BBC BLOGS - The Editors

A skilled interviewer

Colin Hancock | 13:35 UK time, Friday, 5 October 2007

wato.jpgExcellent news about the Nick Clarke award for interviewing - absolutely appropriate. Nick had a great many talents, but if you had to pick one I'm sure most would go for his skill as an interviewer.

Described variously as cool, courteous, measured and/or forensic, his approach grew from the belief that his role was to find something out. He then, of course, had the charm and intelligence to pursue this relentlessly.

NIck ClarkeAs a producer on The World At One or The World This Weekend you knew that when you told him you'd fixed x or y to be interviewed, he'd immediately ask why, what could they add to our understanding of a particular story?

Yesterday some of us were thinking back over the years of interviews. Lots of personal favourites, but everyone at some stage mentioned those during the period of Hutton and his report. As an example of keeping a firm grip on intellectual inquiry in the midst of heightened emotions and internal turmoil it stands as one of Nick's finest achievements.

Assessing the record

Colin Hancock | 16:34 UK time, Thursday, 10 May 2007

Well, that's what the audience was telling Five Live...

wato.jpg...over on Radio Four we got a few more of the "why are you doing this" style of email (sample: "Tony Blair is NOT DEAD. Please spare us the endless obituaries. Today's programme has been totally dominated - we're NOT INTERESTED, & I suspect many share my opinion. Please do not pander to this man's search for a legacy, & especially do not carry on this for the next 6 weeks").

Well I can assure listeners about the last point - even we have a boredom threshold and I'm pretty close to reaching mine.

However, I still think it was right to take the opportunity today to assess the record... and although other listeners have a visceral hatred of Alastair Campbell, I thought the discussion with him, William Hague and Charles Kennedy was pretty interesting stuff (you can listen to the whole programme here). Martha secured us the exclusive, and first, interview with Blair's confidante Sally Morgan and I enjoyed Nick Robinson's account of the Blair speech and his final essay.

Despite the advance notice it was still a hectic morning all round, especially at College Green at the heart of the circus. We tried to make room to stand back and assess the past ten years - maybe you thought we did so too much.

Of course there's now a danger we'll go overboard on the Brown succession. We'll try to avoid that, but I'd be interested to know what it is about him and his likely Government you feel merits airtime.

In the meantime, to the man who found this lunchtime's Scarlatti concerto on R3 more diverting, I'm sorry.

Martha's first programme

Colin Hancock | 16:24 UK time, Monday, 16 April 2007

In at 5am for Martha's first programme (which you can now listen to here), trying to make sure all would go smoothly. I should have stayed in bed.

wato.jpgOf all the mornings for news to slow to a trickle and interviewees to go awol, they had to pick this one. Martha appeared just before seven, ridiculously cheerful, blissfully unaware of the impending struggle.

What appeared to be the two main stories were decent enough - Des Browne's travails and the decision by Sadr to pull his ministers out of the Iraqi government. Both, however, came with problems.

As I write this, we're still waiting for Des Browne's statement at around 3.30, so we were in one of those frustrating voids on that one. And all Iraqi stories come with main players (in this case Sadr) who won't talk and phone lines that test the patience of even the most devoted of WATO listeners.

martha203.jpgAs the morning grew older, we hit further problems. You name a reason for not coming on, our potential interviewees found it. Critical board meetings, long train journeys, fact-finding missions to India, appearances in court (representing, I should add). By 1225 we were seven minutes short of a programme, and only a late burst got us there.

Martha seemed to trust absolutely that we'd have a full programme for her to present: this may change.

And as for her presentation… remarkable. From the morning meeting through to the closing headlines, she was as sharp, calm and authoritative as you'd expect and hope, whatever the setbacks and last-minute changes. Most mornings will be far easier than today's. Martha could hardly have been better.

The death of Nick Clarke

Colin Hancock | 13:00 UK time, Thursday, 23 November 2006

As I write this we're within 30 minutes of going on air with an extended programme in which we'll announce the death and remember the life of our presenter, Nick Clarke. This entry will be very brief.

nickclarke.jpgEveryone here is working as hard as they can to bring together the best programme possible, and trying not to stop to think too long.

Nick was a brilliant presenter. He was the best interviewer a programme could dream of. He had the best voice on Radio Four. He approached everything we did with his sharp, rigorous intellect. He made us all better journalists. Listeners respected and adored him.

