9th May 2003 at 01:00
Time Shift: children's news

BBC 4, Thursday, May 15 8.30pm

"Every television genre is covered by children's television," Monica Sims wrote in a policy statement when she was head of the children's department at the BBC, around 1970. Then she added: "except news". It may have been an afterthought, but her deputy, Edward Barnes, saw it as a challenge. The result, launched in 1972, was Newsround.

There had been "children's news" on television before, but the emphasis was on the first element, not the second - a juvenile version of "news": stories about games, stories involving children doing amusing things, and any number of stories about small animals.

But even as the BBC was regaling its young audience with tales of how cricket bats are made and what hamsters get up to, television was changing children's understanding of the world.

The 1960s saw a downgrading of children's programmes on the BBC as the corporation set out to win audiences back from the commercial channels.

"Children's television went on the back burner," according to Julia Foot, producer of the BBC 4 documentary series Time Shift. "It was Monica Sims who reconstructed it as a proper department."

At the same time, there was a significant change in attitudes towards young people and television, with more youth programming being produced and more participation by children in front of the camera. The documentary strand Search, in which young reporters introduced short films on topical themes, was a pioneering venture.

And out of it came Newsround. John Craven describes in Time Shift how, by chance, he happened to be in the right place at the right time to audition for Search. His experience there made him a natural choice to front Newsround, where his relaxed style and lack of condescension set the standard for a generation of children's programmes.

Julia Foot emphasises the pioneering achievement of Newsround in its first 30 years: Craven did away with the newscaster's desk, so he would have nothing between himself and the audience; his dress was deliberately informal for the 1970s (tie, but no jacket); he was the first to speak directly to correspondents in the field, asking them to clarify or expand on their reports in a way that is now familiar on adult news broadcasts; and it was Newsround that introduced the lighter "and finally" item to round off its bulletins and send the children away on a lighthearted note.

Newsround aimed to give all the news that was fit for children to hear. It was fortunate in going out at a fairly quiet time in the evening, when the news teams at Broadcasting House had relatively little to do. As a result, it could call on BBC correspondents for any of the day's reports that might be suitable for its audience, and ask for special pieces with a suitable commentary on top of correspondents' items for the nightly bulletins.

As Michael Buerk points out in this film - and as teachers know - explaining a complicated piece of news so young viewers can understand it is demanding; he describes his own experience of contributing to Newsround as "tougher than working for the Nine O'Clock News of its day".

Of course, there have been other children's news programmes, the Channel 4 Schools' series First Edition among them, and Nick News, presented by children on the satellite channel Nickelodeon. Then, from the 1980s, there was "youth television". Newsround, too, has changed, for example reflecting more of the celebrity culture that now infects other news media.

In children's factual programmes there is always a temptation to give a black-and-white picture of events - and perhaps, as Julia Foot explains, to concentrate on "slightly lefty, trendy issues", notably to do with conservation and the environment. Newsround's first story in 1972 was about conservation and small animals: a report on the decline in numbers of ospreys. Broadcasters are now careful to emphasise both sides of the question, and not to suggest that interference with the environment is wrong.

Two-thirds of the audience for Newsround is made up of adults, some of whom are watching with their children. This age balance may seem incongruous, but it does not mean a failure of the programme, the point of which is to show that what we call "news" is something that concerns everyone, including the younger members of the family. Because, as Julia Foot points out, research has shown that children are aware of the news, even if parents think they are not. "A lot of news stories go in by osmosis," she argues, so it is probably better for them to hear it on Newsround - which, incidentally, won an award for its coverage of the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers.

The conclusion of this film is guardedly optimistic. Where the quality of news coverage for children is concerned, the news is not all bad.

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