ITV, The Beatles and changing the face of broadcast journalism: In conversation with Stuart Prebble

Former Editor of the Courier and President of the Union Stuart Prebble tells the Courier about his experiences in television

Louise Hall
4th March 2019
An issue of the Courier where Stuart was credited as News Editor

So Stuart, you were Editor of the Courier in 1971 and then President of the Union the subsequent year. Where did life after Newcastle University take you?

From University I joined the BBC Journalist training scheme which was a real great break for me.
Then I got a job back in Newcastle with BBC Look North and I was a reporter for a while and I presented Look North for a period of time. But I wanted to work in television current affairs, I wanted to work on World in Action which was ITV’s flagship investigative current affairs programme.

I worked as a producer in World in Action for five years and then I was ITV’s controller commissioning all their News and Current affairs which was fun.

I was Chief Executive of ITV digital and then Chief Executive of ITV. ITV was consolidating at the time from five big regional companies down to one so I worked out over a couple of years I would be firing all my friends and then at the end of that they would fire me as well, so I thought that would be a good time to go.

So in 2001 I left ITV to start an independent production company called Liberty Bell. I ran that for 3 years and then sold it.

By which point I thought I might have had enough but actually I was still finding that I was enjoying working with a really good team of people so we started another company called Storyvault films which is the one I run now and that’s why we’re here today. We do mostly arts programmes and a lot of documentaries. I’m now 67 , I do a bit of writing and a bit of television but It all started there really.

A wise man said to me at the beginning of my career, it’ll be fun and if it can’t be fun it’ll be interesting. My period running ITV was interesting, but not fun [laughs]

What was it like being the Chief Executive of one of the UK’s biggest media production companies?

A wise man said to me at the beginning of my career, it’ll be fun and if it can’t be fun it’ll be interesting. Most of it has been fun and interesting and my period running ITV was interesting, but not fun. [laughs] I learned a lot and I always think you know if you join teaching because you want to be a teacher and you’re any good, you get promoted and you’re running the school but you’re not a teacher anymore. If you get into television and you’re quite a good producer you get promoted and I found myself wearing a suit and nowhere near programmes.

I spent my entire time talking to shareholders and advertisers and all that which is a fantastically interesting learning curve. I knew I learned how to run a business. I knew when I started my own business all I had to do was take two noughts off every number, but I knew how to read a balance sheet how to read the profit loss account and all those things. But it was a time really where ITV was transitioning from a thing that people had joined because they wanted to be in public service broadcasting and quality programmes, to a way of making money.

So, it was a difficult time. And when I left I thought, just remind yourself why you joined in the first place. You joined because you like making programmes. So when I went back on one day I had a chafer driven car, two secretaries, an executive office, first class travel. The following day I’m being kept waiting for 45 minutes in the foyer of Channel 5 waiting to see the commissioning Editor for factual programmes.

But if you are the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s and you get out, you can’t go back and run a branch. If you are the Chief Executive of ITV and you get out you can go back and be a producer, because in the end producing content is what it’s all about. So I’ve never regretted for a second leaving ITV.

So what are you producing in Newcastle on this trip?

We make mostly art programmes now, we do two programmes called Portrait artist of the year and Landscape Artist of the year for Sky Arts and they are really successful and are fun to make.

Just about two years ago when Britain operated article 50 to tell the EC that we were leaving the EU we had an idea that it would be interesting to identify a whole load of ways in which Britain would be different post EU. And how artists might express that. So Sky agreed to sponsor 50 different artists in different disciplines to say something about how Britain will be different to play in the run up to us leaving at the end of March.

I’ve been in television for 45 years and it’s fascinating to watch it change. It’s tempting to say it’s all gone to hell, but really we’re having a good a time as we’ve ever had.

You’ve been part of the Journalism industry through a massive shift between traditional print and digital media, what was it like to be part of that transformation and do you think there’s still an importance in keeping traditional media alive?

If you go back to about 30 years everyone was predicting the end of terrestrial television, you know I started in television before Channel 4 and before Channel 5. There was ITV and BBC 1 and BBC 2 and ITV was the only company selling advertising. People say that monopolies are a terrible thing, but they’re not a terrible thing if you own one [laughs] and we did so it was absolutely brilliant because we could fund programming properly. But it didn’t mean that you didn’t have a public service duty, we had a remit and we had to do a certain number of hours of religious programmes and current affairs and high quality documentaries and all of those things, it was properly regulated.

As Channel 4 came on the air and then Channel 5 and eventually Multi-channel Television, for at least ten or fifteen years we kind of thought we were walking up the down escalator, that we were witnessing a change in the ecology of broadcasting. It’s interesting the way that the market has sort of worked itself out. It’s ironic that we’re doing our most high quality arts programming, for Sky which is the most brutally commercial beast in the jungle. They’ve worked out that there is a market there for hard to reach subscriber based television. BBC and ITV have worked out that their USP is the big events, live events that everybody’s got to see at the same time because if not you get to work on Monday and you can’t involve yourself in the conversations about who won the X-factor or Strictly Come Dancing.

