Stephen Mitchell: Making the headlines
PUBLISHED: 15:18 13 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:52 20 February 2013
Making tough judgement calls is all part of a day's work for senior BBC news man Stephen Mitchell, from Harpenden. Pat Parker spoke to him
AS Deputy Director of BBC News and Head of Multimedia Programmes, Stephen Mitchell, who has lived in Hertfordshire for more than 20 years, is one of the Corporation's top executives.
It's a difficult and responsible job, ranging from overseeing flagship TV current affairs shows such as Newsnight and Panorama, to Radio One's Newsbeat and the BBC's Asian Network. And that is just the Multimedia part.
'When the head of news, Helen Boaden, is away, I'm in charge of everything in news - so technically I'm in charge of myself!' he says. 'The BBC is a baffling organisation.'
The BBC has come in for a storm of criticism in recent times, from the Hutton Inquiry to the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross affair last year and this year's row over its refusal to show the Gaza charity appeal. Stephen has to ensure that, on all the programmes he oversees, the BBC's guiding principles of accuracy, fairness, balance and impartiality are rigorously maintained.
Dealing with criticism, be it from lobbyists, politicians or journalists, is not always easy. 'People are a lot more media savvy than they were 30 years ago,' says Stephen. 'Everyone has a stake in the BBC and everyone feels they have an opinion and that often manifests itself in criticism rather than praise. But every opinion poll we do suggests the BBC is hugely respected as a journalistic enterprise. Approval ratings are very high and we have to reassure ourselves that the bulk of licence fee payers approve of what we're doing.'
Stephen was head of radio news at the time of the row over Andrew Gilligan's report on the Today programme about the alleged 'sexing up' of the Iraq dossier, although he was never a witness at the subsequent Hutton Inquiry. Some believe the BBC has lost its nerve somewhat since the Hutton Report, which resulted in the resignations of its director general and chairman, but Stephen denies that the BBC was in any way cowed.
'We are journalists, not historians, and it is sometimes difficult to make a call when events are unfolding all the time and deadlines are continuous'
'I am absolutely adamant about this. The BBC split itself in two during the Inquiry. Part of the BBC, including the director general and the then director of news, were mounting a defence of the organisation, but they were separated from the journalistic operation, which I remained part of. It was quite a stretch but we got through that by sticking to the basic principles of our journalism. And there was no way we were cowed by anything that had happened, although of course it gave us pause for thought.'
Hertfordshire, says Stephen, provides the perfect escape from the stresses of the job. 'London for me is associated with a fairly tough job, but I know in Hertfordshire I'm in a different place. There is a real distance between London and here.'
The family lived in Much Hadham for several years before moving to Harpenden 14 years ago. Stephen's wife, Barbara, a specialist teacher, comes from St Albans and teaches at Oaklands College there. Their children, Francesca and Struan, both attended Harpenden's Sir John Lawes comprehensive.
The family live near Rothamsted Park, where Stephen relaxes by walking the dog. 'Harpenden is lovely - there's so much open space here and it's been a great place to bring up the children, which was a prime consideration when we moved here,' he says.
Stephen is no BBC toff. He was born in Loughborough in 1949, the son of a welder, and grew up on a council estate. 'My parents had to work very hard and struggle to make ends meet.'
He was, however, academically bright, and, after passing his 11-Plus, won a place at a direct-grant private grammar school. Mixing with children from a far more privileged background came as a bit of a culture shock. 'I found myself with people from another world.' But he settled in relatively quickly, and went on to read politics and modern history at Manchester University.
He had a great time. 'I'm a child of the 60s, and the world was opening up for many people. It was a fantastic experience because there were so many things going on then for our generation. It was a very exciting time.'
When it came to choosing a career, Stephen volunteered to be a guinea pig for the then new technique of psychometric testing. 'I had to fill out endless questionnaires and they came back and told me the tests showed I should either become a policeman or a journalist!'
He didn't fancy wearing a uniform, so he chose the latter, and was offered a job with Thomson Regional Newspapers. He started at the Western Mail and South Wales Echo, based in Cardiff, and later joined the BBC Radio Newsroom in 1974. He went on to work as a reporter on the Today programme, then presented by the formidable Brian Redhead. 'He was just charm itself. He was a very nice and encouraging man, although that doesn't mean he wasn't extremely demanding. But it was a slightly gentler programme in those days _ it was the period of the skateboarding duck. It was less intense, with lighter items, and it was a pleasure to be on it.'
He soon concluded, though, that his future lay beyond the microphone. 'I'm not blessed with a very interesting voice,' he confesses. 'I have to work very hard to put life into my voice on the radio and I cannot for the life of me walk and talk at the same time. So I realised quite early on that I was never going to be a star radio reporter!'
So he moved to news editing and producing, at a time when the BBC found itself under fire for its reporting of the Falklands conflict. 'The Government approach was to put up an official spokesman when we had reporters on the ground in the Falklands. So we knew a lot more than the government wanted the public to know but they would cite national interest. I was quite senior in terms of being responsible for output and it was a difficult balancing act. Big questions were asked in Parliament and elsewhere about the way we covered that war. There was the Argentine government's account of an incident and the British account and the idea that you would treat the two versions with almost equal weight was very controversial.'
He went on to become Editor of Radio News Programmes, helping set up Radio Five Live, and in June, 1997, became deputy head of BBC News Programmes, helping relaunch Radio 4's schedules. He was appointed Head of Multimedia Programmes in 2007, and Deputy Director of BBC News last year.
Every day brings new challenges, and new balancing acts to perform. 'The hardest aspect is a matter of fine judgement. We are journalists, not historians, and it is sometimes difficult to make a call when events are unfolding all the time and deadlines are continuous. You have to make decisions in an imperfect world and against the clock when you haven't got all the information or evidence, and sometimes that involves fine judgement as to whether we're confident enough to go or to delay. And that I find really difficult.'
He is in no doubt what he likes best about the job, however. 'The most enjoyable thing about working in the BBC is the people. This is the most creative organisation in the world, and I'm always surprised that you can have four people in one room and get five ideas you've never thought of. They're all cleverer than I am and I find them really stimulating.'