A week after I took over the Editor’s office at Channel Four News in 1983 I found a letter in a desk. It had been left there by Paul McKee who held the fort between the departure of Derrik Mercer and my arrival, I suspect it was not intended for my eyes. The Chief Executive of Channel Four, Jeremy Isaacs, was informing his ITN counterpart, David Nicholas, that he reluctantly accepted me as Editor but there was a condition: if the ratings did not reach 750,000 within six months the programme would be shut down.
This was news to me. The C4N audience had gone as low as 250,000 which in TV jargon gave it a ‘TVR’ of zero. So I had moved from Britain’s most popular news programme, News at Ten, to the ‘news with no viewers’. The trade press wondered about my sanity.
What they didn’t know was that I had taken on ‘the worst job in TV’ only to to discover there was a death sentence hanging over it. I decided never to share my secret with my new colleagues for fear it would cause a rush to the exits.
The staff would be the key to saving Channel Four News. Peter Sissons, Trevor McDonald, Elinor Goodman, Lawrence McGinty, Michael Crick, Edward Stourton, Jane Corbin and Ian Ross were among a first rate roll call of on-screen journalists. Overseeing the VTR operation was the redoubtable Sid Stiller and among the graphics team Lesley Everett was a rising star. On the news input desks John Flewin, Garron ‘Garbled Brains’ Baines and Angela Frier were under-appreciated stalwarts. We even had a future Deputy Prime Minister in Damian Green running the business desk.
But feelings about the events of the first year of C4N were still running high. Now the team were suspicious about a new editor who, as Edward Stourton writes in his forthcoming autobiography, had ‘a reputation for populism of a most un-Channel 4-ish kind”.
My own priority was answer the simple question; what was the point of Channel Four News other than it lasted an hour? To Peter Sissons “it was blindingly obvious”. We should choose the news stories of the day which raised issues and deal with them intelligently and if necessary at length. I thought we needed a format which meant the viewer should be able to watch C4N and not need to find any other news that evening. Rather than ignore what I called the ‘video river’ flowing through ITN from its crews and agency suppliers we needed to exploit it.
First Channel Four, who had grudgingly appointed ITN as their news provider in the first place, had to be weaned off an obsession with what they called ‘identifiable analysis’, a code for lengthy studio interviews with experts. My alternative was to thread analysis through the video packages of seven or more minutes using our own in-house expertise plus outside pundits. That would mean a bigger budget and to their credit C4 agreed.
A week after handing out piechart diagrams of the new format we put it into action on the first anniversary of the channel. Jeremy Isaacs came to the newsroom in Wells Street and climbed onto a desk to speak to staff. With his head bumping into the ceiling he delivered an upbeat message rather different from his secret letter to David Nicholas; “Our commitment to ITN is 101 per cent and I am totally committed to both Stewart and to the production of Channel Four News”. Fortunately the team took this as good news rather the dreaded vote of confidence in the manager who is about to be fired. The six month clock began counting down to either ratings success or shutdown.
There were many difficult moments. Edward Stourton recalls my ‘brutal determination to drag up standards’ in post-mortems after each show. Free drinks in my office afterwards didn’t always smooth over wounded feelings. The night we showed a live shot of empty aircraft steps at Gatwick for far too long brought record ratings but a complaint from Channel Four that this ‘was the wrong kind of journalism’. My explanation was that the British hostages released by Libya had got too drunk on the plane to leave. It cut little ice.
However overall we were doing more right than wrong, scepticism among the team was giving way to enthusiasm and there was even encouraging external praise from, of all places, the Financial Times and the Los Angeles Times. Then came awards first at the Broadcasting Press Guild, then BAFTA and the Royal Television Society. Our coverage of the Miners Strike was the breakthrough moment when the wider world took notice especially when miners’ leader Arthur Scargill and Coal Board Chairman Ian McGregor made their own films and also debated live on air, the only time they ever spoke to each other in public, and maybe in private too.
One day I got a call from Channel Four to say that such was the progress that the six month deadline was off the table. The programme was safe even if we didn’t reach 750,000. In fact we did make that ratings target anyway.
40 years later the current ratings are not far off 750,000 which is an extraordinary achievement in the context of the enormous decline in linear TV viewing. So Channel Four News now has a greater share of the TV news viewing cake than it did back in those early days.
The best single decision I made was to build the programme around Peter Sissons. Subsequently Richard Tait’s decision to do the same with Jon Snow ensured extraordinary continuity over nearly four decades. During those years Channel Four teams have upheld and strengthened the reputation for intelligent, challenging and news-making journalism. They continue to win awards around the world.
In Peter’ Sissons own words in his 2011 biography: “Having worked on every major terrestrial TV news broadcast on the BBC,ITV and Channel Four, it is my view that Channel Four News is the one that can make other flagships look pedestrian and predictable”.
This article first appeared in the ITN 55 Club newsletter