By BRUCE DENNILL
Jeremy Thompson’s autobiography Breaking News tells the story of a 50-year career in media – a rare thing at any point in history but possibly something that will be almost impossible to repeat in contemporary journalism.
“I suspect that what’s in the book will not be done again, because people won’t have the chance,” he concurs. “The time and way in which I came into the industry shaped me into a solid hack, back when that was a self-deprecating term, not a pejorative one.”
One of the reasons journalists aren’t as fully formed now as they used to be is the ever-shrinking number of larger-than-life characters of the sort that shaped Thompson, including Eddie Duller, gruff but supportive news editor of Cambridge News, one of the first papers on which Thompson worked.
“I actually tracked him down recently,” says Thompson. “I’m old, so he must be ancient now. I sent him a copy of the book and he sent me a kind and supportive message from, of all places, Camps Bay, where he’d read it while lying on the beach. One of the things I learned from him is that there is always a story, and that you must keep your eyes and ears open, and be ready to learn at all times. I think biggest part of that is being adaptable; finding a way where there doesn’t seem to be one.”
There’s a personality aspect to being a successful anchor, and the face of an organisation (in this case Sky News) – the role in which Thompson is perhaps best known. It’s a trope that’s much mocked in film and other popular entertainment, where men and women touch up their hair and preen while a prone figure twitches in the background. What are the ethical and professional lines that he was required to walk in this context?
“It’s becoming more and more difficult for youngsters to cut their teeth – they’re missing three or four stages now,” begins Thompson. “By the time I started in ‘grown-up’ news, I’d made all the mistakes I needed to already. I’d learned to test and check my sources. I’d learned to figure out early if people could be trusted. I suppose it’s been 50 years of risk assessment, essentially.
“In terms of the image part, people seem to assume it’s a world of attritional interviews with hard-arsed politicians and the like. But essentially, with 90% of the interviews I’ve done, I’ve been a facilitator, helping them to tell their story well, which some of them can’t do themselves.
“I’d hope that young journalists learn that it’s not about ego getting in the way. I’m a medium – taking the story from one place to another as accurately and impartially as possible. You need to give them the raw materials to make up their own minds.
“For journalists, there’s some simple advice to stick to – just be yourself,” Thompson continues. “I don’t think I ever lost the mindset of an apprentice on a newspaper. I discovered that I was a decent journalist, and that I could do the job. Moving on from there meant being dragged kicking and screaming into the television studio – all the fun is outside. I trialled field presenting, which can sometimes unavoidably revolve around you – but if you do it right, you become a conductor. There’s always a dancer of the anchor becoming the story, and some networks think it works, making their presenter their point of difference, rather than the people the story is actually happening to. I kicked myself if I ever felt that was happening with my assignments. For instance, when covering stories about people in South Africa laying down their lives to win democracy – how can that be about me?
How has fake news affected the way journalism is conducted nowadays? It seems that, more than ever, it’s a focused strategy and sign of cynicism, where it used to be a marker for laziness.
“I think it’s always been around – it’s just another form of propaganda, which we’ve seen throughout history,” notes Thompson, “but now it’s accelerated to maximum speed by social media.
“With fake news, the story is pre-packaged and pre-prejudiced. It allows the uninformed to be catapulted into a world of information instantly – and therefore insidiously. People now need to keep both eyes open when looking for something to read or watch. The speed of breaking news may have to slow down to allow journalists to double and triple check the facts. I don’t know if that will happen, though: people are more likely to make mistakes under pressure now because they’re constantly watching social media and seeing that the competition might be ahead, so they’re pushing their work through before it’s properly checked. There are a lot of new pitfalls out there. Donald Trump didn’t invent fake news, but he has used it as a shield against inquisitive media.
“TV series like The Newsroom are fictional, but they seem to underline the shortfalls in journalism in the US and the UK, where corporate governance can take precedence over integrity. Investigative journalism has been curtailed and expertise is spread much more thinly now. The admirable traits of independent media are not as evident. I still think content is king, but there are so many tubes to fill now that often people just end up shoving stuff in – and that’s not helped by the dilemma of trying to monetise the online space.”
Thompson recently spent a few weeks in South Africa to promote Breaking News, an unusually long time for an author to stick around in a single location. He was often here during his career as a newsman, too, based in Johannesburg for a period and regularly assigned to this neck of the wood when big stories were unfolding. Where does the country fit into his worldwide experience in terms of the particular rewards, challenges or frustrations of working here?
“It’s interesting,” grins Thompson. “In South Africa, people seem to think that they know me. I’ll have people striding towards me from 100 yards away having no doubt that they’ll connect with me. They seem to trust me. I think some of that is that many of the older people here grew up with censorship of their news and found that they could trust my way of doing things.
“In more recent years, though, South Africa hasn’t been much different to anywhere else,” he reckons. “In the Eighties, we as journalists were obviously affected by the censorship as well. We had to edit our tapes and then take them to the SABC to be watched before they could be sent to the UK. That meant getting the real story out often required some ingenuity. It affected relationships, too. My South African friends and colleagues would film a story and then go home and sit with their friends and neighbours and be called liars. Those people would say, ‘Where is this story from? It’s not on our TVs…
“It was intriguing. I had seen similar situations in Tiananmen Square, when the Chinese power had – and used – the power to shut down communications. Looking from the other side, Mandela understood that foreign correspondents kept the story alive for the rest of the world, which helped keep the pressure on the apartheid government. For me, having lived here and seen what people put up with made it real. That familiarity obviously raises questions about objectivity. I think I managed. You have to be able to deliver a clear story – a cluttered one is of no use – but strong emotion helps in the telling. I am not insensitive, but I managed to keep my sensitivities under control.”
