The energy at the BBC World News offices in London is as infectious as it is electrifying. Ros Atkins, host of Outside Source, gave the Tonight a tour of its staggeringly impressive new newsroom, housing journalists from various bureaus, while also shedding light on his newly launched groundbreaking news programme, writes Debashine Thangevelo.
It is one thing to be in South Africa and tune in to BBC World News. The manner in which they present international “breaking news” stories and host shows is compelling.
To then be standing at the hub of it all – that’s a priceless moment.
Ros Atkins, the host of Outside Source, afforded a bird’s-eye view of the newsroom, which was populated by a global network of about 600 journalists on the ground floor, when the Tonight dropped by last Wednesday.
Everyone was furiously typing away on their keyboards in the fast-paced arena of all things newsy. From the ground floor up, each person has a different role to fulfil.
There are flat-screen TVs on every floor showing various programmes, with some screens displaying internal feeds of on-air broadcasts.
Amid the various studios, some located underground, there are edit rooms for the plethora of BBC shows across its international platforms.
While on the tour, Atkins, who started out on radio before bagging World Have Your Say and then latched on to projects like presenting The World Today, The Ticket (both on World Service) and Up All Night (on Radio 5 Live), sheds light on the birth of Outside Source.
“The idea of becoming more transparent is not unique to the BBC as is the idea of using wireless technology. But I don’t think anyone has made the leap to say, ‘Okay, why are we always basing our broadcasts in studios?’ That’s always been done. And a few of us had played with the idea of doing some broadcasting in and around the newsroom.
“Actually, I have done a lot of inserts where I would pop up in other peoples’ programmes, either on TV and radio (from around the building), and they were proven to be quite popular. And the idea really came from that.
“So it is not like someone had a ‘eureka’ moment. It’s brought together by different ideas. I used to host a show called World Have Your Say, which is very preoccupied with transparency and explaining what we do and why we do it. But that was a discussion programme. So we took the idea of transparency and said, let’s put it into a news programme.”
Outside Source, however, would not have been feasible without the current layout of the newsroom, which has everyone under one roof.
He points out: “Until we were all in this building, we couldn’t have done it anyway. This is the first time everyone has been in one place. It’s only since we have been here and the wireless and broadcast networks are stable enough to allow me to move around.”
Talking me through how it works, with him based at a white, round table on the newsroom floor, he offers: “Because I’m here and working off an iPad with wireless headphones and microphones, I can go and speak to anyone. The other big idea was that the BBC, like any journalistic organisation, has lots of journalists, but only so many of them are public faces, particularly in the broadcasting environment. You might have one presenter, but there are 10 people who work on the programme.
“There are lots of people, not just here (pointing to the newsroom), but on the floors upstairs as well, who are influential and important in terms of shaping our journalists and some of us on air, but you don’t actually get to hear from them very often. So the other idea was that we made sure we looked at stories – not just with the traditional reporters and host. We speak to the editors and producers and people off air who are hugely important. We want to give our listeners and viewers insight into the process.”
On how the show deviates – content-wise – from the traditional news shows, Atkins enlightens: “Sometimes there is a big story, but they wonder why we have not got a correspondent or someone covering it. Traditionally, we kind of don’t mention it (immediately). The guys who sit down here (see that screen that says ‘VCS traffic’?), co-ordinate our correspondents around the world. So if a bomb has gone off somewhere and we have a correspondent on the way, we wouldn’t say anything about that until the correspondent has arrived and is ready to go live and broadcast.
“Now, with this show, we can go to these guys and say: ‘Okay, we know the bomb has gone off, where are we with covering it?’ And they will go: ‘Well, I just spoke to the correspondent’ or ‘They are stuck in traffic because there is a police roadblock or something. We expect them on air in an hour’. Or we might speak to the correspondent while they are in the car, instead of waiting as we would traditionally.”
At any given time, Atkins can pull up four live screens from various agencies from his big touch screen, while also disseminating information to viewers on newsy tweets from BBC correspondents on relevant politicians.
He says: “It helps us break down the components of news in a way that traditional news bulletins might not be able to. The newsroom is right next door. In the same way that we can get people quickly on the radio, we can get people up to us very fast.”
No stranger to South Africa, having lived here for a bit as well as having covered numerous events including the World Cup in 2010 and, on the African continent, the post-election violence in Kenya, he says there isn’t any reason why the show can’t be mobile as well.
He explains: “I went down to South Africa a few times when Nelson Mandela was doing poorly and then we all came back home again. But I was lucky in a journalistic sense in that I was on a plane to Joburg – not anything to do with Mandela, I was on my way to Lesotho – when I arrived on the Friday morning and found out he had passed away. So we shot in the middle of the Joburg bureau.
“We applied the same principal in looking at the people around me and explaining the way we put the news together.”
Outside Source whets appetites by feeding into a refreshing way of disseminating the news to readers, with myriad behind-the-scenes interludes, too.
Talk about putting listeners and viewers in the picture – the full picture that is!
BBC World News airs on DStv channel 400.