A Society of Editors Service


Alex Gerlis
Journalist, Writer & Media Consultant

Alex Gerlis has been a journalist since 1980.
He worked for the BBC from 1983-2011, first as a broadcast journalist and from 2001-2011 as a specialist in journalism training. From 2005 he was in charge of journalism training in the BBC. In March 2011 he left the BBC to concentrate on writing and media consultancy. He specialises in advising organisations on how to set up and develop effective and strategically oriented training operations.

I joined the BBC in 1983 after working for four years as an in-house journalist at a white collar trade union (where I edited the union journal and ran the press office). I began as a researcher on Panorama, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, before being promoted to Assistant Producer and moving first to the early evening news/current affairs magazine show Sixty Minutes and then to Breakfast Time.   My duties there ranged from being deputy to the night editor to directing films and producing outside broadcasts. In 1986 I was promoted to Producer and moved to The Money Programme, where I produced and directed films ranging from 5’-25’ in duration.
In 1988 I was appointed as Deputy Editor of the News Events unit, which was responsible for covering major set piece events, such as the political party conferences and elections. My role included managing staff and planning and producing major live events. While on News Events I was promoted to Assistant Editor.

In 1990 I moved from BBC Current Affairs to BBC Television News. My first role (from June 1990) was as an output editor on Breakfast New (an output editor is responsible for editing a live programme, under the overall control of the programme editor). As an output editor on Breakfast News, I was in sole charge of the operation from 1900 to the end of transmission of the three hour programme the following morning. This meant being in editorial control of the running order and deciding on the content and direction of the programme, along with leading the team of producers, reporters and presenters.   I edited a number of significant editions of the programme, including the start of Operation Desert Storm in January 1991 and the resignation of Margaret Thatcher. 

While on Breakfast News I also day edited the programme and produced a number of major events, including being the BBC producer in charge of the Rosemary West serial killer trial in 1995. 

In 1994 I had a six-month spell as the Acting Deputy Editor of Breakfast News. In 1995 I had an attachment as Deputy Home Newsgathering Editor for the BBC.   This role included overseeing the planning and deployment of the BBC news operation, as well as managing a team of people including correspondents and helping to manage resources, including budgets.

I moved to the TV Newsroom in 1996 as an output editor on the One o’clock News, the Six o’clock News and the BBC1 weekend news programmes (traditionally, the highest audiences of the week).  I edited a number of key programmes, including the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the Omagh bombing in 1998 (the coverage of which received a Royal television Society award). In September 2001 I was one of the duty Assistant Editors in the TV Newsroom during the attack on the World Trade in New York (9/11).

Key Skills

Ability to handle breaking and developing news stories and produce programmes aimed at a mainstream audience.
Ability to make decisions under pressure.
Handling a team in high pressure situations
Research and story finding skills
Writing skills

In 2001 I was asked to take on a new role, as Training Editor in Television News.   To that point, Television News had been required to ‘purchase’ its training from BBC Training and this was viewed as an unsatisfactory arrangement, not least because the content of the training was ‘catalogue based’ and decided by Training rather than the journalism departments.   I introduced a new training programme, one that was geared to the needs and demands of Television News. The training was flexibly delivered, by people involved in day to day production and – critically – was free at the point of delivery, thus moving away from the unsatisfactory transactional model. I used the latest techniques and always aimed to produce content that was of transmission standards. The training programme was highly successful, having over a thousand delegates in the first year. For the first time, a programme that had a particular training need would get the training delivered to their spec within a matter of days rather than months.

In 2003 I moved to BBC Training (then called People Development). The department had recognised that it was not closely aligned enough to the needs of the BBC departments and set up a number of Centre of Excellence Leaders, to take charge of the strategic direction of training in key areas. I was boarded for and appointed to the role of Centre of Excellence Leader for Journalism.

The post was primarily a strategic one, with little management or delivery responsibility initially, but my appointment coincided with the BBC’s dispute with the Government in 2003 over the WMD broadcast by Andrew Gilligan on the Today programme. As a result of this, a reform of pan-BBC journalism training became a high priority. This was identified as a key issue in the Neil Report, as was the establishment of a BBC College of Journalism.