We're in shock. I can't imagine how awful today is for his wife Barbara, his young sons and the rest of his family. Your thoughts about Nick will be much appreciated.

Piece of string

Colin Hancock | 10:32 UK time, Friday, 20 October 2006

How long should an interview be ?

wato.jpgClearly a pretty stupid question, to which the only proper response can be "it depends", but it's one many of us have to answer several times a day.

We all (even those editing continuous news services) have a limited amount of time. We all want to cover more stories than we can fit. We all want to give interviews long enough to be interesting and informative. It can only end in tears... and I often wonder whether we (and here I'll start limiting it to my programmes lest I annoy some colleagues) get it right.

Take yesterday. We covered three stories in the main body of the programme (which you can listen to here) - the crime figures (two sets); the Conservatives' Tax Commission report; and the cost and disruption of court cases stalling or collapsing through mistakes, last-minute plea changes and so on. Those of you kind enough to listen to The World at One will know we tend to have at least one main interview or discussion in each story, preceded (or occasionally followed) by some shorter interviews helping to give some context or reaction. Today our three main interviews were with the Police Minister Tony McNulty, the Chairman of the Tax Commission Lord Forsyth and the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith. Today I reckon I got the first two about right and the last one wrong... but as yet I'm not sure how that felt wherever the programme played out.

On most stories I reckon we need to give a decent amount of information and/or a reasonable spread of views. I think the crime sequence would have been much the poorer without our former Home Office advisor and criminologist... and the five contributors ahead of Lord Forsyth did a fine job in setting out some of the arguments around the economics and politics of tax cuts. But, left with just over six minutes for the court story, was three enough in which to ask the attorney general how he thought the failings could be tackled? I felt we had to set out the criticisms from the Public Accounts Committee... but maybe we should have just spent more time with Lord Goldsmith to try to explore his ideas. The last interview certainly felt too rushed and I'm not sure we got a huge amount from it. (I can tell by now you're desperately sad you don't have to take part in our post-programme meetings.)

Anyway, the specifics of today's programme don't matter that much... and I'm sure there will be some who disagree with our story choice to start with. But I would genuinely be interested to know whether listeners would prefer fewer contributions and longer main interviews... or whether it's the context that makes the difference between predictable and informative.

By the way, for those who missed it there was an elegant end to the Paxman/Alan Duncan interview on Wednesday's Newsnight, where both accepted that to continue for the time set aside would be pointless. If only we could transfer free time across networks.

Just thanks, really...

Colin Hancock | 12:15 UK time, Tuesday, 15 August 2006 everyone who's emailed us welcoming Nick Clarke back to The World at One. The emails started after Shaun Ley announced Nick's return at the end of Friday's programme... continued through the weekend... then surged after Nick trailed the programme on air at 1230 yesterday.

wato.jpgAnother flurry after the headlines and then a steady stream as soon as the programme (listen to it here) ended - with listeners in Canada, Dublin, France and Lesotho among those quickest off the block.

It was particularly pleasing to have so many adding praise for Shaun to their comments... and quite a few saying incredibly nice things about the show in general (please don't feel a need to redress the balance...).

BBC presenter Nick Clarke, pictured with a cake on his return to the BBCThe team marked the occasion with a quick burst of applause as Nick came out of the studio and by demolishing a beautifully-iced cake baked and decorated by two of our studio managers.

For the time being Nick will present on Mondays and Tuesdays and Shaun will continue Wednesday to Friday, as well as presenting The World This Weekend.

For now, though, the final word should rest with a listener who, 'midst the torrent of praise, emailed to admonish Nick for his one anachronistic reference to "the British Airports Authority" rather than BAA. "Sloppy journalism", the email concluded.

Nine months away or not, good to be reminded that no-one expects mistakes from Nick and WATO.

Nick Clarke's return

Colin Hancock | 10:02 UK time, Saturday, 8 July 2006

As keen listeners to Radio Four will know, Nick Clarke is easing himself back into work. An audio diary the other week (listen here), standing in for J Dimbleby on Any Questions... and then, all being well, he'll be back with us on The World At One from August 14th for an initial two days a week.

wato.jpgIt's going to be a period of readjustment for all of us. Of course the overwhelming feeling is that we're all delighted Nick has got through such a traumatic period in such good shape and we can't wait to have him back here. But we're also conscious that we don't want to push him too hard too quickly: it's only a few weeks since he finished his long programme of chemotherapy, and within a month he's due to be anchoring three gruelling party conferences around the country.

