One of Britain’s most successful female journalists is leading an audacious plan to create a rolling news service to bridge the political divides between European audiences.
The venture comes at a time when Europe is in crisis, its unity threatened by nationalist movements that are everywhere on the march.
For the past year, Deborah Turness, president of NBC News International, has been overseeing the creation of new studios, building new programme formats and recruiting a handpicked team of mobile journalists (‘mojos’) who work without camera crews and film stories on their iPhones.
Next month, Euronews NBC will put into place a 7am-midnight rolling news service that will compete directly with CNN, BBC World and Al-Jazeera, giving a uniquely pan-European perspective on current affairs and an alternative to the narrower outlooks of domestic broadcasters.
“In terms of the technology and tone of voice this is a startup and we are able to be aggressively modern in our thinking,” says Turness, who was director of ITV News for a decade before becoming president of NBC News in 2013. “I have the amazing advantage of building something fresh in terms of the journalism, the storytelling and the style of the programming.”
She talks of the urgent need for a new European media service when the far-right has seized power in Italy, Austria, Hungary and Poland, and is on the rise in Germany. Euronews NBC is giving a view of Europe that goes far beyond the confines of the Brexit negotiations.
“In a lot of places we are seeing fractioning and questioning, it’s a generational shift and I think the European Commission and European Parliament are understanding that there is a large rejection of the single European vision – this is a moment in Europe’s division where a media brand needs to say we respect all views,” she says. “Europe needs to talk – we need to remind people that there’s more that unites us than divides us. Rather than have those on the nationalist/populist side feel that mainstream media doesn’t understand them and thinks they are all bigots, let’s have this debate and try and find solutions together.”
"All Voices, All Views, All Welcome"
Working with the innovative Euronews chief executive Michael Peters, Turness is branding the network as “Europe’s Town Square”, embracing the slogan “All Voices, All Views, All Welcome”.
The clock is ticking. With the former Donald Trump strategist and ex-chairman of Breitbart news Steve Bannon intent on funding a Brussels-based movement dedicated to tearing apart the idea of a united Europe, the continent’s ‘public square’ could soon be very different.
The Euronews NBC project began in May last year when American network NBC News paid $30m for a 25% stake in the Lyon-based Euronews. With that money, and added investment from Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian telecoms billionaire and Euronews’s largest shareholder, Turness has been able to pursue rapid expansion.
In short succession, Euronews NBC has launched the network’s first anchor-led format, Good Morning Europe, which opened in May, and Euronews Now, a six-hour live afternoon show which began last month (July). Its flagship political show Raw Politics will open from Brussels on 3 September, as the backbone of the evening production, Euronews Tonight, which complete’s the full day’s schedule.
Euronews was founded in 1993 at the time of the Maastricht treaty, when the European project was at its most confident and wanted a rival to America’s new rolling news sensation, CNN. In truth, it was never a “European CNN” but a post-produced service of news agency video made into blocks of content that were shown on repeat.
Now it’s very different. Turness has developed a new political interview format, Uncut, that will be entirely unedited as a symbol of journalistic transparency. Piloted by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the student leader of the Paris 1968 riots, (who interviewed Brexit rivals Nigel Farage and Tony Blair), Uncut will also be hosted by leading political interviewers from the UK and elsewhere.
She has brought into the newsroom executive producers and senior editors from CNN, ITV News, Al Jazeera and Sky News (whose former number two, John McAndrew, is working as a consultant). Existing Euronews journalists have been given training and new opportunities in live news programming.
The NBC partnership has given Euronews access to the American network’s reporting muscle, including former ITV journalist Bill Neely (NBC’s chief global correspondent), Richard Engel (chief foreign correspondent), and Hallie Jackson and Kelly O’Donnell (NBC White House correspondents).
Anelise Borges from France 24 and Darren McCaffrey of Sky News are among the team of ‘mojos' Turness has hired to work in Paris, Brussels, London, Berlin, Moscow, Rome, Washington and Madrid. Borges has already delivered Euronews NBC a major credibility boost after embedding – with her iPhone and a drone – on the Médicins Sans Frontiers ship Aquarius for 10 days in June as it picked up 629 refugees and migrants but was blocked from Italian ports by Matteo Salvini, interior minister for Italy’s new far-right coalition government.
“The Aquarius had exceptional quality wifi on board and every day Annelise was live on our programmes,” says Turness. “What we started to understand was that these were babies, toddlers, parents…people who would probably have died and gone to the bottom of the sea had this ship not picked them up. Nobody would have known their names.” Borges, whose work has been made into a one-hour documentary, was the only journalist on the ship and was widely interviewed by other broadcasters.
Euronews NBC deployed mojo techniques in covering the recent wildfires in Greece, interviewing victims and witnesses on the ground via iPhone FaceTime or Skype. “Our correspondents aren’t perfectly made up and standing in front of a camera on a riser with a light and a cable and a satellite truck,” says Turness. “They’re on their iPhones and they will take us with them.”
