February 24, 2012 8:35 pm

Lights out at the BBC

As the BBC moves to its new homes in Salford and central London, John Humphrys looks at the challenges the organisation faces in the digital age

There is a wide streak of sentimentality running through old journalists. They tend to go all misty-eyed when they describe the Linotype machines in the printing room spewing out their slugs of hot metal and the building shuddering slightly when the presses started up. Those were the days, eh? When men were men (women need not apply) and it took real skill and a lifetime’s experience to compose a new front page on the stone with the deadline minutes away. Not like these days when any 10-year-old can do it with 50 quids’ worth of software and a bog-standard laptop.

What gets lost in the nostalgia fest is that the 10-year-old’s effort may actually look rather good and a modern newspaper makes its hot-metal ancestor seem as enticing as a Spam sandwich. As with newspapers, so with broadcasting. The evocative pictures on these pages will produce much the same reaction from those who remember how it was.

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When I left print journalism to join the BBC in the 1960s, television newsrooms were staffed almost entirely by refugees from newspapers – and how we chortled at the quaint old ways of our colleagues left behind. We were the future. Why would anyone want news that was at least 12 hours old when we could deliver it live? What a contrast between the old printing room, where the soles of your shoes stuck to a century of spilled ink on the floor, and the surgical spotlessness of the TV studio.

Look at these state-of-the-art cameras, you sad old hacks, and weep in frustration. Gawp at the BBC’s iconic buildings: the majestic prow of Broadcasting House, its statues of Prospero and Ariel created by the great Eric Gill as God and Man. No false modesty here. Or Bush House: marble-pillared and porticoed. Even the unlovely Television Centre, dominating the wastelands of White City and flaunting the technology that we really thought had the papers licked. We were at the cutting edge. Well, up to a point.

When I first started presenting, the script was typed on a roll of paper above the camera lens – which is why old newsreaders always seemed rather lofty figures, gazing slightly above the head of the common viewer as they read. If you were lucky you had an operator sitting out of vision controlling the speed at which the roll advanced, matching it to your delivery. If you were not, you did it yourself with a little pedal at your foot. And if you were nervous (which I was) and your foot jiggled uncontrollably, your pace of delivery could be extremely erratic. It’s nice not to have to do that any longer.

A prop store at the BBC

A prop store

And it’s nice not to have to worry about captions. In a brief and undistinguished period as an editor in the television newsroom, I once had to choose between dropping the caption for Harold Wilson or renaming him “Ilson” because the graphics department (actually a man with a fancy Letraset) had run out of capital “W”s. I gambled that the audience might just recognise him without a caption.

It has been a long time since we have had to worry about teleprompters and graphics and the huge cost of a 10-minute satellite feed across the Atlantic. A long time since the newsreaders’ set wobbled behind them if they moved their chair too far or since the exclusive footage, shot at great risk to life and limb in Vietnam, came out of the lab with a big black stripe running through every frame. We now have to worry about different things.

We were wrong when we thought we would kill off the newspapers. They adapted to meet our threat. If they could not beat us on speed of news delivery they could – and did – slaughter us on the features pages and in the opinion columns. They chose a battleground on which the state broadcaster, shackled by guidelines that demanded impartiality and balance over polemic and opinion, could not compete. I remember when we decided to include the equivalent of a leader column in the Nine O’Clock News. It lasted, I think, a month.

The real threat to newspapers turned out to be not television but the internet: too much information and opinion too freely available to too many people. With luck, deep pockets and strong nerves some of the papers will eventually make it work for them, but the internet threatens broadcasters too.

The danger will come if viewers no longer see any value in television channels. You hear people saying: “I’m a Radio 4 listener.” You tend not to hear them say: “I’m a BBC1 viewer.” I asked a group of bright sixth-formers in Birmingham what television they watched and they said they didn’t – they watched their computers instead.

Newsroom

Newsroom

The BBC points out that the death of family viewing has been much exaggerated and we still settle down happily enough in the living room to watch Strictly or Sherlock at the weekend. True enough, but we probably tend to overestimate the short-term effects of new technology and underestimate the long-term effects. Who knew the iPlayer would become this popular? And who knows what effect IPTV (internet protocol TV) will have? At the very least, it will test the ingenuity of the channel bosses – the curators of the content.

It is claimed the great migration to an extended Broadcasting House – due to be completed over the coming months – will help. For the first time in the corporation’s history nearly a third of its staff will work in the same building. They will share material, intelligence and guests in a way that has never before happened in the BBC: everything in one great “digital folder”, as they put it. The pictures on these pages show what is being left behind: the broadcasting equivalent of those old print rooms. How long before it happens to the digital folder too?

John Humphrys presents Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme and BBC2’s ‘Mastermind’.

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About the photographer: Manuel Vazquez began photographing Bush House in 2009, and continued the project in 2011, shooting Television Centre. This project aimed to document the many rich and fascinating aspects of these landmark buildings, to tell new and different stories. Vazquez’s work reflects a continuing interest in the theatricality of city life and spaces.

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