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From guest contributor Derek Evans: Visnews Part 1

In 1971 I received a telephone call from Fred Tucker Head of Film at Southern Television asking me to contact Peter Marshall, News Editor at Visnews as it may be of interest. After several interviews I was appointed Chief Film Editor – News Division. My responsibilities included the management of a team of film editors working on a shift basis, day and night, seven days a week and for the professional standards of cutting room output. It was to be a challenging and rewarding period working in a changing environment for nearly twenty years.

Visnews was located at the old Paramount News building, School Road, Acton in north London. Visnews was the first non-US television news agency as a result of the Commonwealth broadcasters wanting news sources that were free of American bias. In 1957 the British Commonwealth International News Agency came into being. The name changed to Visnews when it was decided to use the telegraphic address which was becoming more recognized than BCINA.

BBC and the Rank Organization were the two major shareholders with Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as minor equity holders later joined by New Zealand Broadcasting. In 1960 Reuters took an interest and became a larger shareholder in 1968 when the Rank Organization withdrew. In 1962 an agreement with NBC led to Visnews being allowed access to US Network news coverage for syndication. Today the company is known as Reuters Television and is world’s largest international news film agency with access to 400 camera crews worldwide and numerous overseas bureau x as well as a comprehensive satellite distribution network.

My brief was to familiarize myself with the news operation, staffing levels and equipment; a challenging time with having to make some staff redundant but financial viability had to take precedent. The cutting rooms were equipped with 16mm Acmade editing tables which were soon replaced by 16mm Steenbeck editing tables which were operationally better.

The company’s managing director was Ronnie Waldman at one time General Manager of BBC Enterprise before becoming M.D of Visnews. Under his direction Visnews was beginning to develop new products and services. To this end it was decided that a purpose built building was required to accommodate not only the news service operation but also technical facilities, film processing laboratory, film and video library, shipping department and the production division Visnews were now servicing some 400 broadcaster’s world-wide from its new base in Cumberland Avenue, Park Royal, North London.

In 1974 I was appointed Film Operations Manager the role not only encompassing the News Division film editing but also Specials Services, Library, staff recruitment and selection, disciplinary matters and financial control.

Newsfilm coverage was 16mm format and after processing was viewed by an editor and a journalist to formulate the storyline. News coverage was also received by satellite which was recorded at that time on ¾” tape for eventual editing. Once edited, the story would either be printed or recorded onto cassette format for syndication world-wide. If of major importance it would be offered to the Eurovision News Exchange or EBU the European Broadcasting Union an organization based in Geneva which was founded in 1950 and is the largest association of national broadcasters in the world and exchanges news pictures offered by its members, and international television news agencies, via landline and satellite.
Visnews had a rule that all scripts should be “non bias“ as subscribers would put their own interpretation on the story. Unfortunately some Visnews journalists put their own political stance thereby causing considerable problems for our international relations department to smooth over and placate the client.

In 1980 Visnews and the technicians union ACTT, now known as BECTU signed an agreement regarding ENG (Electronic News Gathering) operations in the UK. Prior to this, I along with the two senior film editors attended an ENG course at Sony UK Basingstoke. The video equipment being Sony BVU/BVP editing machines and after some four days attending lectures and operating the equipment we were deemed qualified and with this knowledge were able to instruct the film editors in the art of video editing.

Because of additional responsibility, not only for film but also the ENG operation, I was appointed Film/ENG Operations Manager. It was also understood that on occasion I would continue to edit both film and video. One of those occasions was to edit the first video news story to be injected into the Eurovision news exchange from a news agency.

It was on a quiet news day that I edited a two minute piece from various “ offcuts “ on the Vietnam war depicting dramatic action. The news editor of the day was John Tulloh an Australian who on viewing it said we will syndicate it BBC News congratulated Visnews for a fine report.

