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‘The most important lesson I’ve had as a journalist’: Adam Fleming in conversation

Thomas Coyle speaks to Adam Fleming about power-naps, career opportunities, and podcasting.

Adam Fleming joins me just before his daily nap. A critical part of his daily routine, enabling those 4AM starts and late-night Newscast sessions, he describes himself as an “Olympic power-napper”. I joke that his time as a student in Oxford – late night essay-crises galore –  must have prepared him well for working at the BBC. 

Adam is personable and conversational. It is a stereotype that journalists can be closed-off and insular; but from first listening to Brexitcast over four years ago, I knew that Adam would be the opposite. A self-confessed lover of detail, his recollections of his time here in Oxford – nearly 20 years ago – are illuminating and warm. Known for his use of ‘Brexit binders’, I should hardly be surprised. 

Throughout our interview, I’m struck by how open and honest Adam is. Whilst he is consistently friendly on TV and the BBC’s podcasts, those conversations are political (and, crucially, professional) in nature, with his colleagues and friends. In comparison, our brief chat about Hertford (the Oxford College we share, some 20 years apart) are like conversations with any of my friends studying here now. 

Despite British politics being so tumultuous, we avoid any discussion of current events – Adam’s calm, reassuring voice instead discussing his career and opportunities.

Having risen up the BBC ranks from an internship and presenting Newsround to being Chief Political Correspondent, I ask how he was ever able to prepare for that style of career. Studying Geography at Hertford College, Adam was a keen student journalist (for a rival rag publication to Cherwell). He originally wanted to be a film director, but was introduced to both the Oxford Student and Oxygen radio (now Oxide radio), where he felt he’d “found [his] calling early on”. He tells me that he knew his interests lay in broadcast journalism, rather than print; finding it “a bit more satisfying than the long process of writing a newspaper article”.

It wasn’t just the satisfaction, though; Adam explained that he was (and still is) “extremely envious of people who can just go and churn out a beautiful piece of copy”, but that, for him, it was more “natural” to work in broadcasting. Having developed a taste for radio broadcasting after having been introduced to the station by those in the years above, he found the experience was good training for a future broadcasting career. He explains that “the way you have to talk and broadcast and troubleshoot and fill” whenever anything goes awry is the best way to learn the tricks of the broadcast trade. 

He traces his journalistic abilities to his time at Oxford, explaining that the “essay-tutorial system is probably the most important lesson” he’d ever had as a journalist; that taking in lots of information and synthesising it is something he does when presenting, every single day. He confirms that Hertford’s culture – a “melting-pot of people from different backgrounds” – was just the same then as it is now, and that the Hertford spirit of “not taking yourself too seriously” was fundamental to getting involved with student journalism. He clarifies that this was a “subtle” influence, but one that enabled him to experiment with things like student radio. 

From there, Adam remembers heading to the Oxford Careers Service on Banbury Road, seeking out the Broadcasting folder. He found an advert for the BBC work experience scheme, being accepted for a three-week placement after “hassling them about the application”. From there, he was told to take a postgraduate diploma in journalism, funded by the BBC. 

Midway through that course, he was invited to take part in some BBC filming, as they needed “guinea pig reporters”, helping some camera operators out in their training. The subsequent VHS – “that dates it for you!” –  ended up on the desk of the editor of Newsround. They were looking for a young, male presenter, and Adam jokes that he was also “quite cheap to hire”. 

Adam makes clear that his “way in” to the BBC was based on “a combination of lots of strategy and lots of luck, and lots of work experience”. But the factor that truly helped secure his place was following the advice of those already in the BBC, as they were the source of advice that “really made it” happen for him. 

Adam’s next steps were into presenting Newsround; an “amazing, amazing experience”. He beams when describing this section of his career, emphasising both the freedom of working on the show and its unpredictability: “interviewing Toby Maguire, or Will Smith”, then heading back to present “from the other end of the Newsround cupboard”. There was “no typical day”, but every day was united by the same “thrill, being sandwiched between Blue Peter and Neighbours”. The audience of Newsround was bigger than now; the majority of children heading home after school and immediately switching on the TV. It’s certainly how I first came across Adam!

A report by the Children’s Media Foundation describes the ideal Newsround presenter as “warm and engaging”, but possessing an “air of authority”. Adam fits the bill perfectly, describing the responsibilities of a Newsround presenter as having to decide “what the audience of 6 – 12 year olds need to hear today, and how to best tell them”. This is a part of the “Newsround DNA”, the “balance between giving young people the information and not scaring them”. 

Adam made clear that Newsround would always “say it’s alright to be scared about something”; never patronising or rude. Part of Newsround’s appeal was that the exact same events being relayed to adults were presented to children, too; Adam describes “foreign jaunts to America for Obama’s inauguration”. The Newsround newsroom (“cupboard”) had a policy of “never censoring ourselves”, never discounting a story because it would be “too hard to explain”.

Newsround’s successes were in reporting directly for the young audience, not the adults. He describes the “classic tricks” of both himself and a camera operator “crouching down” when interviewing a child. Being at the child’s eye level was better for their interview subject – reducing any fear and establishing an immediate rapport. It also avoided alienating the young audience. 

I asked Adam if he felt he’d left any mark on Newsround during his 2002-09 tenure. He described it as a process of “inheriting it and looking after it and passing it on to the next person”, with no fixed format beyond communicating the news to children. “The audience is continually moving on”, with younger viewers watching for the first time whilst older viewers gradually watched Newsround less. He expressed pride that those older viewers “still watch and listen to me now”, as he had “moved on” along with them onto BBC News.

