Belfast Telegraph

The day I was DROPPED

from Newsline

DAY TWO of our exclusive serialisation

DAY TWO of our exclusive serialisation

This was my big chance. Impress in the next few minutes, and that transfer across the water, the opportunity to play in the big league, was there for the taking.

As a footballer, I hadn't had what it takes to perform on the national stage; but as a broadcaster, I was confident I could cut it at the cutting edge.

Gordon Burns showed me the way. I'd taken the place he vacated at UTV; now, in December 1978, I was one good interview away from following him to Granada. I was far from the finished article after only six years in the business, but I had learned enough about my craft to seriously contemplate a cross-channel move.

I was young, ambitious and anxious to mix it with the best. It was everything I had worked for. It was what I really wanted. I went to meet the interview panel determined to make my dream a reality.

Getting the job in Granada's sports news department would involve a game of two halves. It kicked off with an orthodox interview situation, a grilling that focused heavily on the news side, not my strongest suit. Part two - a screen test and mock studio interview with another applicant - was more my style ...

Before I had left the building, Paul Doherty called me over for a chat. The son of Peter Doherty, the legendary Northern Ireland player and manager, he was the station's top sports producer and would later become ITV's Head of Sport.

Paul, who had given me some valuable tips beforehand, all but said that the job was mine. I couldn't wait to tell my wife Linda. We had travelled over together to Manchester, spending the weekend in a pleasant little hotel on the outskirts of the city. George Best had arranged both the accommodation (the hotel owner was a mate) and tickets to see Andy Williams in the Apollo Theatre on the Sunday night.

It had yet to be rubber- stamped, but I was within touching distance of achieving my ambition.

It should have sparked celebrations in the Fullerton household, but instead it led to a sustained period of soul-searching. Wanting something is one thing, taking it another.

There was plenty to discuss. With a settled home life and three children under the age of 11, there was more at stake than my aspirations as a broadcaster ... One obvious stumbling block was the money. Granada was offering me less than I was currently on at UTV. Paul later informed me that the salary would have improved dramatically, that it was a case of getting my foot in the door, but at the time the issue did little to alleviate Linda's sense of unease.

We continued to deliberate. One day we were going, the next we were staying put. If uncertainty characterised our thinking, that was hardly the case with one of my colleagues. Gloria Hunniford was adamant that I should take the job, something I relayed to Linda. Truth is, she was not best pleased with Gloria applying any more pressure - there was enough there already.

Life-changing decision

Finally, just before Christmas, we decided to take the plunge. I prepared to make that life-changing phone call to Manchester ... That was as close as I got. Everything was again put on hold. In what we were hoping would be our last conversation on the subject, Linda pointed out that Darren, our eldest boy, was taking his 11-plus. Acknowledging that a switch in schools could harm his progress, we discussed for the first time the idea of me commuting.

The more I looked at the idea, the more I didn't like it. Sure, I would have enjoyed a few nights out with my colleagues in Manchester, but I envisaged spending most of my time sitting alone in digs, missing my family back in Ballymena. The planned 'big move' was beginning to unravel ...

With the festive period further emphasising these issues and Granada needing an answer, I picked up the telephone and told Paul: "Sorry, but I can't take you up on your offer."

I don't blame anybody for me missing that particular boat. At the risk of sounding trite, it wasn't meant to be. Maybe I just have to admit to myself that, although I wanted it, I didn't want it enough.

Hindsight affords me the luxury of such analysis; back at the start of the 80s, I wasn't so philosophical. Giving up on my goal seemed to strip away all my motivation.

In my mind, I was struggling to replace the dream I'd let slip away. There just didn't seem any point in showing what I could do if it wasn't actually going to lead anywhere. I can say without being melodramatic that it took two years for the gloom to lift.

Experience has taught me to take the rough with the smooth. A career in television is a roller-coaster ride. You can go from being flavour of the month to out of favour in the blink of an eye. The secret is to not take yourself or the business too seriously.

Out of the blue

By embracing that ethos, I have learned to treat the peaks and troughs as sides of the same coin. That's why I was able to hack it when the axe fell on my BBC Newsline career in February 2004. It was certainly a bolt from the blue as far as I was concerned, but it wasn't the devastating blow to my ego that many people thought it must have been.

Of course I was disappointed and, if I'm truthful, a little perplexed; but I didn't collapse in floods of tears or start sticking pins in voodoo dolls.

A shell-shocked Eamonn Holmes said to me: "I don't understand why they're taking one of their top men off the screen. It's beyond me."

He wasn't the only one trying to work it out. The newspapers inevitably got wind of the story, and Maureen Coleman from the Belfast Telegraph later phoned looking for confirmation of a tip-off she had received.

