MEDIA ANALYSIS: A show to give you nightmares

ITV's Tonight show has a fearsome reputation for exposing corporate misconduct. David Quainton looks at how to survive if your client is approached.

Tough interviewer: Jonathan Maitland
Tough interviewer: Jonathan Maitland

Next year, ITV's Tonight programme will be ten years old. For a decade it has ruffled corporate feathers and uncovered the truth, mostly via the soothing tones of Sir Trevor McDonald.

McDonald has taken a step back now, fronting only the show's most hard-hitting programmes. The reports are more often presented by a roster of journalists, with Jonathan Maitland the most frequent person to be asking the tough questions.

Over the past few years the programme has made its own headlines, tackling heavyweight subjects: the role of forensic evidence in court cases and how juries are influenced by forensic TV dramas; the provision local health authorities make for out-of-hours GP services; and the fairness of bank charges for unauthorised overdrafts. It has even interviewed Bush, Blair and Clinton. So if Tonight comes knocking, it is worth sitting up and taking note.

High standards
'The programme prides itself on high journalistic standards,' says former ITN journalist Malcolm Munro, now strategy director at Good Relations. 'It would not compromise this in any way, despite the fact that it does follow a slightly populist agenda.'

One FTSE 100 global director of comms bore the brunt of this populist stance when the programme investigated his firm's industry, and wanted the CEO to comment.

'They had a very friendly style of approach, basically being my best friend, and initially approaching a junior staffer and being friendly to them as well,' he recalls. 'But I'd heard from peers and seen for myself that we were at risk of getting an extraordinary hiding. I wouldn't let our CEO go near them.'

The comms director says the resulting programme was a 'complete hatchet job' and that 'major corporates rarely come out of it unscathed'.

Naturally, Tonight's deputy editor Simon Phillips defends this view.

'I don't understand why our "populist" agenda would lead to clients or companies not getting their views across,' he says.

'Our remit is so broad that no PRO should think they cannot approach us.

What we don't do, however, is blindly promote products or services simply because a company has taken part. We also have to follow very strict guidelines from Ofcom on undue prominence on screen.'

The programme makers were at pains to let PRWeek know Ofcom regulations restrict them from any bad habits, including doorstepping prospective interviewees.

'We generally do not do "doorstep" interviews. Ofcom is quite clear about this,' says Phillips. 'Interviews have to be requested in the normal ways.'

'The most important consideration with this programme is to be clear how much time you are willing to invest and how likely it is that the programme will use the material and credit your client,' advises Eulogy chief executive Adrian Brady. 'You don't want to simply serve the purpose of being an unpaid, off-site research assistant.'

Be prepared
Another PRO, from the banking sector, said he had suffered through the editing of a show relating to bank charges. His advice is to make sure you appear reasoned in your responses.

'We had a representative speak and he was armed with every possible angle,' said the PRO. 'Journalists know balance is important. Try to be as helpful as possible, and they might be on your side.'

The alarming general message, though, is to avoid Tonight if you can. If not, then be as friendly as possible.

'The show is pre-recorded, so ensure you have the best possible spokesperson,' says Euro RSCG Biss Lancaster European director Andrew Robinson. 'It's not like Watchdog, where anyone can get on screen with good messaging.

Consider that you'll have to take a very human approach, such as apologising upfront and then offering a neat solution. If you look or sound too corporate, or arrogant, you'll end up looking dismal and viewers will be put off their Dolmio.'


Frequency: Tonight airs twice a week, at 8pm

Audience: 2.93 million (week ending 23 March)

Deadlines: Highly topical films have been produced within days, but other subjects can be in production for weeks

Contacts: Editor Mike Lewis - 01618 327 211 or . Deputy editor Simon Phillips - 0161 827 2899 or simonphillips@


Simon Phillips, Tonight

Tonight has a reputation for giving corporate spokespeople a rough ride. How do you feel about that?
We ask the questions that the man or woman in the street would like to ask but doesn't have the chance to. Generally in current affairs we pose difficult questions, exposing failings or shortcomings - and if those are of a large company or institution I make no apologies that our interviews are tough.

Can you give an example of the sort of programme you make?
A recent example was a programme looking at the provision local health authorities make for out-of-hours GP services. #

We questioned a local authority whose service had led to a young woman being sent home after a missed diagnosis of a ruptured appendix with near-fatal consequences. Clearly it is in the public interest to have a rigorous debate about such an important topic.

Do the star presenters have journalistic input?
Generally the presenters come on board once the groundwork has been done but sometimes they put forward story ideas and like to develop them. They are all experienced journalists.

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