Chris Cramer: Meet the future of TV news
19 February 2007
By Raymond Snoddy
Ever since he was caught up in the Iranian embassy siege of 1980, Chris Cramer has been at the centre of global events. Now the Brit who went to the States to put CNN on the map is back - with a new mission in mind.
Chris Cramer, one of the most powerful Britons in global news-gathering, the man who built CNN into the worldwide powerhouse it is today, has a mission on his mind. He is going to take his rowing boat out on to the Chattahoochee river in Georgia - as seen in the film Deliverance - and he is going to practise his sculling for a couple of months.
After that, he is heading home from the southern states of America to London, where he hopes to put in place a plan for shaking up the landscape of British television news.
Cramer has spent the past decade turning the Atlanta-based operation which Ted Turner founded in 1980 into a truly international operation. He oversees a network of 26 overseas bureaux and a 24-hour service not just in English but in Spanish and Japanese as well as joint ventures with other broadcasters in India, Turkey and beyond.
But at the end of next month, he is declaring his job done and returning across the Atlantic. "Then I am open for business and I am not averse to considering anything," says the man who left the BBC after 26 years to join CNN.
In reality, Cramer has a very good idea of what he wants to do next. He reckons that after nearly 40 years he has done "linear" television where one programme follows another, and that the future of television news lies in broadband, together with harnessing the power of mobile phones and user-generated content - the news that ordinary citizens can provide.
His post-Chattahoochee vision goes like this. He would like to use his extensive experience in setting up newsgathering structures and launching new channels to create a new online service at modest cost that would bring together "tantalising" news, information and documentaries. "I think it is possible to have comprehensive coverage of the world these days using cellphone technology. The other half of that dream career is how we square the circle of user-generated content and conventional journalism." Such a dream would need financial backing, or involve working with an established player with a trusted brand which wanted to expand online.
Though Cramer is far too polite to be specific, a possible outlet for his dream career could just be staring him in the face. He believes it was unfortunate that ITN was forced to pull the plug on its 24-hour television news service more than a year ago, leaving just Sky News and BBC News 24 as the main British players in the 24-hour television news field.
"I hope that, in one shape or another, an ITN continuous news proposition comes back because it helps the other two," says Cramer, who just happens to be a friend of ITN's chief executive, Mark Wood. "ITN is such a formidable company and it needs to get beyond just three or four programmes for a couple of networks. I really hope they have something up their sleeve in the next few years because they need to try to get back into the 24-hour news business in some shape or form."
Could it be that it's an ITN broadband service he has been dreaming of? "Maybe. I'll ask him [Wood]. They have a mini-online service at the moment but the UK can sustain two or three brands they can trust and there are three brands that the public trust."
In spite of all his achievements as a news executive, Cramer is still best-known to many as one of the hostages at the Iranian Embassy siege in London in 1980. In scenes that were shown again and again on television at the time, soldiers from the Special Air Service Regiment abseiled down the side of the building and opened fire on a group of six terrorists aligned to a group called the Democratic Revolutionary Front for Arabistan. Five terrorists were shot dead, two in controversial circumstances, and one remains in prison, serving a life sentence. The spectacular SAS operation was prompted by the execution of one of the 26 hostages. Cramer, who had been held with BBC sound recordist Sim Harris and had managed to phone some reports to the outside world, had been released slightly earlier in the siege but underwent a mental collapse from the experience. He told a BBC documentary broadcast in 2002 that he didn't consider himself any kind of hero. "I may be a coward but at least I know I am a coward."
For the rest of his career, he has been quick to recognise the traumas often suffered by journalists in hot spots, to do everything possible to minimise the risks they face and to confront the reckless machismo that sometimes dominates the genre of war reporting.
Cramer took the traditional route into journalism. Born in Portsmouth, the son of a soldier, he began on hospital radio and was a local paper journalist before joining regional BBC.
