BBC’s Vin Ray on storytelling and freelancing

Vin Ray, director of the BBC College of Journalism, spoke to The Linc during his visit to the University of Lincoln on Thursday, February 25th, when he gave a masterclass workshop in storytelling to a select group of journalism students.

Ray has worked for the BBC since 1987, beginning his work at CEEFAX and most recently directing the BBC’s College of Journalism, which is said to have the biggest journalism training website in the world.


Vin Ray, director of the BBC's College of Journalism, visited the University of Lincoln on Thursday. Photo Anneka James

Yet when Ray was working as the BBC’s world news editor in 1996 he took charge of the newsgathering teams in foreign countries, where he implemented new safety measures for journalists working for the BBC.

These measures were announced after one of Ray’s colleagues, Martin Bell, was injured when reporting in Sarajevo.

But Ray, instead of believing that the journalists of today are over-protected, feels that actually providing reporters with equipment that will keep them safe only furthers the potential of a story.

He said: “In terms of risk, you know, if you don’t want to take a risk then you shouldn’t get on the plane in the first place. You are inevitably taking a risk by going somewhere.

“On the other hand it’s very important that we don’t mistake having flak jackets and armoured vehicles for something that will protect you and make you take more risks.

“The danger is by having all this gear you’ll go a bit further down the road, a bit further past that checkpoint than you might have done because you’ve got all this equipment in place.”

War reporting is considered the most dangerous type of journalism, in some cases risking your life along with the soldiers on the frontline in order to achieve a great piece of reportage.

However, Ray sends a clear message to young journalists that want to go into reporting from the trenches or from a poorer country, and that is to freelance.

“The one worthwhile thing to think about [for young journalists] is to go to a place and set yourself up where nobody else is there and reporting because it’s not a particularly nice place.

“Set yourself up as a stringer for the BBC World Service, the Financial Times, or The Economist and I know a number of people who have done that from a very young age and [have] succeeded very well.”

Ray stresses that for a foreign editor, as he was, it is important that the journalists you have out in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan are experienced and can handle difficult situations.

Ray said: “You really want experienced people on the other end of the phone when you are dealing with people in a war zone and that’s terribly important, you don’t want inexperienced people.”

Ray’s career within the BBC is nearing its end, and wants to retire soon. However, he endorses the view that with international news in its current state, there is ever more work available for the freelance journalist.

“There is more freelance work around simply because in international news most organisations are contracting and therefore reducing the number of permanent staff, which does open up opportunities for freelancers,” said Ray.

Most notably Ray headed up operations as executive editor at the BBC in 1999 where he had the challenge of improving the BBC’s storytelling ability because audiences thought that news was becoming “too elitist”.

“The BBC did the largest amount of audience research that had ever been done into the way [they] consumed television news.

“One of the conclusions was [that] viewers were getting quite confused in the way we told some stories, they thought the BBC was a bit elitist, it boiled down essentially to the way we were telling stories.

“I was able to write a book and did a lot of coaching of news correspondents, presenters, and we gradually made changes in the way we told stories,” he said.

In the recent years, television news across the spectrum has on occasions been accused of “dumbing down” its news content. But Ray, who has always been a great advocator of storytelling, feels breaking down complex issues into small segments helps to make the story more understandable to the watching audience.

He said: “There is a difference between making things simple and easy to understand and making them simplistic — they are two different things. The key thing that our audiences have said to us forever is break it down, make it easier to understand.

“I think that’s a very, very important job for a responsible news organisation is to have people with real specialist knowledge but people who aren’t so specialist that they can’t break stuff down for the ordinary viewer.

“The key thing for me is actually the ability to take something very, very complex and use a variety of storytelling techniques to make it make sense to people.”

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