When Turness was running the ITV newsroom she used similar rapid response tactics to outwit the larger BBC on stories ranging from terror attacks to news of royal weddings. Her appointment as president of NBC News put her in charge of the iconic American news shows Today, Meet the Press and Nightly News and she was given a brief to modernise the network, which had fallen behind its rival ABC, owned by Disney.
During three turbulent years – in which star presenters David Gregory and Brian Williams departed from Meet the Press and Nightly News respectively – Turness helped all her big shows back to number one status. When she moved to Europe in a reorganisation early last year, NBC News chairman Andy Lack commended her “massive overhaul of our systems and processes” and said: “She’s driven the news division on big scoops and exclusives and considerably upped our game on covering international news.”
Her role is an important one for her employers. NBC seeks to expand outside of America. Comcast, the American cable giant which owns NBC Universal, is in a bidding war with Disney for ownership of pan-European broadcaster Sky. NBC Universal is also said to be in talks with British public broadcasters to build a streaming service that could rival Netflix.
Turness, a French speaker who began her career as an ITV intern in Paris, says: “NBC News wants to become a global player. Not through launching its own (international) channel in its own name (but) through forming really smart partnerships. We looked at lots of options and offers and Euronews has turned out to be the best partnership out there.”
She is convinced of the opportunity. Firstly, because she feels the global news market has failed to keep pace with changing technology and media consumption. “When you look at television news as a product I feel it is looking very tired and out of step.” While other news organisations have dabbled with iPhone journalism it’s often “as a supplement when the other camera isn’t working”.
No other network, in her view, has the breadth of perspective as Euronews, which already produces news in 12 languages (nine TV channels and three online services) and has teams of native speakers for each in an editorial team that totals 600. “The BBC is a very British view of the world…CNN is the American voice, France 24 is French cultural propaganda, RT is hard Russian propaganda, Deutsche Welle is the German view and Al Jazeera is a very particular flavour; they are all either government-funded, ideologically positioned or coming from a particular perspective.”
A news channel transformed
The Euronews operation is housed in a six-story green cube of a building that sits at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers in France’s second city. Designed by Paris architects Jakob + MacFarlane, it looks as if it might be draped in camouflage, an appropriate metaphor for a time when the news media is under unprecedented fire.
NBC News invested in this project because Peters had already set in train an ambitious programme of reform, the Euronews Next Plan, which saw it transformed from a single channel overlaid with 12 languages into a family of 12 separate language channels, each with its own editorial team. This structure brings unique commercial opportunities for attracting clients that seek to reach a pan-European audience. Carolyn Gibson, who came from the BBC to join Euronews as chief revenue officer, says: “We’ve got the flexibility to adapt in a way that our main competitors cannot.”
In Peters’s sixth floor office there is a wall of television screens with all the dozen Euronews NBC channels playing out simultaneously (each having differently edited the day’s content). “Five years ago you had a company that totally needed to change its business model,” he says. “We just needed to keep one thing – its European DNA.”
The network’s growth has been a series of steps, he says, the next of which will be its appointment of a chief digital officer to continue growing the online audience, which has doubled in six months but still only amounts to 15 million unique users a month.
Peters admits that Euronews remains a “big bet” but says that within three years he will know whether it has paid off. “Developing this European identity seems more difficult than ever,” he admits, insisting that the need for a Town Square for dialogue is clear. “We want to be the crossroads of the debate and we will put together citizens and politicians at the same table.”
Euronews is 60% owned by Sawiris, with a 25% stake held by NBC News and 15% by a consortium of public broadcasters from across Europe. Since Sawiris’s involvement, discontent has surfaced among some Euronews journalists who complained that the organisation had strayed from its original European vision and was too ready to strike sponsored content deals with undemocratic regimes around the world.
For many years Euronews has had millions of Euros in subsidies from the European Commission which supports its mission of producing news for a Europe-wide audience. While nationalist politicians (and potential viewers) might be wary of this close relationship with Brussels (European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is a declared admirer), Peters says the EC is anxious to be seen to be held to account. “They keep telling us to be more critical of them.” He wants to reduce the weight of this funding and make the network “less dependent” on Brussels, and is prioritising new commercial strategies to capitalise on the enhanced editorial product.
On the new set for Good Morning Europe, Turness watches from the gallery as anchor Tesa Arcilla directs viewers to The Cube, a screen within the studio that reflects how the big stories of the day are being treated on social media. The screen is controlled from an iPad by a team of journalists specialising in digital news verification. “The Cube is bringing transparency to TV news,” says Emmanuelle Saliba, head of social media strategy. “The news-gathering or reporting process is often hidden from viewers and news consumers, but with the proliferation of fake news and conspiracy theories on social networks we must pull back the curtain.”
The innovation is part of a vision for a new type of television news that aims to give fractured Europe a common forum. It won’t be easily achieved but Turness is relentlessly upbeat and is in expansion mode. “I’m scouring Europe for talented filmmakers,” she says. “We are still only at 20% of what we’re going to do.”