Monday, 20 November 2017

Secrets from the BBC newsroom

Only very rarely do we get a glimpse into the deepest recesses of the BBC newsroom. Who actually writes the news? How much power do the news readers have?

I may have been a BBC news presenter for more than twenty years, but during all that time, I never even came close to understanding the newsroom's arcane mysteries.

But today, I can offer you just a glimpse, to bring you an inside account of one of the newsroom's finest moments. The date is 14 September 2013. The Radio 4 newsreader is Neil Sleat -- this is him, by the way. 

Neil Sleat - at home on a tractor (I think)

And this is what he read, on that fateful day in history:

'The authorities in Hawaii are changing the format of the islands' ID cards because of complaints by a woman whose 35-letter surname wouldn't fit. Janice Keihanaikukauakahihuliheekahaunaele, whose traditional Hawaiian name comes from her late husband, said she would never consider using a shortened version because she loved the Polynesian culture. Ms Keihanaikukauakahihuliheekahaunaele also rejected suggestions that she could use her maiden name -- Worth.'

I suggest you try reading it yourself. Aloud. Then listen to how Neil did it by clicking here.

Impressive, huh?

But what I have always wanted to know was whose idea was it to run that story? Did Neil argue against it? Or did he regard it as the ultimate challenge to his professional skills, a challenge that no self-respecting newsreader could possibly duck?

I am now in a position to answer those questions, having finally had an opportunity to ask him directly. He tells me that when the newsroom suggested they should do it, his reaction was 'Great! Let me at it!' Not only that, but it was his idea to include the tongue-twister name twice rather than just once -- such is the reckless gambler nature of the Radio 4 newsreader. (I know, I know, you would never guess it when you hear them reading the Shipping Forecast. On the other hand, you should see them at the Newsroom Christmas party ...)

But how on earth did Neil know how to pronounce Janice's name? The people in the BBC's pronunciation unit are second to none in their encyclopedic knowledge -- but Polynesian?

Neil takes up the story: 'I was lucky enough to find a YouTube video of Janice herself pronouncing her name, so I set about rehearsing it.' (I have an image of him standing in a corner of the newsroom, muttering over and over again: 'Kei-han-ai-kuki- ..., no damn it, Kei-han-ai-kuko ...'

In the event, as you heard, it was faultless. Of course, it was. This, after all, was Radio 4.

At the end of the news, he walked out of the studio as a hero. His colleagues leapt to their feet and applauded loudly. Well, no, in fact, they didn't.

Neil describes what happened: 'After the broadcast, I returned to the newsroom, triumphant, arms held wide, palms upwards, like a goal scorer expecting the adulation of his team mates. But Matt [the editor] just looked at me, puzzled. "What?" he said.

'I said: "I DID IT!" Matt slapped his forehead. "Doh..." he said. "I missed it!" None of the rest of the radio news team had heard it either.'

Just another day at the office.