Pioneer of the bulletin

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Bernard Adams talks to Sir Geoffrey Cox, who brought a short, sharp shock to TV news.

The greatest television journalist we have known in Britain - the words are Sir Robin Day's - wanted to stop the interview. Not because my searching questions were making him uncomfortable but because he knew it was time to put on the carrots for lunch.

We were talking in his house in Gloucestershire about the glory days of ITN, when it stunned the BBC with the liveliness, wit and authority of its early bulletins.

Sir Geoffrey Cox is a spry New Zealander, now in his mid-80s - retired but dashing off articles and a book, Pioneering Television News. The most gripping sections of it are the accounts of his early days as editor of ITN and, best of all, the struggle to create the programme which became a true mould-breaker in television - the News at Ten.

When he took on the ITN job in 1956 Sir Geoffrey already had great depth of journalistic experience. His career had included a spell as a distinguished foreign correspondent in the 1930s, covering Europe for the Express, a stretch with the News Chronicle, then a good deal of radio and television broadcasting before he found his true vocation.

He came to ITN in 1956, when the BBC's news service was dull. "They were muscle-bound really," says Sir Geoffrey. "They'd had this legacy of success during the war, but they promoted people in the BBC hierarchy with a conservative approach to news - a sense that this almost Holy Writ which had been established mustn't be tampered with."

Early on, the BBC made life difficult for Sir Geoffrey by poaching Chris Chataway - the one acknowledged star of ITN. But Ludovic Kennedy turned up to fill the gap. Sir Geoffrey acquired some "very able but very frustrated BBC journalists". He found cameramen of quality - some were veterans of the Second World War and the newsreel wars. "Most were big enough to play in the England pack - they had to be because they were busy elbowing each other aside to film things," says Sir Geoffrey.

The recipe he used for those short bulletins may seem familiar now, but at the time it was startling. He didn't go tabloid but tried to produce a news service which was just as responsible as the BBC's but which grabbed viewers with new devices. For a start, he had much better quality film, which counted for a lot in those black-and-white days, than the BBC.

He seasoned political or diplomatic items with lighter stories, more court cases were covered, film stars were chased (Marilyn Monroe by Sir Robin Day with a red rose), human interest stories were prominent. "A great range of people with different classes and accents flooded on to the screen and I think that ITN can claim in its first year to have introduced the British people to each other."

But the key element in ITN was the hard-hitting interview, of which Sir Robin became the master. Politicians went to the ITN studios at Kingsway and accepted severe time-constraints. "R A Butler realised the value of the short interview. He used to say, 'If a man can't say what he's got to say in three minutes he hasn't got his mind clear about what he wants to say'."

But by the 1960s, aspects of television news became controversial. Sir Geoffrey was concerned that the organisers of demonstrations were manipulating the media and creating news "events". He was, and perhaps still is, troubled by the power of images to distort events. "I came to the conclusion that if you accompany the picture with some explanation, probe the background to it, you can, to some extent, offset the danger of distortion."

No doubt he still keeps an eye on the news. He thinks, for example, the BBC's Nine o'Clock News set is better than the rather cramped News at Ten version. He is concerned about the way some interviewers behave. He objects to their "hectoring". "It's as if people were being called before the Seat of Judgment, " he says. He also believes that interviewers are neglecting their first duty, "to dig out the news", before rushing on to what should be their second task - "debating the right and wrongs of the information being put forward. I think this is blunting their effort and is basically inefficient journalism".

As well as his other achievements, Sir Geoffrey also cooks a delicious lunch. In journalistic terms, he may have left the heat of the kitchen, but he keeps a shrewd eye on what today's news cooks are turning out on radio and television.

Pioneering Television News, by Geoffrey Cox , is published by John Libbey and Co and costs Pounds 18 from Brad Ltd, 244a London Road, Hadleigh, Essex SS7 2DT. Tel: 01702 552912

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