Alex Thomson: My Kelvin MacKenzie doorstep gave viewers ‘feel-good factor’

According to some, one of the first rules of journalism is to never become the story. Clearly no one ever told Channel 4 News chief correspondent Alex Thomson that.

He first joined C4 News 25 years ago after getting into trouble with the BBC over “a naughty film about the IRA in Gibraltar”.

More recently, he claims to have been physically threatened by fellow journalists after criticising the standard of football reporting in Glasgow. (He still contends there is a “case to answer”.)

And last year Thomson got himself in between ex-Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie and his car door after doorstepping him.

On this last incident, Thomson knows that some journalists think he overstepped the mark, but generally believes it provided viewers with a “feel-good factor”.

“Certainly in Liverpool,” he says. “It went down a storm there.

“I had to go up there to do some Hillsborough stuff not long after – it was amazing. I couldn’t buy a drink.”

Thomson also feels the fact that his programme broadcast the clip with little editing was “very uplifting” in the post-Leveson world.

“I think there’s almost universal agreement that could not have happened on any other news TV programme in the UK,” he says.

“I don’t mean it couldn’t have happened in the sense that Kelvin MacKenzie could not have been doorstepped, but I do think that Kelvin MacKenzie could not have been doorstepped with the sort of persistence and aggression which I clearly demonstrated.

“Now we can say whether that’s a good thing – I’m implying no judgement here. I’m just simply saying that that happened and was allowed to happen and was allowed to come back and be transmitted. I think is very interesting.”

Awards

Whether it’s good or bad that Thomson doorstepped MacKenzie, and that C4 News aired it, something seems to be going right for the ITN production.

The programme won six prizes at the Royal Television Society awards this year – and Thomson was named television journalist of the year.

Awards aside, C4 News has been praised for scooping broadcasters and national newspapers to some of the biggest stories over the past year. Exclusives on Plebgate and Lord Rennard, in particular, stand out.

Asked why the programme, which has 30 reporters, has been beating rivals to stories like these, Thomson decides against going down the “dangerous, naughty route” of denigrating rivals.

“What you can really speak for is what’s going on within these four walls,” he says. “I think that the greatest thing that C4 News gives any journalist are the two most valuable things. And that’s time and it’s trust.  

“And if you give a first class team of journalists time and trust they will bring in the goods. Because they will stick with the stories, they won’t let punters down.”

Roving role

Thomson is a hard man to pin down. This interview needs to be arranged two days before, and then rearranged a few hours before, owing to his roving role.

Today, he’s office-based, working on a story about Facebook. Last week, he was covering the Boston Marathon bombings. Next week, he doesn’t know where he’ll be.

He’s got an “anything goes (with the simple proviso that it’s got to be a damn good story)” brief, and that’s the way he likes it.

Thomson says: “I have a lot of other journalists coming up to me saying: ‘You’ve got a very good job Thommo’. And I do know that.”

He adds: “Because you can’t get that sort of freedom elsewhere. At the end of the day, I’m not being pious about it, but I’m motivated by that rather than the financial side of it.”

Aside from his several domestic controversies, Thomson is perhaps best known for his foreign reporting, having covered more than 20 wars for C4 News.

“I love it – it doesn’t feel like work,” Thomson says when asked about his overseas work.

But it’s not without trouble. Thomson, who has a wife and two children, was last year shot at in a car by Syrian rebels – and he’s experienced much worse.

“Those sorts of things make things more difficult at home. But that’s just something I’ve always done,” he says.

“My boys are kids. They live in the present tense. They kind of think it’s a bit of a laugh – you go to war and you bring home interesting presents and souvenirs…

“Being kids, they like that sort of stuff. They don’t know what warfare is about – PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and the heavy side of it. And it’s quite good they don’t appreciate that.”

Thomson reveals that his 12-year-old twin boys have changed his job ever since their birth in 2000, when his admiration for C4 News soared to new levels.

“I work for a company where you only have to say I’ve got a problem,” he says.

“My twin boys were born very prematurely and very suddenly at six-and-a-half months. And I found myself in a car park phoning up my editor here, getting half way through the first sentence, bursting into tears – eventually getting across the fact that my wife was going into labour.

“There’s nothing I could do, I didn’t know what was going to emerge. What the fuck – I don’t know what’s happening.

“And Jim Gray, who was the editor, I remember his words so well. He just says: ‘Alex, this is just TV – it’s just work. Don’t worry about it… give my love to Sarah [his wife]. We’re all behind you – you come back when you come back. Don’t worry, we’re all thinking of you.’  Which of course just made me blub even more.

“But that was impressive. It was not like we had to go through eight departments and HR. There’s a smallness and efficiency.

“When you know that you’ve been through times like that you know equally…you know that the company will absolutely do what needs to be done, and do it fast and do it thoroughly. And it’s a comfort for sure.”

'Why would you move?'

Personally and professionally, Thomson believes C4 News is a good fit for him and he genuinely seems to believe he has one of the best jobs going.

Since he joined C4 News in 1988, Thomson says he has been offered jobs elsewhere, but asks: “Why would you move?”

He says: “I’ve had offers in the past from people to go. And it’s great. But they want to buy you. They want to buy you and what you are and make what you are into what they are and what they do.

“I would argue that what we’ve got here is really working well. It’s not paradise, but you’ve got a huge range of talent and a very small number of people.”

Thomson says he doesn’t want to “appear to be singing the company song” but is clearly very happy with the direction C4 News is taking.

“If we had a mission statement I don’t know what it would be but I guess I’d believe in it.”

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