Skewering No 10 over Christmas parties has made Ros Atkins a BBC star

“Drinks, nibbles, games”: three words delivered in a studiously measured tone that have added to serious stress headaches at the heart of government and sparked nagging rumours of the prime minister’s exit.

Alexandra Topping 

The BBC’s Ros Atkins, who delivered the deadpan words in a video explainer of the “partygate” scandal that went viral, has become an unlikely star of the festive saga. Admirers from across the political divide – from Piers Morgan to James O’Brien – have praised his commitment to the cold, hard presentation of facts, while he has been credited with creating a “whole new genre of reporting”.

In a series of short explainers, the BBC News Channel’s Outside Source presenter has repeatedly skewered the Boris Johnson administration, while never coming within striking distance of seeming to have an opinion.

“Forensic, measured, factual, brilliant,” wrote veteran broadcaster Andrew Neil after Atkins’ explainer on 6 December. Two days later Morgan tweeted: “Ros once again brilliantly illustrating that the best journalism is often the simplest: just damn people with cool, calm, collected & utterly irrefutable facts.”

The first video on the Christmas parties was posted on 2 December, two days after the story broke, and two more have followed. In nine days the 3-4 minute clips – long for viral videos – have been watched over 11m times, far more than any other digital news series, with insiders in the BBC admitting that their popularity has confounded expectations about the desires of online news consumers.

Watch them here

The 47-year-old is no hotshot newcomer. He has been at the BBC for 20 years, joining the corporation weeks after 9/11. He started out as a producer on Simon Mayo’s 5 live show, before becoming a presenter on the BBC World Service in 2004.

Atkins, a former DJ who ran a club night in Brixton in the 2000s and performed at Womad, was part of the team that launched Outside Source, a daily show that curates news from wires, video feeds and social media on the News Channel and BBC World News, in 2014.

His explainers started with coverage of the Australia bush fires in late 2019, and earlier this year the BBC launched Ros Atkins On, promising 10 minutes of his “straight-talking style of analysis and explanation” on the biggest issues of the day on iPlayer, BBC Breakfast and the BBC’s news website.

His films, covering the heatwaves in the States and the Belarus migrant crisis as well as domestic political issues, “explain the background and context to current events in a scrupulously impartial, accessible way”, said Jamie Angus, senior controller, news output and commissioning, at BBC News. “He’s made this type of explainer his own, and it’s proved wildly popular with audiences across the world, and very shareable on social media,” he said.

The explainers, very much seen as Atkins’ baby, were created in an attempt to make live TV also work as an on-demand digital product, with one former BBC news executive describing their style as “assertive impartiality”.

“Ros is just brilliant at this,” the executive said. “If you look at what he’s done, it’s stripped down ‘this is what happened’ in three minutes flat – there’s no florid tedious language, there’s no self indulgence to it.”

Atkins’ unflinching presentation manages to get the viewer to raise an eyebrow through facts alone, said the former executive. “I think sometimes the BBC mistakes impartiality for sucking the life out of something. But Ros is human and has a personality, while never making it about him, or leaving himself open to accusations of bias.”

Colleagues say Atkins, who is married with two teenagers, is dedicated, rehearsing lines and tweaking scripts until he is sure they will have the greatest impact. One former colleague compared his approach to news to his love of squash. “He makes things look effortless but they’re not effortless. Just like being a very good squash player takes years of practice, being a really good TV craftsman takes a long time too – he works bloody hard to make it spot on.”

[The “BBC Outside Source” series of short explainers are well worth looking at – Owl]