Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Tim Singleton, Head of Foreign News at ITN, and Chris Ship, Senior Political Correspondant for ITV News

Today's talk was delivered by two Leeds-educated journalists, and Chris Ship was a 1996 graduate of Leeds Trinity university himself! His colleague was Tim Singleton, Head of Foreign News for ITN, and were present to discuss both politial and foreign correspondance.

The main thrust of their joint lecture was an advert for ITV's upcoming coverage of this year's General Election, but the trailer we were shown was unarguably impressive. It was well-targeted also, as undergraduate students represent the newest generation of voters and at a time when low turnout is crippling the democratic process, it was a wise move.
Moving to his own particular role in the industry, Tim explained how ITN's innovative attitude would be required to cover what could be the most dramatic election since the mid-seventies, with an increasingly likely chance of a 'hung' Parliament being formed by a Conservative party with a desperately small majority. He explained that the second day of the election would result in much political maneuvering and power brokering from the various parties, and that the coverage of this revolutionary activity would require revolutionary efforts from the press.

Continuing on this theme of political reporting, Tim referred to criticisms levelled at all Westminster reporters that there is too much coverage of 'personality' clashing, and not enough 'policy' reporting. Speaking in defence of this choice, Tim painted a realistic picture of good stories originating more from the human conflict than from painful and elaborate procedural jockeying.

Chris continued on this established theme, extending his predictions to a possible - and remarkable - Second General Election that could be held in the autumn, with Cameron as Prime Minister 'bumbling' through the summer with a weak majority, an event not seen in British politics since 1974.
Moving away from grim predictions, Chris described instead an equally fascinating event in the recent past, when Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt launched a surprise coup against Gordon Brown on January 6th. Events began shortly after a rousing Prime Minister's Question Time, and by the 1.30pm bulletin Chris had to report on the uncertain events and all without the assistance of direct superior, Political Editor Tom Bradley. By 6.30pm, Chris was describing how many Cabinet members had rallied to the Prime Minister's support, and labelled the coup a 'brazen' attempt to challenge Brown's leadership. In the space of that day, Chris explained, the entire plot had begun and immediately failed, literally between two ITN bulletins. Such a rapid rate of events makes for very difficult but clearly exciting reporting.

Presenting an alternate view of proceedings at Westminster, Tim warned students that they 'could not overestimate the amount of managed information we receive' from politicians, special advisers and other Whitehall entities. Chris explained how the best information could come from utterly unattributable sources, men and women who would not risk rising careers by formally releasing information - and a picture of the machinations and scheming in the corridors of power is clearly formed, as shadowy figures trade information and plot downfalls, no doubt brandishing the press as some poisoned dagger straight out of some Yes, Minister sketch!

After the talk was concluded, I spoke directly with Tim about foreign news, as we had not had chance to cover it previously - I was curious as to how Tim would contrast domestic political reporting with foreign affairs. He was candid, and admitted that realistically US politicians, for example, have no need to speak with British journalists due to the lack of relevance; he told me ITN have been seeking an interview with President Obama to no avail, and he is not hopeful about their chances. I was forced to agree with him, although my interests lie in both national and international political fields.
He mentioned their foreign news bureaus, and I enquired after the relationship between ITN and the Chinese government in Beijing; Tim explained how certain topics regarding the People's Republic are utterly off-limits, such as the issue of Taiwan, and related to me how an ITN broadcaster was incarcerated for a day by Chinese authorities. This was clearly nothing more than a 'warning gesture' by the Beijing administration, but as I remarked to Tim, Journalism Week has portrayed the riskier side of the media industry that cannot be communicated well in a lecture theatre - and is, after all, the ultimate goal of this remarkable and informative experience.

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