One aspect of the news service was to provide editing facilities to the many foreign television journalists based in London. One particular day editing facilities were required by Soviet TV. The Soviet camera team had filmed derelict slums in the East End of London purporting to show how Londoners were living. The editor assigned objected to this stance, and although the reporter quietly agreed, he was only following the party line. The Cold War was still on.

Cameramen and soundmen were often involved in covering war events and without their ingenuity and determination excelled in producing the required pictures, but in doing so endangered their lives. During the Vietnam War Visnews cameraman, Neil Davis along his soundman Bill Latch were both caught up in a firefight resulting in both being killed. Neil’s camera at that time was still running and captured Bill Letch dying.

Mohammed Amin

Visnews bureau Chief Mohamed Amin, based in Nairobi was an exceptional cameraman as well as being a talented stills photographer.  In 1984 his coverage of the Ethiopian famine inspired a global conscience leading to the concerts of Band Aid and Live Aid in 1985. In 1991 he was badly injured when an ammunition dump exploded which killed his soundman John Matha. Mo Amin’s lower forearm was amputated and he had a bionic arm fitted which enabled him to carry on filming with a specially adapted camera. Unfortunately in 1996 he lost his life in an aircraft hijack crash. The success of a news organization is due to the skill, reliability and dedication of field cameraman around the world such as Mo Amin and Neil Davis as well as the soundmen.

As part of the News Division development Visnews Special Services was created under the direction of Tom Hudson the then Head of News to make programmes for children and on lesser known sporting events such as Hai Lai,  Nomadic Wrestling, Bull Baiting, Camel Racing. Freelance editors were contracted including Bob Frost ex-Movietone, Colin Dean, Len Waters and Roy Piper, film editor on Watership Down who sadly lost his life while on holiday. Many excellent programs were made and sold to broadcasters world wide but the unit eventually closed due to the economics of production.

In 1981, because of my technical and creative experience I took on the role of Co-coordinator Location Specials. This was a relative new operation under the management of Roy Mack who joined the company in 1966 thereby having considerable knowledge of news operations. Location Specials grew out of Visnews main activity the gathering of news and in having access to camera crews and services all over the world it made sense to offer this facility on a commercial basis to programme makers and production companies. The varied work that was undertaken ranged from special news coverage, sporting events, video press releases, inserts for drama programmes, documentaries, multi-destination satellite conferences and other satellite projects. This was a challenging role which brought me into contact with foreign news organizations, advertising agencies, corporate organizations and production companies.

One company, De Beers part of Diamonds International were contacted concerning a competition which is held every two years for jewellery designers to incorporate diamonds into their designs. The best would receive an award. An initial meeting held at their high security offices in Hatton Garden resulted in Location Specials being commissioned to cover the award ceremony being held in Paris. Two camera crews were assigned to cover the ceremony under my direction.
Once the event was over we immediately went to the Visnews offices and edited the with the coverage which was then transmiited to Visnews London for distribution as a video news release

The Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race was yet to be more of a challenge. This was a worldwide event in which locally based camera crews were assigned as well as editing and satellite transmission facilities. In addition sponsors requested special coverage including onboard footage shot by the crews. This was a major operation not only due to the logistics but the various time zones for booking satellite time. This turned out to be a five month logistical operation not only involving British Telecom who booked the satellite feeds but Visnews Technical Facilities recording the coverage. To add to this other sponsors requested last minute coverage which meant as production co-ordinator having to be available both night and day in making telephone calls to far away places.  The coverage was recorded and re-edited for syndication in the Visnews Sports service with special edits for individual sponsors.

Video News Release or VNR is an economic and highly effective way of providing a press release in video form to national and international broadcasters. Air time is not guaranteed, but if the event is visually newsworthy television exposure will be gained.  Hill & Knowlton a public relations company coordinated the announcement of the Rubik Cube in Hungary. The coverage was hand carried to London edited and then distributed as a VNR to television stations worldwide. Mercedes-Benz another client required special coverage of a sports car event in Belgium and Boeing Aircraft Company launch of one of their new aircraft.