Also, we're all very much aware how brilliantly Shaun Ley has held the role of presenter of WATO during Nick's absence. Given that I'd only just brought him in to the department as the presenter of The World This Weekend, his transition to WATO within two months says a hell of a lot about his natural skills in front of a microphone, not to mention his in-depth knowledge of politics and policy.

For the time being, Shaun will present Wednesday to Friday after Nick has kicked off the week on Mondays and Tuesdays. Mr Ley will also move back onto The World This Weekend (or TW2 as we know it)... which means Brian Hanrahan's stint on the programme comes to an end in a few weeks. Brian's been a huge asset on the programme - and many of his foreign-based editions, such as those from Jerusalem and Rome, have won a lot of praise from listeners and colleagues alike. Of course Brian has huge experience and his confident hold on TW2 won't have surprised anyone: I'm very grateful for everything he's done here to help develop TW2 over the past year.

Nick ClarkePerhaps the most heartening aspect of the past year has been the audience's feedback. Listeners have at the same time been asking after Nick and looking forward to his return, while recognising and praising Shaun and Brian. I've been lucky to have had such strength in depth (I'm trying to steer clear of a tempting Gelsenkirchen contrast here...), not just in presenters but also with a production team which has maintained the programmes' high standards and moved them on despite the changes.

I'm sure Nick will slot back in effortlessly. Much will be familiar to him. Except perhaps a tradition introduced by Shaun - the presenter buys the first coffee-round of the morning, Nick.

Off the pitch

Colin Hancock | 11:15 UK time, Monday, 12 June 2006

First, an admission. I'm obsessed by football.

wato.jpgMy earliest memories are of FA Cup finals. I first fell in love with the wonderful Dutch team of the 1970s and felt desolate when they lost to the West Germans in 74 (to think it was our own Jack Taylor gifting the second penalty), and I've spent far too much time and money following Manchester United and England around the world.

I've seen England lose on penalties in Turin, at Wembley and in St Etienne... and three of the happiest nights of my life were spent back in Turin and then Barcelona as United twice fought back from the impossible to triumph in Europe, and four years ago in Sapporo as Beckham scored to defeat Argentina.

And yet I haven't broadcast a second of World Cup coverage thus far in the main body of either The World at One or The World This Weekend. Nor will I unless something remarkable happens in the next month of glorious football.

It's not that I don't want to - it's just that it doesn't really, well, work. For a start we've only got 24 minutes, once you take out the headlines and bulletin - and that pushes the bar for stories pretty high.

Then our programmes are, we like to think anyway, about that rules out all the fascinating, but clearly straight sport, discussions about teams, tactics and performances. Of course there are great stories - for example there's clearly been the mother of all rows between the FA and Sir Alex...and we did indeed ask for interviews with all the main parties to this yesterday - but in general, because we don't cover sport that often, we don't know each other very well and frankly it's not in their interests to discuss the difficult stuff.

On top of all that, unlike political parties, such bodies aren't usually looking to push a particular policy, they don't have a raft of practised interviewees and they don’t feel any sort of democratic imperative to explain themselves in public.

That still leaves, of course, a huge amount of general material we could broadcast: the experiences of fans as they travel around Germany, the thriving black-market, the security preparations, the impact of participation in the countries of some of the first-time finalists....there's certainly enough there to fill every minute of every Radio 4 news programme for four weeks. But while some of this can be very illuminating, very little would pass the hard-news test.

However, the main reason is that I don't think our audience needs or wants another programme featuring World Cup coverage. We specialise in national and international politics, public policy, social debates - and generally, that's what our listeners tell us they want.

For us football fans and those interested in the surrounding stuff (until you've travelled around a major championship it's hard to get a feel for such things as the policing tactics, the origins of any violence, the genuine international friendships that develop and the ludicrous ticket allocation and huge black market it creates) there's just so much out there.

Fantastic websites and blogs will get you closer to the fans' experience than we can. Networks such as Five Live have the airtime and expertise to range across virtually any subject you'd care to listen to...and of course every match is live on 5Live and terrestrial television. I wouldn't swap a World Cup month for anything: I'm only sorry you won't be hearing any of it on The World At One. Unless England win of course.

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