need to be ruthlessly exploited by students to build a portfolio of work expected of the typical art students.   The work will become a calling card in the third year job or postgraduate course hunt.

Unlike the four previous guests in the series,Sian had never chosen to be either on screen or on air, blaming her unwillingness to be endlessly coiffured.

Her instinct for analysis drove her to News and Current Affairs.   But she reminded students that seriousness wasn’t always at the expense of fun.   One of her production highlights in her time as a Newsnight producer was a film on the emergence of tortoises in the first days of spring.  I can’t see that getting made on Newsnight today.

For her, journalism has been a great job, giving her a sense of intellectual freedom and enormous amounts of satisfaction.   I sensed that it was to get back to programme making that led Sian to leave the heady heights of BBC management.

Sian was of course at the heart of the management regime at the BBC that ultimately failed to stave off criticism after the debacle at her old stomping ground of Newsnight.

She suggested the decision not to broadcast the story on Jimmy Saville had been a serious error of judgment by the Editor and that journalists should be reminded that they sometimes have a duty to challenge the powerful and take risks in doing so.   Perhaps the journalism has become too risk averse.

The principle of the fourth estate as a bulwark of democracy is part of the raison d’etre of BBC journalism and Sian defended the need for fearlessness amongst its journalists.She believes under its new Director General, Lord Tony Hall, the BBC will once again find its investigative feet.

Having decided to set up a production company after leaving the BBC Sian has now turned from gamekeeper into poacher.   Its brought home the reality of the financial straightjacket that many production companies are now subjected to.Budgets are smaller and productions more difficult to sell.

Pushed by her experience in searching for other sources of funding for projects she is exploring the issue for the Reuters Institute for Journalism as a research fellow.  She recognizes that by seeking out alternative sources of funding there will inevitably be an impact on the debate about impartiality.

Can a project be impartial if a charitable cause offers to part fund a production?   In straightened times it is an ever pressing question but without obvious answers.  The BBC continues to refuse to publish journalism that has been funded by a charitable concern or even reputable institutions like the Foreign Office.

Should Comic Relief be entitled to so much airtime if these principles are to be rigidly employed?  We shall await her conclusions with interest.In a fragmenting market the way these debates develop may determine what kind of journalism output we will see in a decade.

What was clear that in line with all the other speakers in the series Sian still believes there are plenty of opportunities and the skills that Middlesex University can help media students develop are the ones Sian feels will give new entrants an edge.

Cementing the widest variety of skills are her words of advice to negotiate the first points of access to the world of media.   The ability to pick up a camera and shoot material and familiarity with the principles of picture editing do not necessarily mean that you will end up on the technical pathway, but they are as much what production companies are looking for as the skills of story finding.


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