Visnews offered a Trustee Fellowship for journalists from the third world to visit Europe and North America to give them an insight to the various media operations .Usually two journalists undertake the tour, but unfortunately one was unable to do so, and in 1981 I was asked to accompany Bong Aznar a television journalist from the Philippines to the United States and Canada for three weeks. We flew from Heathrow on Laker Airways. Our brief was to view the news channels of  NBC, ABC and CBS in New York and CBC in Toronto.  We checked in to the Wellington Hotel not far from Central Park. On being shown to my room it appeared to have been ransacked so I moved to another on a higher floor. I was told before leaving London about room security and this was confirmed by the number of locks and the peephole to the door. The other piece of advice given by our hosts was always to use a”yellow” meaning the taxi and not to walk at night. Once settled in and on viewing the various news channels which invariably opened their the local news bulletin with a lead item of someone being killed or a child being dropped from fourteen floors up because its relative could not stand its crying with very little about worldwide events.

Logo of CBS News

Logo of CBS News

Our first appointment was to Visnews located at the Rockefeller Building. Andrew Ailes as North America Manager was in charge of all the company’s operations in North and Central America.. Further visits took place during the week to ABC, NBC and CBS to see their news operations and to the United Nations on East River where we were met by Marcel Martin, Head of Audio Visual Services and Marvin Bulotsky Chief of UN Satellite Operations. We undertook a tour of the studios, conference rooms including the General Assembly where we had the opportunity to stand at the rostrum a highlight knowing that many world statesmen had stood there. A visit to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) offices situated in the CBS building and managed by Tony Naets and two assistants who co-ordinated for the EBU under difficult circumstances, due at that time, to landline time availability to enable recording and playout.  In the evening we attended a reception hosted by ARD the German television channel to a reception at the St Moritz Hotel Sky Room.

Amtrak “All aboard” a familiar scene as depicted in many Hollywood Movies as we boarded a train to Washington. We were to visit NBC and COMSAT a global telecommunications company where we were welcomed by Vice-President Jay Trager who gave an in depth tour of the COMSAT operations which included a very large screen showing the orbiting satellites which were being monitored to ensure that they were on the correct path of orbit.

NBC, News Producer Bill Leonard took us on a tour of Washington which included the Arlington National Cemetery a national shrine commemorating the lives and services of the Armed Forces and then onto the National Air & Space Museum .  Later that evening we saw the make-up and transmission of the news bulletin and weather program.

On our return to New York it was to the ”New York Times” newspaper where some 5000 employees worked for the paper covering every aspect of news, arts and sports. Once the paper had been finalized it was then transmitted via Laser to New Jersey for printing and then sent via satellite to Chicago and the West Coast for distribution.

Our next visit was to Reuters, a Visnews shareholder, a compact and well run operation providing financial information to banks and financial businesses in the US and worldwide by cable and satellite from their headquarters.  Our last call was to CBS where Bob Little Syndication Editor was our host.  CBS News also produced an hour long show once a week for distribution to business and other interested organizations.

The following day a short flight saw us arriving in Toronto to visit CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and to meet Don Ferguson Assistant Director of News and Current Affairs one time Executive Editor at Visnews. After a short discussion we met The Chief News Editor TV News Vince Carlin who took time out of his busy schedule to discuss and observe the makeup and production of the evening CBC National News. Our final day we met Henry Kowalski Executive Producer of CBLT the local news channel, to watch the make-up of the local news bulletin. A final farewell and we left with an insight to the many varied media operations with an observation that we in Europe were somewhat behind regarding the new technology that was available.

Click here to read part two of this article.

Derek Evans
July 2012
©2012 All rights reserved.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Richard Newnham Ex Vis 1963- 1986 #

    All very interesting and brings back many memories. Where are you these days?

    August 17, 2014

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