Aidan Smith: Getting rid of Newsround from teatime? What Muppet did that?

The Muppets are back but Newsround is being dumped from its historic teatime slot. In a time of the newsiest of news, surely that’s wrong.

John Craven, the original presenter of Newsround, in a still from 'Newsround Extra' from 1975.
John Craven, the original presenter of Newsround, in a still from 'Newsround Extra' from 1975.

My children have never been more engaged with the world and Boris Johnson’s hair than in these past five months. The Government’s Covid briefings became must-sees. It was good of the participants - one politician, two scientists - to walk on like the X Factor judges as this helped the kids get used to the new normal of teatime viewing. And then the trio lined up at their lecterns like in a panel game - that was useful, too.

The briefings became our Family Favourites. I could say “Matt” and the answer would come back “Hancock”, with a bonus point for “Health Secretary”. This was similar to the word-association I played with the children when they were younger and learning to talk.

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That was based round 1970s prog-rock bands and admittedly things got a bit silly under Covid when my youngest daughter came up with “Van Der Grant Shapps-erator”. I had to explain that this made the Minister for Transport sound a whole lot more exciting than he actually was, but the point is: the kids were becoming, even at a junior starter-kit level, politically aware. Dominic Raab and Alok Sharma, you’re not nobodies. We know who you are.

Admittedly the season finale for the briefings was a bit rubbish. In our house there’s a discerning, demanding audience used to all-singing, all-dancing, all-rescuing closers, but things just fizzled out. I keep being asked: “Will there be a new series, Dad?” Watch this space, kids.

And watch Newsround. The mighty issues of today - climate change, Black Lives Matter, the pandemic - need some explaining. But after almost 50 years of dispensing easily-digestible bulletins with the fish fingers, the BBC are axing the afternoon edition of the programme.

To extend the teatime analogy, the Beeb were making sure kids ate their greens when they launched Newsround. Cartoons and American imports were stuffed with the televisual equivalent of E numbers; some proper nourishment was required. This is exactly the sort of thing a state broadcaster should be doing, but then the idea of Auntie knowing best is regarded as outmoded by her many critics.

It is hard to believe in this age of children’s TV presenters “getting down with the kids” with their hyperactive jumpers and hysterical chatter that John Craven in 1972 was a radical first presenter of Newsround. He sported a jumper too but a sensible one, still with a shirt and tie. It was a time when the battleaxe teachers at the nation’s schools were retiring and a new generation were taking their places, dispensing with the gowns and mortar boards. Craven also sat in front of his desk which at the time seemed as daring as a woman on the grown-up news trashing her table and flashing her legs in a song-and-dance routine. Obviously, that was never going to happen.

I was too old for Newsround but my younger siblings loved it. While clearly I had achieved masses of wisdom and sophistication by the age of 15, they regarded getting their own news programme as evidence they could be trusted, say, not to set fire to the house (though my little brother almost once did this).

Seriously, the programme didn’t patronise its audience. It didn’t talk down to children or make them feel younger than they were and needing their news cut up for them like it was food. And it didn’t just feature cuddly animals; wars and terrorist attacks would be carefully explained.

It is very easy for someone of my generation to deride snowflakes. I am sure that once or twice, for having endured The Singing, Ringing Tree, a terrifying tale of evil dwarves and gasping fish from the dark, dark heart of the old East Germany, I have given the impression that I might be due a medal. I am also pretty confident I will have suggested that that shocker together with the easy availability of tripe and tapioca, equally horrific, rendered my early years in urgent need of a Lord Shaftesbury figure to save children all over again, the ban on them cleaning chimneys not being enough. Pah, kids these days - they don’t know they’re born.

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But this is plainly nonsense. My eldest recently turned 13 and I was stunned by the issues with which he was expected to grapple during home-schooling while we were all locked down. His Modern Studies teacher invited him to debate 9/11 with his parents while in Religious and Moral Education the question concerned the killing of Jamie Bulger - did it merit the return of the death penalty?

At his age I was not challenged like this, nothing like. For young minds it does not really get any harder, or more grim. If we’re all, children included, consuming more news than ever before, and the bulletins are often as bad as they can be, then it seems sad and frankly a dereliction of duty that, while a morning edition of Newsround will continue to be produced for schools, the programme is no longer available in late afternoon.

Apparently modest viewing figures couldn’t justify the Beeb retaining it. This means it’s been judged by the same criteria as kids’ shows where custard pies are chucked around or presenters who really wanted to be pop stars persist in singing, and that’s not right. News is news; it’s a service.

Maybe if it’s not too late the BBC should ditch the crazy knitwear and try Newsround with a man in a suit. My kids might go for that, maybe even Boris or better still, Van Der Grant Shapps-erator. A funny name but a friendly face.



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