It has been one of the paradoxes of the year: as TV viewers continue to hunger for updates on the pandemic – the biggest story since the second world war – a slew of broadcasting giants have bade farewell to their regular news slots.
On Thursday night, perhaps the biggest of them all, Jon Snow, signed off on his last ever appearance as the face of Channel 4 News, just days after the last ever Andrew Marr Show went out on the BBC.
At Sky News, Adam Boulton has slipped away in a somewhat quieter manner after more than 30 years, a departure that he has linked to what he described as the need for “baby boomers” like himself to make way for new faces on screen.
With other 2021 retirements of longstanding regional news figures – Fred Dineage (79) at ITV Meridian and Stewart White at BBC Look East – and impending reshuffles of much younger figures elsewhere, itis not surprising that media watchers view the present moment as a changing of the guard.
Factors ranging from 24-hour news, the loss of prestige on the part of evening flagship programmes, the rise of the internet and a push for greater diversity have all been linked to an apparent end of the age of the news anchor as a household name.
Ben Abbotts, a communications consultant, cautioned it may yet be premature to bring down the curtain on that age.
“There’s that debate but one only has to consider the very high profile of anchors like Fiona Bruce, for example, to realise that there are still particular figures and faces that are hugely important,” he said.
Yet – perhaps echoing a feeling felt by many who watched Snow’s farewell – Abbotts also evoked a sense of mourning.
“As a long-term devotee of the news since, oh, John Craven’s day on Newsround, I struggle with this loss of the greats. I grew up listening to the vastly experienced Dimbleby – either of them – I relished the familiar Northern Irish lilt of John Cole, the BBC’s political editor of the time, and spent time when I was younger working on Channel 4 News under Jon Snow,” he wrote in a blog for Haggie Partners, where he is a director.
Another media commentator, Raymond Snoddy, suggested that the departure of Marr, Boulton and Snow left Andrew Neil “sort of” as “only one of the big male beasts standing” – although the future of Neil is unclear after his parting of ways with GB News.
Snoddy, looking back at 2021 in a blog, added: “There are many women of substance in broadcasting not least Emily Maitlis of Newsnight, Kay Burley of Sky News and Susanna Reid of Good Morning Britain, who all know how to skewer a dissembling minister. But it still feels a bit like a changing of the guard, or at least the old male guard.”
He also singled out Ros Atkins, a BBC broadcaster sometimes lauded for his ability to navigate the challenges and opportunities of social media. Elsewhere at the BBC, Amol Rajan, Faisal Islam and Chris Mason have all been mentioned as possible replacements for Laura Kuenssberg as political editor.
Kuenssberg – already a veteran at the age of 45 – has been singled out as a possible Sunday morning replacement for Marr. Abbotts agreed that she was certainly a runner, but suggested that the BBC’s former North America editor was the odds-on favourite: “I imagine that Jon Sopel is feeling pretty comfortable at the moment.”
Meanwhile at Channel 4 News, the shoes (or fluorescent tie) of Snow is regarded a harder – perhaps irreplaceable – act to follow, perhaps even for other stars there such as Cathy Newman, Matt Frei or Krishnan Guru-Murthy.
As a Channel 4 News hand who has worked closely with Snow over the years put it: “The next Jon Snow will not be one of the kids in the newsroom who might feel that they are in a position to carry on his legacy, because that legacy is now 750,000 viewers a night.
“Broadcast TV just doesn’t hold any sway any more. There’s just nobody coming up now who is going to become a household name just by hosting the evening news. The internet is already creating the next news stars.”