"Jackie, I'm led to believe you've been axed by Newsline?" I should have said: "No comment," but I didn't. "That's a good word," I said to Maureen. The word 'axe' appeared in the story's headline when it hit the news-stands on March 26.

It wasn't a case of biting the hand that feeds or betraying confidences; I knew that if Maureen had a sniff of the story, it was only a matter of time before it broke.

That story, as well as a follow- up piece by Gail Walker published in the same paper, which was scathing about the corporation's decision, caused quite a stir in the corridors of power at BBC Northern Ireland. I had been heartened by words of support from colleagues in Broadcasting House; but the genuine warmth shown to me by the man and woman in the street was overwhelming.

One of the most amusing was Alan Simpson, MC at Colerine Football Club's home matches. He appeared at the showgrounds the following Saturday sporting a Save Our Jackie T-shirt.

The truth is, I didn't actually want to be saved. I had become frustrated and a little disillusioned by the way sport seemed to be having to battle for its place within the framework of news, although in hindsight I can see that this was a time of transition.

In an attempt to broaden our appeal we were treading a very difficult path. If you accept the premise that some viewers are alienated by sport, it can be easy to dumb down if you're not careful.

Thankfully, it appears that we have begun to get the balance just about right. You don't want to alienate the dyed-in-the-wool sports fan by insulting their intelligence. Likewise, you don't want the less fanatical folk reaching for their remotes.

It was a difficult time for me personally, and, to be totally honest, I began to realise that I wasn't enjoying my job as much. I found myself second-guessing the treatment of a story. Would it fit with this new newsroom approach?

It was one of the worst times in my career. Linda could see I wasn't happy. For the first time in 30 years, I didn't really want to get in my car and drive to work. I hadn't felt this bad since I was coming to terms with turning down the move to Granada ...

Ironically, it was during my final days as a Newsline presenter that a supposedly old-school reporter with a soft edge to his journalism brought the programme two of the biggest local sports stories of the year. Newsline exclusively revealed that Sammy McIlroy was leaving the Northern Ireland job and that Glentoran were having the 12 points which had been deducted in a registration row dramatically reinstated.

I assume, however, that by then the noose was already tightening. Perhaps my perceived failure to fully embrace the new way of thinking hastened my departure. I was eventually told that my Newsline presenting days were over, that I would not be an integral part of the revamped programme. My style didn't fit in with the 'new dynamic'.

Different strokes

However, I can understand the pressures involved. Share of the audience is important, regardless of any spin to the contrary.

For BBC Northern Ireland it means Newsline battling against UTV Live for the right to deliver the day's news. Over the years, the rival stations have adopted very different strategies.

From its buzz phrase 'Your TV', it's clear what tack Ulster Television takes. With presenters like Adrian Logan, Pamela Ballantine and Ivan Little, they play the local card, attempting to speak the same language as the man and woman in the street.

The BBC's approach is different; because BBC Northern Ireland is a small cog in a very big machine, it has to be. Through no fault of the corporation, however, that means BBC NI inherits positives and negatives.

On the downside is the perception, thankfully now changing, that we patronise. I suppose it's a natural consequence of being good at something, but occasionally individuals can give off an air of superiority ...

On the plus side, however, is the natural air of authority that the BBC has when it comes to the big event.

BBC NI's live coverage of George Best's funeral attracted more than 300,000 viewers, a whopping 60% audience share.

It was also the programme that marked the return of the prodigal son. That's if you can still be called a prodigal son at 62.

I did so much work leading up to Bestie's funeral because people were aware of our friendship. A few days before the service at Stormont, I received a call on my mobile. It was my boss, sports editor Edward Smith. He explained that BBC Northern Ireland had decided to broadcast the funeral live. It was, however, to be a joint BBC Newsline and BBC Sport NI production.

I knew what was coming. They wanted to know if I would work on the programme.

It appeared to be the perfect moment to take my revenge for being sidelined as a Newsline presenter; after all, I was already going to the funeral at the invitation of the Best family.

I chose to work. Why? That's easy. I did it for Bestie. If it sounds conceited, I'm sorry, but I wanted to ensure that someone said the right things about George. I wanted to tell people about the Bestie I knew, not parade out platitudes. I'm glad I did it, even after finding out from Castlereagh Borough Council on the day of the funeral that I would have been a pallbearer. I feel truly honoured to have been asked to perform that sad duty, but I'm glad I was able to play my part in a different way.

Readers of the Belfast Telegraph can buy Jackie: I Did It My Way, by Jackie Fullerton with Roger Anderson (Mainstream Publishing, £16.99) for the special price of £13.99 plus free p&p. To order please call 01206 255 800 and quote the reference JF

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