Dan Walker on his BBC replacement and what he's bringing to Channel 5
The broadcaster speaks to The Big RT Interview about his move to Channel 5 News, why he left BBC Breakfast and how the recent broadcaster exits will not be "the death of the BBC".
For most TV presenters, landing a permanent role on BBC Breakfast – frequently the most-watched show in its week day morning slot – is a career pinnacle, with few wanting to let go of that hotly-contested gig. In fact, many broadcasters have clung onto it for as long as possible, with Bill Turnbull hosting for 15 years, Sian Williams doing 11 and Louis Minchin managing nine, while Carol Kirkwood has been delivering early morning weather forecasts for over two decades.
So it came as a rather big surprise to many in April when Dan Walker not only announced that he'd be leaving BBC Breakfast after six years, but that he was quitting to join Channel 5's evening news programme – something Walker admits he wouldn't have considered doing before now. "In my first meeting with Channel 5, we were really honest with each other," Walker tells RadioTimes.com over Zoom. "Ben Frow – the boss – said, 'I wouldn't be in this meeting if I didn't really want you to work here,' and I said, 'Well, I probably wouldn't have been here three years ago if I'm honest with you.'"
"But Channel 5 – they're doing some brilliant stuff and they're a really creative, impressive channel. They get a load of viewers for really good programmes and I like what they do with the news," he continues.
While Walker begins his tenure on 5News tonight, it's the day after his BBC Breakfast leaving do when I speak to him via webcam. He'd spent the evening eating doughnuts and drinking with his family, his colleagues, Alan Shearer and Jason Bell and although he wasn't presenting in the early hours of the morning, his first weekday lie-in in six years had to be put on hold. "We stayed in Manchester and then I had to get up really early with my wife to get the kids to school on time so we actually got up at stupid o'clock this morning," he admits. "But the lie-ins will start now."
Of course, the 5am starts are a very understandable reason for why you would leave a flagship breakfast programme to host an evening news show, but my first question was what we'd all been wondering since the news first broke: why leave BBC Breakfast for Channel 5?
"I've done it for six and half years," Walker says. "In my entire career, I've only stayed in jobs for 18 months maximum apart form two jobs – Football Focus and BBC Breakfast The reason why I stayed there is because I never felt like I was getting bored of it.
"I could have happily stayed there a lot longer but Channel Five came along. They sort of said, 'We think you're really good and we want you and these are the things we'd like you to do,' and I don't think you often get in television the opportunity to not only do a news programme that you know you're going to love, but also to go away and make other telly every year of your contract. Like a guaranteed series or quiz or whatever it might be."
As for other TV projects, Walker says he'll start exploring them once he's "got his feet under the news" desk. "That's a really exciting prospect because I just love making telly. I'm still excited every time I make any programme. I still love it when you walk into a studio to do a live show and I like making telly with nice people. It's a real privilege."
While moving to Channel 5 gives Walker the opportunity to mix up his news reading style, he says he's not interested in the "ranty, shouty, look at me, I'm asking all the really hard questions" type of presenting. "News is very much under scrutiny at the minute. I think there's one style which is totally fact-based and quite harsh and clinical in a way, and then there's the other end of it, which is, 'Watch my programme because I'll give you my opinion on the news.' And I think I don't do either of those things.
He adds: "I think in the middle is a sort of news with feeling, and an explanation to viewers of why something is important, why it matters to them, and how it's gonna affect their lives. A dialogue with your viewers, getting them to react to the story rather than just being told.
"I think that I get to do that at breakfast, but I just thought, you know what, I love a challenge. And I went into Strictly Come Dancing thinking I'll be here for three weeks and I was there for three months. I suppose that sort of thing opens your mind up to what you can do."
Walker managed to complete a BBC Breakfast right of passage when he came in fifth place on last year's series of Strictly Come Dancing and while he's ticked that BBC show off his list, he hasn't ruled out returning to the broadcaster for other projects.
