founding Insight News Television in 1991, Ron McCullagh worked as
a reporter for the BBC for 10 years. He started his career as a
local radio reporter for Radio Lancashire in 1980. From 1984 to
1989 he worked as a reporter for BBC Radio 4's 'Today Programme'
covering national and international stories. He then worked for
a year on BBC Television's Morning News as a reporter and was one
of the first journalists to do his own filming on a Hi8 camera.
He is a freelance contributor to BBC Radio 4's 'From Our Own Correspondent'
and has written for numerous publications including The Observer
and The Sunday Telegraph. In 1989 Ron McCullagh was nominated
by the BBC for the Sony 'Radio Journalist of the Year' awards, in
1998 at the One World Broadcasting Trust Media Awards he won the
UNICEF UK Award for the Advancement of Children's Rights for the
report on child workers in Bangladesh which he reported, filmed,
produced and edited. In 2000, the documentary Cry Freetown with
Sorious Samura which he directed has so far won 14 major awards
-- including an Emmy and a BAFTA, and in 2002 his documentary
Exodus won an Emmy for best documentary direction.
My first question for you -- and it's a burning one -- is what made
you decide to leave the BBC to start Insight News Television?
For whatever reason I have always been driven to discover and
communicate the context of stories. Daily news is about the 'what'
but what about the 'why'?
1986 I was a reporter for the BBC's Today programme in Britain,
a national radio news and current affairs programme broadcast daily
between 6 and 9 am. A particular piece of kit grabbed my imagination,
a new type of tape recorder that got closer to the 'why'.
the time the BBC reporter's basic tape recorder was a brick of technology
called the Uher but then the Sony Walkman cassette recorder arrived.
It was much lighter and less bulky but, better still it allowed
for two tiny 'tie mikes' instead of the more bulky and traditional
handheld single mike. Using the smaller mikes the quality of the
interviews changed. The interviewee, no longer intimidated with
a large microphone in their face, became more intimate and revealing,
both of the subject of the interview and of themselves.
about the same time a friend of mine showed me a Video 8 camera
also made by Sony with which he shot a documentary in Africa. The
technical quality was way below normal broadcast standards but the
film had something normal broadcast films did not often have; that
same "Walkman" intimacy.
1990 I left the BBC to see where all this new technology might lead.
The mission of Insight News is to "make the important interesting."
What do you mean by that? What's an example of how you've been able
to make the important interesting?
Barely a day goes by without someone complaining about broadcasters:
"No one's interested in serious news and current affairs anymore.
They're dumbing down. If it isn't going to get massive ratings,
they don't want to know."
So what do we do about it?
We have to become better storytellers -- better at doing our job.
We have to tell our stories in more and more engaging ways so that
we keep the audience's attention; i.e. we must make the important
means up our skills, our imagination, our ambitions, so we can get
back in the game.
classic story in international news and current affairs is the constant
horror of child labour, children whose childhoods are burnt out
so that they can eke out an existence. So if you were going to make
a film about child labour what would you put in it? A few years
back NBC's Dateline made such a film. It was predictable;
all about the child textile workers in Bangladesh, massed ranks
of twelve year olds in hanger like factories, slaving away at their
sowing machines making garments for our kids in the west. Interviews
with children and parents, the rich boss etc. It was strong stuff.
strong that an American politician Democrat Senator Tom Harkin proposed
the banning of the import of all products produced by children into
main export to the U.S. is garments and in response to the Harkin
Bill factories throughout the country sacked their child workers.
Tens of thousands of children (no one knows for sure how many but
some say 50,000) lost their jobs.
we arrived to make a film about child labour some of these children
asked us "how are you helping me by getting me sacked?" It turned
out that of all the employment available to children in Bangladesh,
the garment industry offered better pay and conditions than most
other work. So we made a film that explained why absolute poverty
mitigated by the income of children is often better than absolute
was counter intuitive, character driven, provocative stuff. It was
shown all over the world and probably broadened people's understanding,
if only a little, on the complexities of this world we live in.
