My Media Day: Iain Watson, political correspondent, BBC

IAIN Watson is a political correspondent for the BBC, based in London. He is a former Westminster editor of the Sunday Herald, which he joined as the paper was launching in 1999.

His couple of years at the newspaper followed an initial spell at the BBC, during which time he was, among other things, a producer on the news and current affairs programme, Newsnight.

He submitted this on Saturday, April 13.

What exactly is it that you do?

A good question… and not that easy to answer.

Certainly, my mother assumes – or pretends to assume – that if I appear on TV for a couple of minutes, I have the rest of the day free.

What is actually broadcast is, of course, the tip of the iceberg – there is a lot going on beneath the surface, and away from view.

There is no ‘typical’ day. Sometimes it can feel like you are at the very heart of a story and the frisson from finding out something new, or something you weren’t supposed to know, is quite addictive. At other times, it can feel like you are on a bit of a treadmill, tailoring fundamentally the same story to suit the tastes of different BBC programmes.

Some days are spent working on my own stories – for example, recently the controversial attempts by some London councils to encourage some families in rented homes to move to cheaper accommodation further north.

At other times, I am reporting what is said in parliament or what appears in the ‘political diary’ – the pre-arranged announcements by ministers, opposition parties and campaign groups.

It’s up to me to add analysis and provide competing points of view, rather than simply churning out visual or aural media releases.

In between all that, I am sniffing around the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall, trying to find out what’s going on and having formal or informal meetings with political contacts.

Once I have a story – or have been assigned one – there is usually a discussion about which of the myriad BBC outlets would be the most appropriate place to broadcast it.

Original political stories are often offered to the Today programme on Radio 4, or the World at One and occasionally the BBC One bulletins – though it’s often more difficult to find a slot on TV that isn’t already allocated to ‘the story of the day’.

In any given month, I will have popped up on the One, Six, and Ten O’clock TV news programmes, the 24-hour News Channel, BBC Radio 4 and some of what are internally referred to as ‘the sequence programmes’, such as Today and PM.

And possibly the ‘national stations’ too, such as Radio Scotland and Radio Wales.

I will sometimes do BBC Radio 5 live, usually very early in the morning or very late at night – probably when they are short of more important guests!

I also write analysis and features for BBC Online, so I am kept busy.

Even on run-of-the-mill stories, I am determined to try to move them on.

In the past, I have worked for specific programmes – such as Newsnight and Today – that tend to give me a bit more time for digging out original material and for exploring the development of political ideas.

But working, as I do now, across the output means the excitement of breaking news isn’t far away.

What did your working day today or yesterday comprise?

Today was my first day at New Broadcasting House, the vast extension to the traditional home of BBC Radio in central London, and now the replacement for Television Centre. I am usually based at the BBC’s Westminster offices but when Parliament isn’t sitting, I am reunited with the remainder of my BBC colleagues.

The newsroom is the engine room of the flagship HQ and, like any engine room, it is buried in the very bowels of the building and there aren’t many distractions to keep you away from the work in hand.

You can be asked by TV, radio or online to chase up any story with a tangential relationship with politics, so it is better to be pro-active.

Today, with David Cameron on his way back to Britain from Berlin, following talks with Germany’s Angela Merkel, I wanted to find out what they’d said – beyond a rather bland Downing Street media release.

The key thing was whether she had indicated she would be helpful in his endeavour to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU or if she would be a hindrance. To an extent, Conservative electoral prospects – and almost certainly UKIP’s – could depend on it.

I discovered there was good and bad news for David Cameron – she did think a change to EU treaties was inevitable, and this would allow him to try to bring powers back from Brussels to Britain as part of that process and without the need to leave the EU.

But she wouldn’t put a timescale on it – and therefore it might not happen before David Cameron, if re-elected , plans to hold a referendum on EU membership in 2017. So UKIP’s ‘fox’ hadn’t been shot, only slightly wounded.

TV bulletins wanted to cover this development – but in a minute, flat!

The shorter the contribution, the more work this usually involves – along the lines of the old adage: ‘Sorry for the long letter – I didn’t have time to write a short one’. I was given more time to wax lyrical on Radio 4, but the story wasn’t to everyone’s taste.

BBC Radio 5 live felt their audience would instead want to hear more details of the arrangements for Lady Thatcher’s funeral. I could tell them that the Prime Minister would give a reading – and I also reflected the views of those – such as the former Mayor of London, who were questioning the cost.

But I don’t get advance notice of the questions – and the presenter strayed far beyond politics and more into the territory usually covered by the Royal reporters – the differences between state and ceremonial funerals, the reasons for a military presence, etc, etc. The best policy is not to pretend to know what you don’t. But, believe me, sometimes BBC correspondents don’t get a much easier time from presenters in interviews than the politicians themselves.

How different or similar was it to your average working day?

It was similar in that I usually file for more than one BBC programme, and I often have to cover more than one story on any given day.

But there were differences, too.

Based at Westminster on a weekday, it’s possible to get more face-to-face contact with politicians – and sometimes to get a good steer towards previously unnoticed stories.

Also on weekdays there are twice-daily lobby briefings from the Prime Minister’s spokesperson – most days, these take place on government territory in the morning, usually in the Treasury, and in the afternoon in a small room that resembles a loft conversion on the very roof of the Palace of Westminster (which, incidentally, has great views of the Thames if you did your mind wandering).

Often, though, these briefings are more useful in flagging up what stories your print rivals are chasing than they are in finding out what’ going on begin the closed doors of Number 10.

The briefings are given by civil servants rather than political appointees so often other sources have to be approached if you want to find out David Cameron’s less diplomatic views.

But this is a Saturday, so there are no official briefings and sometimes it can also take a lot longer getting even unofficial, unattributable information – especially with MPs back in their constituencies and parliamentary staff trying to enjoy some spare time.

And of course staffing levels at the BBC thin out, too. So I have to juggle sometimes competing demands – finding time to chase a story, and a place to make genuinely confidential calls, while the ’24 hour’ services such as the News Channel and 5 live are hungry for updates. And at weekends – again with fewer camera crews and with some MPs in far-flung parts of the country or abroad – it’s often necessary to get involved as much in the logistics of how to get a story on air, as the content of the story itself.

How different or similar is your average working day to when you started in post?

My first BBC job was as producer on BBC Two’s Newsnight, working with not just Jeremy Paxman and Kirsty Wark but Mark Mardell, Michael Crick and Gordon Brewer.

Journalistically, I brought my own stories to the programme but now of course I also have to broadcast them myself and I still get nervous during the few seconds before I am about to say something live on air.

Being as natural as possible requires a lot of work.

If it’s a story that someone is uncomfortable about, I am usually the first to get a complaint.

How do you see the job evolving?

I’d like to do more for BBC Online – on ‘big days’ such as the budget – they run a live page where you can post near-instant analysis. But, at its best, the website allows far more space than some broadcast media for reflection and for pieces which delve behind the headlines.

It’s a great place to tell the political aficionados what you know but can’t compress into two minutes on television for a wider audience.

Technologically, there has been a revolution rather than mere evolution since I started out. For example, we can now file radio pieces from our phones rather than carrying around hefty equipment. We cut interview clips for TV packages on computers without the assistance of an expert VT editor.

But there are, I suppose, dangers that, as it becomes easier to file to so many different outlets, we can spread ourselves a little too thin – and spend more time covering stories rather than revealing them.

What gives you most job satisfaction?

Breaking stories and getting at least peer group recognition for doing it. I have to admit that, until not so long ago, I got a real thrill sitting in the Newsnight studio declaiming about politics to presenters I had watched as a fan. And I am still a fan of them.