"I'm still able to work for other broadcasters and Channel 5 have been great about that so there's nothing to stop me from doing what other shave done like Clare Balding and Gabby Logan. The door is definitely not closed to the BBC and I've spoken to the head honchos and they've said the same thing. It's not a case of bridges being burned because I've not left in that way.
"I'm not going to slag the BBC off because I think the BBC do great things. I've had a wonderful time at the BBC but that is something I'd love to do – to go back and make another programme at the BBC whether it's sport or something else. I'd love to keep doing the Olympics. We'll see what happens with that. I believe the phrase is ongoing negotiations," he says with a grin.
Throughout his six years on BBC Breakfast, Walker has been a part of some of the show's most memorable moments – from organising a flypast in Sheffield for the 75th anniversary of a bomber crash to sorting out a Christmas tree for pensioner Terrence who'd spent his last 20 Christmases by himself. However, the most significant day on the job for the broadcaster was after the May 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.
"That's a perfect example of a story that totally rocks the nation. It's your job to hold it all together and to tell that story responsibly and carefully and with kindness and getting the tone right and to be accurate and be fair," he says.
The explosion happened at 10:30pm on a Monday night during an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, killing 22 people and injuring at least 119. Walker was the sole host on BBC Breakfast the following morning.
"I remember watching the clock at 5:59 and 30 seconds. I was in the studio on my own, Louise [Minchin] was at the scene. I had no script, no autocue, nothing. All hell was breaking loose in my ear in the gallery and you just look at the clock ticking over and you think, 'This is it.'
"This is why I've done this job for 20 years. I've got to do this right. People are waking up with their kids and you're telling them that 20 people at that time have died at a pop concert in Manchester and every word counts, every syllable is important, your face is important. It's such a huge responsibility to get that right and the whole breakfast team that day were amazing."
Having been through a lot together, Walker says he told his co-host Sally Nugent that he was leaving BBC Breakfast before the official announcement. "There's this thing in the industry where the only people who care about these things really are the people who do it. I know people like watching Breakfast and that's lovely but I think it's a sort of navel gazing thing about who's presenting which show where, but I love the people I worked with and I'm really good friends with Sally – I wouldn't want her to find out from anybody else.
"I told Sally what was happening and she had to keep it a secret for a bit. We had a really lovely chat about it and she totally understands as well."
Walker isn't the only big name to leave the BBC over the past year, with the likes of Emily Maitlis quitting Newsnight and moving to LBC with Jon Sopel, Andrew Marr moving away from the broadcaster after two decades and Huw Edwards' recent plans to bid News at Ten farewell. What could be the reason behind this recent mass exodus? "I can't speak for the others I all I can say is it's I'm not running away from the BBC.
"It's not like, 'Oh, the BBC are so annoying, I've got to get out.' That's never crossed my mind. For me, it's just a case of there's a real competition in the industry at the minute and the BBC are brilliant, and have been brilliant and will continue to be brilliant. I know there's all sorts of question marks about future funding models and that's not a decision for me – the BBC have got to look at what they do as other broadcasters have got to look at what they do as well."
"I'm not going to go to Channel 5, look around and go, 'Ha ha – BBC look at what you could have had.' That's not in my mind at all because I still wan to work at the BBC. I just love a new challenge and Channel 5 came along at just the right time for me."
He adds: "This is not the death of the BBC because the BBC is far bigger than me or Emily Maitlis or Jon Sopel or Andrew Marr and the BBC is going to continue to make brilliant programmes and I still have got loads of great friends there who will keep making brilliant TV which I and millions of other people will continue to watch."
As for who should replace him on BBC Breakfast, Walker gives a diplomatic answer. "I don't want to cause a political storm here," he jokes. "I've worked with Louise and I've worked with Sally and what I had with those two remarkable women was somebody that I could trust, somebody that I loved working alongside, somebody that I knew and they knew that we had each other's backs.
"That's what I want for Sally. I want somebody who understands how big the programme is. If they can find somebody to tick all those boxes, and I'm sure they will, then I think Sally and him or whoever it is they go for will have continued success on the number one breakfast show in the UK."
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