His decision to leave CNN at the age of 58 came as a surprise to most people in the news business. He insists that the decision has been absolutely his own and that he has been talking about an orderly transition with his boss, Jim Walton, the worldwide president of CNN, for months.
Cramer, who took US citizenship last year, joined CNN in 1996 (after "15 seconds thought"). The network had once been known by rivals as "Chicken Noodle News" but by the time Cramer came on board, it was living off the laurels of Peter Arnott and co's extraordinary coverage from Baghdad during the first Gulf War in 1990-91. But CNN was still incredibly US-centric in its international coverage. There was a danger that it would lose carriage on cable networks and be available in fewer homes around the world. "So the objective was completely forensic," Cramer says. "It was, with colleagues, to take CNN to the next level, and the work's done."
CNN International's networks are now in 200 million homes compared to around 80 million in 1996, and 95 per cent of the programming does not appear in the US. Only three of the "American" signature programmes appear regularly on CNN International.
During his quarter of a century at the BBC, Cramer built up a reputation as a revolutionary in transforming the way that news was gathered and broadcast. In his five years as head of BBC newsgathering he introduced bi-media (radio and television) reporting and encouraged journalists and technicians to multi-skill.
He also had a part in the famous Mark Thompson biting row of 1988, when the current director general, who was then the newly appointed editor of the Nine O'Clock News, sank his teeth into Anthony Massey, the home news organiser.
According to Massey's account, emailed to Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman and then widely leaked, he went to complain to Cramer, who was his boss. "All Cramer said was, 'This whole place is full of headbangers," which was a fair point and indeed is still true, but didn't help somehow. I wanted to bring the whole BBC disciplinary process down on Thompson's head, but Cramer was desperate for that not to happen. So I got sent abroad on some story for a month or so, and when I came back it had lost momentum, and I never pursued it."
All of which might help Cramer if he wished to return to BBC news but that does not appear to be part of his game plan, perhaps because when he left the corporation he was given, in his internal mail, 30 pieces of silver - 20p coins wrapped in foil.
In his vision for the future, Cramer sees a role for more opinion-based journalism in television news. "There is a school of thought, not just in the US but elsewhere, that says opinion television is somehow a bad thing. In other words, that television networks doing what newspapers have done for a couple of centuries is somehow a bad thing. I think it's only a bad thing if it's not clearly labelled."
More stories, he is convinced, will be generated by the public. "The Saddam executions demonstrated how much this complements journalism. It's real journalism and richer journalism. How would we have known about the dissent in the execution chamber without user generated content?"
When Jim Walton recently made his farewell tribute to Cramer, he said it was "Chris's dedication to journalists' safety and mental well-being that truly distinguishes him, both professionally and personally. He has taught us all to recognise the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and to feel comfortable talking about it. Our entire industry owes Chris a huge debt."
Cramer now knows that he suffered from PTSD after being caught up in the embassy siege. The experience made him sensitive to health and safety issues at the BBC well before other news executives . "It is indisputable now that CNN and the BBC are the industry leaders in safety and they are big so they should be," says Cramer, who is president of the International News Safety Institute.
CNN, like most big news organisations, has lost staff in war zones. But last year, the worst on record according to the INSI with 158 deaths of journalists, translators and fixers, CNN did not lose anyone. "The business is inherently unsafe but it beggars belief that some organisations, fewer these days, deploy people into war zones without training and without equipment."
Journalists' safety and the work of the Institute will remain Cramer enthusiasms, but it is the journalism that interests him above all. "Those who suggest it isn't what it used to be aren't paying attention. Journalists here and elsewhere are as passionate, if not more so, than when I joined the profession." And the role of the professional journalist, he believes, will be enhanced rather than undermined by user-generated content. "There is a lot of crap out there and there's the video equivalent of the poison pen letter and we need to filter out the electronic green ink and the electronic block capitals. The journalist and journalism is centre stage to this."
These are undoubtedly the sort of values that will inform the online Cramer news network if it gets off the ground. But first the sculling must be improved.