I hope it did as much good as Dateline did bad, but I doubt
story choice, powerful story telling with the children telling their
own stories and the admission of such organisations as Unicef that,
on this occasion they may have got it wrong, made the important
Your documentary with Sorious Samura "Cry Freetown" has won just
about every award a documentary can achieve (including Emmy, Bafta
and Peabody awards). How did you meet Sorious and how did that project
Every year in London there's a prize giving ceremony for the most
outstanding freelance news and news and current affairs cameraman
or woman of the year gone by. It's called the Rory Peck Award and
in November 1999 I was in the audience along with 300 of the great
and the good in the television news industry. There were three finalists.
We saw examples of their work. As soon as Samura's gruesome footage
of what happened in Freetown, Sierra Leone the previous January
was shown, we knew there was no contest.
we saw were war crimes -- peacekeeping troops torturing and killing
civilians who they suspected of collaborating with the equally brutal
rebel forces who were trying to capture the capital.
his footage was explosive, his speech was nuclear. Without notes
he took the stage as the overall winner and (excuse my language)
bollocked the assembled big cheeses from CNN, BBC, ABC, NBC etc.
"Where were you…" he said ".. when my country was on its knees?"
"You see this award" he said holding it up "you can keep it if it
means that you will start to tell the story of Africa properly".
He continued on this theme for a couple more minutes and walked
off the stage to silence.
it began. Like a Mexican wave the audience rose to their feet and
applauded long and loud.
was there with my partner, in business and in love, Elizabeth Ground
and some of our colleagues. Elizabeth and I knew at once that we
wanted to make a documentary with this man and we knew at once that
with such a voice he should present it.
an industry of giants, Insight News is a dwarf so when I met Sorious
later that evening I told him what we thought and said that we would
love to meet and talk, but only after he'd seen everyone else and
was still looking for something different.
evening a week later Sorious came to our office and the partnership
began. "Cry Freetown" was made in 7 weeks. The chief commissioner
was Channel Four (UK) and their commissioning team of David Lloyd
and Caroline Haydon, with extra funding from CNN, 2 Vandaag in the
Netherlands, CBC (Canada) and ARTE.
Your most recent project, Exodus from Africa was nominated
for three Emmys and won the Emmy for best documentary direction.
How did that project evolve?
How do you follow Cry Freetown? ... we began a development
meeting in March 2000 at our offices beside Clapham Common in London.
There were several ideas thrown around, three rose to the surface.
One of them nearly got us killed [see next question] and one Exodus
from Africa went on to be nominated for three Emmys.
and I were the two strongest supporters for Exodus. In Sorious's
case because it was part of the story of his life, a west African
leaving war and poverty behind in search of a better life and in
my case because I'd seen a drama made in the eighties called The
March about a desperate journey of tens of thousands of Africans
who were determined to enter Europe at any cost
that's the story we told, but this time about the real people. We
met some great people and their stories made a lot of people think
again about what the term "illegal immigrants" actually means.
Your work sometimes puts you and your fellow filmmakers in harm's
way. Have you at any time felt you might not make it out of an assignment
If you're interested enough you can look up the details on how
in 2000 four of our people ended up charged with a capital offence
in Liberia. Truthfully I can't bare going through the details again.
the decision to risk you own life is one thing but managing others
who must take similar risks is worse. In preference I would rather
take the risks myself.
was the hero of a story I filmed in 1991 during the Croatian/Serbian
conflict in the former Yugoslavia. A newly qualified doctor, he
had been conscripted into the hastily formed Croatian national army
and posted to the village of Snojia in southern Croatia. He was
the unit medic to a rag tag group of fighters whose front line was
the railway line that ran through the center of the village.
became very attached to Zoran. We shared a lot of the same ideas.