I think there is as much good television on now as there was 30 years ago, it’s just a bit harder to find. I worked ITV for 25 years and I almost never watch a programme on ITV now, because they’ve worked out that their remit is the X Factor and Emmerdale and Coronation street.
I’ve been in television for 45 years and it’s fascinating to watch it change. It’s tempting to say it’s all gone to hell, but really we’re having a good a time as we’ve ever had.

I was walking down campus and a Volkswagen van drew up and they said ‘we want to play a concert.’ I looked in the back and Paul McCartney was in the back of the van

Going way back to your time at the Courier, what is your best memory of life in student media?

So the Beatles had not long since split and Paul McCartney was experimenting with his new band Wing that had Penny Lane and his wife Linda in and they decided to do their rehearsals on the road just dropping in places unannounced.

I was the Editor of the paper and I was going in on a Sunday but the University was deserted and I was walking down campus and a Volkswagen van drew up and someone said where is the students’ Union and I said, it’s there but it’s closed today and they said ‘well we want to play a concert.’ I looked in the back and Paul McCartney was in the back of the van. So I’d stayed in Castle Leazes my first year and thought this is a big crowd of people, maybe they could do something in the canteen. I said well you could probably play up there it would just take a bit of organizing.

They said ‘why don’t you try and sort this out for us, we need to check into a hotel.’ And I always say to people this was probably the stupidest remark I ever made in my life, which is that they asked: can you recommend a hotel? And I said ‘Well there’s the Swallow Hotel just down there, but it’s a bit expensive. Paul McCartney said ‘money no object’, which I thought wasn’t very cool. [laughs]

So I went up to Castle Leazes and said Paul McCartney wants to play here tonight and no-body believed me, but they did put on a concert and charged everybody fifty pence and it was utterly brilliant and everyone had a great night. And that only happened because I was in editing the newspaper and then it was the front page headline the following week.

Which role would you say was your favourite: Editor or President?

I mean I probably wouldn’t have been president had I not been Editor of the paper but I think if I was telling the truth probably President just because I could do it full time. I wasn’t thinking Christ I should be doing my degree or finishing this essay for a seminar.

I always believe people should follow their passions, if you want to work in media believe in it and really go for it because it is entirely possible

Do you have a favourite front page from your time as Editor?

I can’t remember any specifically I mean we are talking 47 years ago but at the time the miners’ strike was on so we had coaches sent up to Ashington which was a big mining town. We had a lot of trouble with Jesmond Landlords, I don’t know whether that’s still an issue…

Yeah it’s quite funny really how the more things change the more they stay the same [laughing]

There was this notorious exploitative slum landlord, so those were big stories. The Vice Chancellor retired, this wonderful guy called Henry Miller, Dr Henry Miller. He was a fabulous bloke. And Mrs Thatcher was the Education Secretary and we always used to refer to her as ‘that bloody woman’ which we thought was really cool. [laughing] There was the rent strike as well, halls of residence rents had gone up and so there was an organised rent strike which was quite a big story.

ITV kind of lost its nerve for the reasons that I talked about earlier, they started looking at it as a way of making money rather than an important public service

You were Producer and Editor of ITV’s World in Action series which you mentioned earlier. I was wondering if you think in the modern world of advertorials and click bait culture if investigative journalism still has a place in our society. Is it still something people want to see?

I think it is one of the great tragedies of the last twenty or thirty years. When I was on World in Action, that was on for 40 weeks of the year and it was really well resourced. ITV also had This Week which was doing really good current affairs on a Thursday and we were on a Monday. There’s almost none of that now, none of it at all on ITV and investigative current affairs are really important. It’s important in the newspapers but in a way even more important on television. That ITV was willing to do that and put it on Monday night at eight thirty, peak time.

I made a programme in which Matthew Harris who was then a conservative MP tried to spend a week on supplementary benefit and failed. It was watched by eight million people, this is a way of getting really important public issues really widely talked about. ITV kind of lost its nerve for the reasons that I talked about earlier, they started looking at it as a way of making money rather than an important public service and so it was diluted and diluted and in the end I was kind of glad they stopped it because it was so diluted it would have been impossible.

Whenever I talk about my career and I talk about World in Action people will say ‘ I used to love that programme’ and we got innocent people out of jail, it did change the world. Dispatches I think still does quite a good job and if there’s one panorama a year that makes a difference that’s surprising. So I think that’s a really sad loss.

So finally, what’s one piece of advice you’d offer to aspiring journalists looking to get into the industry?

Oddly enough it still is a business where you can start making the tea and if you’re any good you will be spotted and encouraged and promoted quickly. The Joys of our company is that we get loads of young people and one day they’re a runner and the next day they come back as an associate producer and the next time they come back as a producer. If you hire somebody as a runner, and they run as opposed to walk you spot them.  I always believe people should follow their passions and usually you can turn it into an income one way or another, if you want to work in media believe in it really go for it because it is entirely possible.

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