Media Profile: The consumer’s champion - Helen O’Rahilly, Editor, Watchdog

Helen O’Rahilly became editor of Watchdog this January, just as ten of Britain’s largest companies set up a war council to take on the programme’s perceived unfair attacks on them. In a few weeks the BBC will come head-to-head with Ford, BT, Dixons, Airtours, the AA, Hotpoint and Procter and Gamble, to discuss their complaints about Watchdog.

Helen O’Rahilly became editor of Watchdog this January, just as ten

of Britain’s largest companies set up a war council to take on the

programme’s perceived unfair attacks on them. In a few weeks the BBC

will come head-to-head with Ford, BT, Dixons, Airtours, the AA, Hotpoint

and Procter and Gamble, to discuss their complaints about Watchdog.



’The main point is that, if we were getting things wrong, we’d be

fighting libel actions in the High Court rather than dealing with the

Broadcasting Standards Council,’ she says. ’We have tightened things up

a lot. We have taken more care over recruitment and training, for

instance, and our checking is much stricter.’



O’Rahilly has also tweaked the look of the programme. ’I’ve tried to

inject more humour and gossip,’ she explains. ’I like having the two

presenters, Alice (Beer) and Anne Robinson, talk to each other in that

rather gossipy style. My predecessor was a man so I think he avoided

that, but with 60 per cent of our audience being female it seemed more

appropriate to me.’



When Anne Robinson took over as presenter of Watchdog in late 1992, she

brought a stronger, tabloid approach, dealing with customer care and the

big companies. Ratings doubled almost overnight. Now it rates between

seven and eight million viewers for its Thursday and Friday night

programmes and has spawned a number of spin-off shows including Health

Check, the Big Dinner, Computers Don’t Bite, On The House and Value For

Money.



O’Rahilly says encountering PR people is not a series of vicious

arguments about unfairness and bias. ’Not at all,’ she says. ’Some firms

are absolutely brilliant at dealing with us. Marks and Spencer, or John

Lewis for instance, will send someone down to the studio and, if they

think our points are fair, make real changes there and then. It is no

coincidence that these are the companies who very rarely appear.’



’Refusing to appear then faxing over a three-line statement late in the

day makes companies look like they don’t care,’ she says.



Her predecessor Steve Anderson is now controller of news and current

affairs at the ITV Network Centre. He says he knew O’Rahilly, then an

assistant producer on Watchdog, was good as soon as he took over the

reigns at the show in 1992. ’Helen struck me instantly as the kind of

person who could run the show,’ he says. ’That’s why I made her my

deputy. One of the problems with Watchdog is that you have to make

four-minute films about a vacuum cleaner. She had the ability to make

these films interesting enough for network television.’



Despite Anderson’s praise, Watchdog’s detractors are still lobbing

shells at its editor. Recently, they have begun to take delight in

O’Rahilly’s nickname - Stalin. She, on the other hand, insists it is

endearing. ’People say it to my face,’ she says. ’I got it because I

have this huge Irish greatcoat that my mother gave me and when I first

wore it into the office, it had a certain militaristic look to it.’



HIGHLIGHTS

1991

Assistant producer, Checkout, Diverse Productions

1992

Assistant producer, Watchdog

1993

Deputy editor, Watchdog

1998

Editor, Watchdog



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