News at Ten's Mark Austin on Prince William and Kate, the big stories and life in the Surrey Hills
The main presenter for ITV’s News at Ten, Mark Austin has reported on some of the world’s biggest stories. Here, he chats to us about life in the firing line, how the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was easily his toughest assignment and why he likes nothing more than a relaxing walk in the Surrey Hills near his Haslemere home...
He may have dodged bullets and bombs while working as a foreign correspondent for ITN, but News at Ten anchor Mark Austin admits that covering the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was easily his most daunting assignment. Given the task of capturing the atmosphere along the Mall on the royal couple’s big day, he had to contend with boisterous well-wishers plying him with drink live on air, getting caught up in the surge of bodies that thronged towards Buckingham Palace for ‘the kiss’, not to mention the producer shouting instructions in his earpiece.
“It’s very difficult interviewing people dressed from head to toe in Union flags, especially when they’re drinking vodka, Coke and Champagne,” he says grimacing. “And I hadn’t planned on getting quite so caught up in the melee, but I didn’t move quickly enough when the police removed the barriers. I was terrified, but the message in my earpiece was: ‘Just carry on. It’s making very good television.’ I’d have rather been in a war zone, frankly!”
At home in Haslemere
Thankfully, when the pressures of his London job get a bit much, Mark, 54, retires to his home near Haslemere in the heart of the Surrey countryside, which he shares with his wife Catherine, a GP who works part-time in a London accident and emergency unit, and their three children Jack, 19, Madeleine, 17, and Beatrice, 14.
“We moved to Surrey in 2006 when the kids were young and we wanted more space,” he says. “Jack had just started school at Cranleigh, so it made sense to move nearer. And we also liked the fact that we could have a really nice life in the country, despite being within striking distance of London.
Away from the studio, Mark and his family enjoy eating out at local pubs and walking in the Surrey Hills – often with their two boisterous Jack Russell terriers in tow. “We really didn’t expect to find such beautiful surroundings within an hour of London and our home is in no sense suburbia – it’s real countryside.”
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But as the main presenter for ITV’s flagship news programme, Mark has little time for relaxation – particularly as the programme goes from strength to strength. News at Ten has seen a two per cent increase in ratings on this time last year (largely because of the recent Savile revelations) and regularly attracts more than three million viewers.
This is particularly satisfying for the team because the programme was axed in 1999 and only reinstated in 2008 when Mark took over from Sir Trevor MacDonald. “It was a frustrating time when it wasmoved around the schedules and a real affirmation of what we do when it was reinstated,” he says. “News is a competitive business and the point was proven when the BBC moved their late evening news to the 10pm slot when we vacated it. Now we go head-to-head and it’s tough taking on an established programme.”
So what makes it distinctive? “We try to be more accessible and to deal with complex subjects in a simple way without being simplistic. There’s no way it’s dumbing down. We have some of the best foreign correspondents in the business and won a BAFTA for our news coverage three years in a row – in 2009 for the China earthquake, in 2010 for Haiti and in 2011 for the Cumbria murders.”
This has been a particular cause for celebration because ITN has far fewer resources than the BBC. “The budget for the BBC news website is three times our entire news budget, so we’re up against it, but we punch above our weight,” he says. “When we cover a story more successfully, we do enjoy it. It’s a David and Goliath fight in many ways.”
Speaking his mind
Mark, as you might have gathered, is known for his outspoken views. Take his much publicised comments in 2008, when he described some of his fellow newsreaders as “attractive to look at, but without the journalistic background to do the job.” Singling out News 24 and Sky for opprobrium, his comments were seen as an attack on ‘autocuties’ and inevitably prompted speculation as to who he might be referring to.
Did he get a lot of flak? “I get into trouble for a lot of things, though I was horrendously misquoted. It wasn’t an attack on women. What I said and still stand by is that I get lots of e-mails from media graduates asking how they should go about breaking into news presenting. And when I advise them to get a solid foundation in journalism, they say: ‘No, I just want to present.’ My point was that it’s the wrong way to go about it. You don’t want to spend your entire journalistic career in a studio.”
Mark – who was an ITN foreign correspondent for more than a decade in the 1990s, covering major stories in Bosnia, Iraq, Rwanda and Banda Aceh – misses the action on the ground, though he is still despatched if the story is big enough. “The most harrowing and nicest stories I’ve ever covered happened within a few weeks of each other,” he says. “The worst was the Rwandan exodus in 1994, when some 700,000 women and children fled the terrible genocide to Goma – a wasteland of volcanic rock.
“People were dying at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 a day. We would interview a doctor and his patient would die as we were filming. We felt as though our job was to report what was going on, but our moral duty was to share our supplies. It was an appalling dilemma because we had only a few cases of water. And the moment you start handing water out to a family, you are mobbed. But what made me really angry was that nothing was happening. I felt that if we could get there, then why couldn’t the aid agencies and the UN?”
Several weeks later, he covered the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first black president. “To see millions of people queuing hour after hour and then voting for the first time was one of the most uplifting stories I’ve ever covered.”
But he came crashing to earth when fellow ITN colleague Terry Lloyd was killed in Iraq in 2003. “I was with him the night before he died. We were in the middle of the desert discussing where to go the next day. Terry decided to go to Basra, but we pulled out because our priority was to get the programme on air. He drove off down the road from us, and three of his team died. I had to go and pick up the cameraman. He was in a terrible state.”
It was a pivotal moment. “I could have been up that same road as him. When your children are growing up, you do think: ‘Well, your luck might run out. It’s just not worth it.’ Journalists are now open targets and silencing the messenger is all too often the name of the game. That has something to do with the perception that journalists take sides with the West or belong to the arm of a western government, which is a complete misconception. It’s one of the biggest threats to journalism.”
Back to the studio
When he returned, he decided that presenting in a studio was not such a bad option. Had there been hints that he might land a cushy studio job? “Not at all. It just happened, though I know that doesn’t sound convincing.”
He and Julie Etchingham took over from Sir Trevor, the nation’s favourite broadcaster, at News at Ten in 2008. People have said that Mark is more hard-hitting; would he agree? “That’s for others to say. But I can tell you what – it was the most terrifying thing to replace someone like him, who was a national treasure and an institution.”
His own fan mail is huge too, though he declines to share the contents of his post. “I get some nice letters – put it like that,” he says enigmatically. “But my demographic has definitely changed. Now it’s the over 55s. When I was voted ‘sexiest male newsreader of all time’ in an online poll in 2008, it caused hysteria in my family – particularly among my wife and daughters. But Sir Trevor came second, so...”
As the years advance, does he worry about his future? And can he foresee himself ever being lured back to the ‘other side’, like former ITN stalwarts Peter Sissons and Nicholas Owen? “TV is a fickle business and you never know what’s going to happen. But I love my job and I’m very privileged to do what I do.”
My Favourite Surrey
Restaurant: We lived in Hong Kong for six years and two of my children were born there, so we love Chinese food. The menu at The Good Earth in Esher is delicious, though we only go on special occasions because it’s quite expensive.
Shop: The Haslemere Cellar in West Street, Haslemere. I love wine and they stock a really good selection.
View: St Martha’s Hill between Guildford and Chilworth, where we go walking. The view from the church across the Surrey Hills is beautiful.
Place to relax: Brook Cricket Club between Milford and Haslemere, where my son and I play a lot – for my part, badly.
Place to visit: I love walking the Surrey Hills – particularly for the views from Box Hill across the western Weald.