'Influential' File on Four celebrates 25 years on air

File on Four editors past and present: David Ross, Michael Green, back, and Helen Boaden

When BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 first went on air its editor didn’t expect the programme to survive another week let alone 25 years.

This week, journalists and editors past and present will celebrate the anniversary of the programme that prides itself on the fact that its stories are frequently picked up by the national press and by colleagues at the BBC.

"We were in a blind panic getting the first programme out," said Michael Green, the creator and first editor of File on 4. "I thought if we made it to the following week we would be doing well." The idea behind the programme, he said, was to fill a gap in the Radio 4 schedule for a radio version of Panorama and it remained the station’s only documentary journalism slot for some time.

"We didn’t have the Panorama of radio and that was my ambition," said Green. "At first we were seen as the country cousins who weren’t really capable of writing three story links let alone an investigative journalism programme."

Since then the programme has established a reputation for what former editor and now controller of Radio 4 Helen Boaden described as "real, spirited investigations".

"One of the greatest strengths of the programme is that journalists have time to investigate stories properly," she said. "Because of that it explains the UK in a completely different way, has a reputation for being highly responsible and although people may not like the fact that we say it, it’s very hard for them to say we haven’t got it right."

Among the stories the programme prides itself on – examples of File on 4 being "ahead of the game, incredibly prescient and influential" – are a report that caused the Government to reverse its policy on individual learning accounts, its in-depth reports on Aids in East Africa and recent revelations by the lawyer representing the family of Stuart Lubbock in the Michael Barrymore case.

The programme also carried out an investigation into leading accountancy firms six months before the Enron scandal and a report on finger printing.

"A lot of our programmes have been redone and that is always flattering," said David Ross, the current File on 4 editor. "Of course there is frustration for any radio editor that the programme doesn’t get the same attention as a TV investigation would. At the end of the day we just have to think that we are working for the same organisation."

Journalists who have worked on File on 4 include the BBC’s Europe correspondent, Stephen Sackur, who was also editor, World Tonight reporter Robin Lustig, special correspondent Bridget Kendall and US correspondent Justin Webb.

The makers of the programme have always resisted pressure to leave its birthplace, Manchester, for London.

"The programme works so well because it exists outside of the London bubble of current affairs," said Boaden. "Moving it to London would alter it altogether."

By Julie Tomlin

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