After Newsround, he moved briefly into the BBC Newsroom as a “junior baby political correspondent” for three months, before working on the BBC’s Daily Politics until 2017. At that time, in the midst of disputes over Britain’s future in the European Union, he developed his interest in the EU – an “untapped market” for the BBC’s news output that evolved into a role as a political correspondent in Brussels. 

It was then that Adam collaborated with Dino Sofos and fellow political correspondent Chris Mason to create a podcast, first titled Electioncast and later Brexitcast and Newscast. Their thinking was to experiment, with no set format or plan before they sat to record the first edition. It became clear that they had a hit on their hands – a well-informed conversation between good friends with a collective “zany energy”. Laura Kuennsberg (Political Editor) and Katya Adler (Europe Editor) quickly signed up, finding that their passions for news and presenting enabled them to have detailed discussions and – crucially – “bring the audience along with them”. 

Adam explaines that whilst there was no central vision or “magic formula” for their podcast, the experience of Newsround had been the formative element on the podcast’s success. Newsround taught him “the importance of understanding the subject so you can convey it properly to the audience, without making stuff up”. This nuance developed into an additional understanding; that no matter how complicated something is, “people will still be interested in it”. 

The podcast’s unconventional “zany energy” – that won over so many listeners – originated as a “total natural product” of what the presenters’ jobs were like. The podcast was consciously “natural”, with no conventions of “classic news”. The presenters agreed they wanted it to be “just them”. Such a recipe was aided by the podcast’s reactionary role; always convening no matter where they were – a “skiing holiday”, “espresso bar”, or “the bus from the airport” being Adam’s examples. 

The central philosophy of their podcast was therefore to always preserve their “natural” conversations; informed journalists “talking about their subject in an enthusiastic way, in a lot of detail”. I asked whether that honesty was ever called into question, either in the shift into a daily production, or the shift to having one episode a week televised. Adam remarks that the “key components” of their podcast were preserved throughout: the same presenters, in the same room, with the same energy. They made the active decision to not use a TV studio, but to “adapt one of the Westminster radio studios, and stick loads of cameras in there”.

The team had established a framework that preserved the podcast format, but with cameras – building the “technical and editing processes around the same raw material”; just “people talking about the stories they’re working on in a really enthusiastic way, and enjoying themselves as they do it”. 

Aware that the time we set aside for the interview is rapidly running out, I suggest that Adam might want to wrap things up soon. “Take as long as you like”, he replies. “I can talk about myself for ages!”

That interaction sums up the other success of Newscast; the impression that the presenting team are selfless, working to inform their listeners in a way that exceeds ‘traditional’ public service broadcasting. Adam is the perfect example of this selflessness; referring to listeners as “Newscasters”, and inviting them onto the podcast to share a particularly relevant story. 

Our conversation then shifts to podcasting as a format, with Adam expressing near-glee at the absence of any BBC podcasting “legacy”, with every day “feeling like a blank sheet of paper”. “We could try things”, he explained. “If the audience didn’t like it, they’d let us know”. This increased interactivity – a helpful journalistic parasocial interaction – is a constructive marker for the podcast. It enabled the team to “become a bit like a curator of the news”, guided by helpful feedback on how audiences “trust Newscast to tell them the most important things they need to know”, with some feeling disillusioned by traditional television news. 

Such an answer led me to ask whether that meant podcasts were the future of news. Adam suggested that the future wasn’t a single format, but rather the ability to “choose how they will get their news, when they’ll get it and what they can ingest”. He looked to the BBC’s implementation of ‘live update’ news pages as an example of a new, popular format; describing how they “never knew necessarily that they’d be popular”, and that the choice they can now offer is “brilliant”, removing the possibility of feeling overwhelmed by current events by allowing each audience member to define their news intake.

Adam consistently emphasises the need to both “experiment” and to be yourself in news and journalism. The promise of individuality is what brought Laura Kuenssberg and Katya Adler on-board; the podcast offered new advantages for them to talk about the “1000 things in their notebooks” that couldn’t be squeezed into a traditional bulletin. He acknowledged that the episodes can be “long and chaotic”, but that both the public and Adam’s “really well regarded, well-paid senior colleagues” had realised that, through their experimentation, they’d hit upon a winning format. 

Aware that I have to get back to my insurmountable essay crisis (and that Adam has to get back to his nap), I ask my final question; about Adam’s recent appearance on Christmas University Challenge. Adam explained that he tried some revision, but “you can’t revise the entire history of humanity and all of human knowledge – so there’s not really much point“. He hadn’t anticipated “quite how psychological the format is”, that you have to “just take the risk” when answering a ‘starter for 10’. I ask if the atmosphere is any different as a competitor on the ‘alumni’ show, but Paxman apparently “isn’t nicer”, and it’s “just as stressful”. 

Above all, my conversation with Adam seemed to consistently come back to the ideas of experimenting, having confidence in your ideas, and being yourself. As Adam admitted, his entry into journalism was a healthy combination of “strategy” and “luck”; but it was ultimately his “calling”. He has learnt from every single experience, using his time at Oxford, time at Newsround, and time as a correspondent to continually develop. It’s this passion that led to the success of Newscast; a passion evidently shared by the whole Newscast team. I suspect the mid-afternoon naps are essential to maintaining that passion!

Image Credit: Adam Fleming

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