Under the pressure of presenting from the frontlines, it’s likely that the effort to deliver the best possible package might include some temptations to add extra polish to a story.
“I’ve seen the other side, like when a cameraman adds a teddy to a shot of a ruined building after an earthquake to give the scene extra poignancy or something,” nods Thompson. “Again, I’d say, ‘Be yourself, man!’”
The principle is correct, obviously, but as Ken Oosterbroek’s vulture in Sudan saga proved, the fall-out from doing what might be the right thing can be brutal.
“Absolutely,” confirms Thompson. “It’s tough. Ken’s scene was real. I remember seeing a vulture landing on a window ledge at the end of a hospital corridor – those dramatic moments happen anyway. Often, the dramatis personae are all there, and you find that you can suggest things – like a story with a very young accidental president in Sierra Leone, who I suggested help sweep up during an interview on air to show that he was willing to get involved. That one backfired – the next day, he offered me a position as his information minister and we had to gap it!
“Covering the genocide in Rwanda was incredibly difficult,” he continues. “You had a situation where perpetrators were becoming victims; kids being orphaned at the side of the road while we were filming…and all of this was being fed back to an anchor in New York, sitting in a cosy studio, crossing back from an advert for a juicy beef burger advert. And all of that just after the triumph of the Mandela story – it was a big crash.”
With so many stories to share, it makes a lot of sense to write a book – something to share with grandkids, as you explain at the beginning of the narrative.
“I wasn’t going to do it,” shrugs Thompson. “I was going to try to get my golf handicap down, but the I ran into Iain Dale, who said he’d publish it if I wrote it. So I sat down and did it all in three months – I’m a feast or famine guy.”
Was there an aspect to it of keeping yourself on the scene in some way?
“I did wonder whether I would feel less defined without being ‘Jeremy Thompson, TV news guy’, he admits, “but I still seem to be that guy to many people. And I’m glad I haven’t had to trot out Brexit and Trump stories again and again, thoug I did have a slight twinge about missing out on Mugabe stepping down.”
Breaking News is structured around jobs that you had, lessons you learned and stories that stuck out for you. Why these particular choices?
“There’s a fair bit I’ve left out,” Thompson says, “some of which I was worried about when I look back at it now. I went way over my word allotment, and I had to draw a line somewhere. But mostly, it was simple. I sat down and wrote out the stories I remembered best. There was no great scientific assiduousness. I was actually surprised by how much I remembered – many chapters were written off the top of my head.
“I had plenty of notes, too. Some of the early stuff was thrown away in house moves and things like that, but I probably have scripts and diaries all the way back to the early Eighties. A lot of it wouldn’t have been terribly exciting – travel details and that sort of thing. ‘Tax at Heathrow, ten quid’. I do remember most of the people I worked with. I had some fantastic cameramen. They’re a big part of your life; you sometimes spend more time with them than you do with your family. It’s a sort of rolling democracy. We see the story together and decide how to tell it together.
“Mick Dean, who I write about in the book, had an innate sense of storytelling,” Thompson remembers. “With his images, the words just really add light and shade to the sequence of pictures, bringing out more of the highlights that are already there. We worked really hard to put together the perfect package – we were craftsmen. Some of the best moments were when we would find out that our colleagues in the newsroom had stood and applauded after they watched the footage. Those times were one of the reason I was reluctant to become an anchorman. I preferred telling the stories; being the town crier and being interesting enough that people wanted to stand around and listen, or the tracker who explains the wilderness to people who can’t read the signs.
“As an anchorman, I became part of the brand at Sky News, associating my voice with the breaking news phenomenon. Now I see that there is often a danger of people abusing those associations.”
Thompson was involved in launching the “breaking news” strip that runs at the bottom of so many newscasts now. It was a useful innovation and differentiating factor when it began, but now it’s become a cliché, as have may of the definitions used in describing different story themes over the years.
“There are many new nuances,” agrees Thompson, “particularly when it comes to political correctness. When we covered the Yorkshire Ripper story, for instance, prostitutes – his victims – were treated as less than nothing, whereas now everyone gets equal treatment. As journalists, we almost had to be educating the police and convincing the metro-centric BBC that women getting killed out in the country was actually a major story.”
Being in the right place at the right time more often than most was also useful.
“Absolutely,” grins Thompson, recalling an instance where he was sent to India to cover a major political story – the assassination of Indira Gandhi – purely because, as a sports writer at the time, he had a valid visa ahead of a trip to India to cover a test cricket series.
“I was a sports journalist doing stories on a civil war,” he says. “And the links I was able to make were bizarre. A the press cocktail party on the eve of the first test match, the local high commissioner was assassinated, so the next day, I was covering a crime story as well as a game of cricket. And England got thumped! Then I had to do some industrial development stories, then more cricket. Then we went up to Kashmir to report on the highest voting station in India, the first interview with the newly elected Rajiv Gandhi and then on to the third test match. I went home three months after I arrived.”
Thompson often retained his sanity under such pressure through dark humour.
“I went for dinner once with a Sri Lankan bloke who was blown up by a bomb the following day,” he says, trying not to grin despite the grave scenario he’s painting.
“He had a terribly difficult name to remember and write down. I’d be lying if I said that part of me wasn’t cynically relieved…”
Breaking News by Jeremy Thompson, published by Biteback Publishing, is available now.