He was a normal decent 23-year-old European who had found himself
in the middle of a war. It could have happened to anyone, but now
it was happening to him. He handled his responsibility with insightful
courage and for this and many other attributes I found him an impressive
guy. Then one day I confused our friendship with my job.
armoured transport the unit used two bread vans with ¼ inch steel
welded to the bodywork. One Sunday morning a van had moved eight
soldiers to the east of the town. There was a fierce firefight,
small arms first and then the "whump" of mortars. Zoran, my producer,
Gareth, and I listened to the battle unfold from under a table in
the railway station. There were two brick walls between the Serbs
and the US. We felt safe.
Zoran's military radio came news. The van's been hit -- one wounded
-- required now, the remaining bread van, Zoran a driver and three
soldiers to rendezvous with retreating unit on frontline.
picked up his first aid kit and I picked up the camera but Gareth,
a wise and gentle Welshman, blocked my exit from beneath the table.
I'd already crossed a line. I had become inseparable from Zoran.
To my sense of values, abandoning Zoran was betrayal and risking
my life was a price I was prepared to pay.
all worked out. I stayed with Zoran and both of us survived that
Sunday morning and indeed the war but I was wrong; there is a line
and it serves no great purpose to cross it.
What are the qualities you think make for a good documentary
Tell the truth.
a successful entrepreneur who spots a gap in the market and sets
up a business to fill it, a good documentary maker spots a gap in
the audience's knowledge that needs to be filled.
What in your mind is wrong with the way news is presented today
-- particularly in the US?
In most cases U.S. television news continues to be very simplistic.
It's a systemic problem. The commercial powers behind the big US
broadcasters get very insecure about truths which threaten their
paradigm of what America is. The attitude pervades the corridors.
Staff make choices -- to spin the truth and keep their heads down
or be brave and have short careers.
Since news is often given "out of context" and doesn't "connect
the dots" how do you provide context and insight without slanting
the piece with a distinct bias? Or is bias just inherent in the
process and we just have to admit that "objective" journalism is
Give the audience enough information and let them decide.
story telling subjectivity is impossible to avoid. The solution
is to be upfront with the audience about where your film is coming
directional microphone is a bit like what we expect an objective
reporter or filmmaker to be.
microphone works by using two microphones; one at the front and
another along the barrel. In order to pick up clean or "objective"
sound from the source the microphone is pointing at, the signal
from the barrel microphone is subtracted from the signal from the
microphone at the front. The directional mike obeys scientific rules
and can normally be trusted to provide an objective result.
human I know does this, though we appear to expect reporters and
filmmakers to do this every day; to subtract their prejudices, pre-concepts
and stereotypes from the story they are covering.
present the whole package to the audience, what the filmmaker/reporter
has uncovered together with who the filmmaker/reporter is that has
done the uncovering. Then let the audience decide.
How do you think the Internet can be used to improve film distribution
-- what is your vision and hope for broadband vis-à-vis your
When will we be able to turn the computer into a instant receiver
of television quality films? When that happens the world changes.
School kids will no longer write essays for their teachers, they'll
make video essays from rushes they've downloaded from the internet.
We will all become video literate.
broadcasters will drown as their traditional audiences, already
fragmented by the draw of hundreds of satellite and cable channels,
desert their traditional brands for sector specific programming.
You want to watch the latest from Hollywood, pay now and here it
is and likewise across the board. So too with documentary.
traditional power of the media will be diluted. A good thing? I
don't know, but inevitable.
Who are some of the documentary filmmakers today that you consider
to be doing important work?
Mike Kirsch out of CBS Miami is one of my heroes. He's not afraid
to put himself in his films. And of course Michael Moore for the
same reason, although I think the money issue is affecting him.
Can a documentary filmmaker submit an idea to you for consideration?
If yes, then how can they do this?
Be gentle with us, we're very small. But if you have a well thought
out original idea then send it to email@example.com., but
only if you trust us not to rip you off. If you don't get a reply
it's because we're inundated.
What's next for you and your company?
More meetings with more commissioning editors, a 2 x 1 hour series
with Sorious Samura called 21st Century War and a giant project
about Aids in Africa.
Copyright Web del Sol, 2002