The College was duly set up in 2005 and I headed UK journalism training operation within it. As such I was responsible for the training and development of around 6,000 UK-based BBC journalists, who ranged from people working on daily news programmes to those in Sport and documentaries. We covered people in television, radio and online and those who appear on-air to those working behind the scenes.
When I took on the job, there was no pan-BBC journalism training strategy, nor was there any culture that recognised that journalism training needed to be strategically focussed and in some cases mandatory, as opposed to something that was perceived as being ‘nice to have’ and the preserve of the ambitious rather than those really needing the training. 
Over the five years in the job I put in place a structure that ensured we had a clear direction in journalism training. We worked so closely with the journalism departments that it was almost impossible to discern the ‘join’. During this period I worked closely, at times on a daily basis, with the Deputy Director General (Mark Byford) who was in charge of BBC Journalism. We brought in mandatory training programmes that were highly successful, including online courses in Editorial Policy and Media Law (which won a major UK training award) and major face to face training programmes devised in response to crises in the BBC. 

My philosophy in training has always been clear:

To ensure that the training is produced to the highest broadcast standards.

To work to the principle that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, therefore significant effort needs to be made to ensure that the maximum number of people receive the training.

That training needs to be closer to programme making than to HR. Its primary role is to improve the skills of staff rather than be a part of internal communications.

To be clear that ‘intelligence gathering’ is a key role of training. This means that training needs to work hard and be well informed so that it can keep one step ahead of journalism trends and developments and then devise high quality and above all, relevant training programmes that ensures that staff can stay ahead of the game.

In respect of the latter, I have had a strong record in ensuring that journalism training is well equipped to take account of emerging media trends. The key to this has been to devise training programmes in conjunction with industry experts and deliver it when it is neither too early nor too late. Our most successful training programme was in Social Media, which was launched at the end of 2009 and in an 18 month period had around 3,000 delegates attending full day courses, along with many others being trained or coached through an innovative ‘consultancy’ programme we developed.

Key Skills

Ability to work at board level and have influence and credibility with senior management and key decision makers

Ability to work to a strategic, organisational need while at the same time having a grasp of detail and logistics

Ability to see the wider picture, to ensure that training is always relevant and stays just ‘ahead of the game’.

Strong record in innovation: developing new training programmes and effective training systems.

In 2002 I was appointed as Assistant Managing Editor in BBC Television News. I held this post for a year, prior to becoming Centre of Excellence Leader, Journalism (see above). As Assistant Managing Editor I had line management responsibility for a large number of staff in Television News. I was closely involved in recruitment, staff moves and staff development. I sat on the main management board of Television News and worked closely with senior management and programme editors.

As Head of Training in the BBC College of Journalism (see above) I ran a team of around forty full time staff, plus another thirty regular freelances. I was responsible for appointments and all other staff matters, including appraisals. I managed the training resources of the College, including a £3 million budget.

Key Skills

Experienced in managing staff

Experienced in successfully managing complex budgets and finite resources

Ability to be a strong advocate for training within a large organisation, while at the same time remaining creative in how training is run and delivered.

Other Training Organisations

I have experience as:
European Broadcasting Union Training Committee: BBC/UK representative 2009-11, Chair 2010-11.

Broadcast Journalism Training Council: BBC representative 2003-2011
External Examiner in post-graduate journalism courses at Sheffield University and City University (London).

Mental Health Act Manager
Following a rigorous recruitment and vetting process, I was appointed a Mental Health Act Manager for the West London Mental Health Trust in 2009. This is a statutory position under the Mental Health Act (2007), whereby a tribunal of three Mental Health Act Managers reviews the continued detention of psychiatric patients who have been sectioned by a Consultant Psychiatrist. The Mental Health Act Managers do have the power (if all three concur) to order the release of a patient. I attend hearings on a regular basis (an average of one a week) at the main Trust hospitals at Ealing and Broadmoor. Recently I have begun to chair some of these hearings.

Key Skills

Ability to handle highly sensitive and complex psychiatric cases.

Being able to demonstrate the personal skills required when dealing with people sectioned under the Mental Health, some for having committed serious criminal offences
Able to respect the confidential nature of the cases
In 2009 I wrote a novel called The Best of our Spies, an espionage thriller based on real events that occurred in World War Two. I submitted the novel to the leading literary agents, Curtis Brown, and was one of the few new fiction writers taken on by them as a client that year. The novel has received some interest from publishers at a difficult time and I am currently writing a second novel, this time with a more contemporary theme. I continue to be represented by Gordon Wise at Curtis Brown.
07720 598012