Jim Gray's final interview at C4 News: 'We have to be crafty and inventive'

Ask Jim Gray's colleagues to describe him and they're likely come out with words like 'anarchist", 'outsider'and 'anti-establishment".

Yet when Press Gazette caught up with him at the ITN studios, it was his last day in what is considered one of the most coveted jobs in British broadcast journalism.

Gray spent 17 years at the BBC before joining Channel 4 News, first at Radio 4 and later at Newsnight, where he quickly progressed from political producer to deputy editor.

He joined Channel 4 in 1996 as deputy editor and in December 1997, after only six months in the job, was promoted to editor.

'When he arrived there was a huge amount of work to be done,'says presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Gray's first major hire.

'The programme needed redefining, reinvigorating and strengthening editorially, as well as a big on-screen relaunch. What Jim brought was massive enthusiasm, excitement and editorial rigour."

What followed was widespread acclaim and a string of awards, including a record five Royal Television Awards in 2006 and an International Emmy in 2004.

In 2011, Gray oversaw a second major relaunch, which Channel 4 described as the 'most significant period of change'in the programme's history.

It was given a new look, format and studio, and Gray set about bringing in new big names including Matt Frei and Michael Crick from the BBC.

Gray tells Press Gazette that by the new year, with the new-look show bedded in, he began feeling he'd had a 'long enough ride in the saddle".

The most obvious change for the viewer was the new dual-anchor format, which saw Jon Snow co-present with Frei, Guru-Murthy and Cathy Newman.

Gray insists the changes had nothing do with the programme makers preparing for life after Snow, who turns 65 in September (but has not signalled any intention of retiring).

'Jon has more energy than people a third of his age,'says Gray. 'He is exhausting, in a good way. Physically, when he goes on the road he leaves his producers in

his wake."

'Jon is great – but we were worried about the other presenter'

Instead, Gray says he wanted the programme to seem less like the Jon Snow show and more of a team effort.

'I'd say probably the main reason is that an hour is a long time in TV news, and Jon is utterly brilliant – has been, still is and will continue to be – but what we were actually worried about is the other presenter.

'Occasionally it could look like the role was frankly too junior, not doing serious enough journalism, and yet they are all top journalists.

'Had the role stayed that small, enclosed role, it was just unsustainable. The disparity between the main presenter role and the other role was just not on.

'What we wanted to do was get a balance where we unleash the talents of the other person but still maintain Jon as the top dog."

 

Snow is still considered the 'main authorial voice'on the programme, says Gray, embodying much of its 'character, ethos, madness, curiosity and energy".

Gray, a working-class Scot and the first of his family to go to university, is a popular figure among colleagues, and appears to have forged a particularly strong bond with his main anchor.

Snow describes Gray as an 'anarchist'with a keen sense of 'what's right and wrong", and who 'leads by excellence rather than class or pomposity".

'He's imaginative, creative, and original. He comes at things from unexpected angles, makes you think about something in a way you've never thought before, challenges and tests,'he says. 'All of the things you'd want in an editor."

Despite his lengthy spell at Channel 4, when Gray is asked about his career highlights his recollection is a BBC assignment with broadcast legend Charles Wheeler on the flight of the Kurds toward the end of the Iraq War in 1991.

'Charles always referred to them as one of the most important parts of his work,'says Gray. 'You think, ‘Blimey, I had a hand in something Charles Wheeler thinks is good. Charles Wheeler is a God.'

Secret Iraq legal advice was biggest scoop

Closer to home, he cites Channel 4 News's scoop on the secret legal advice given to Tony Blair by the Attorney General on the legality of the Iraq War.

'At that time, getting that story was one of the crown jewels in political journalism,'Gray says.

'We knew there were other people chasing it too but Jon single-mindedly thought, ‘We are going to get this.

'And sure enough, I'll never, ever forget lying in bed – Jon said ‘I'll be in touch with you later on', because he thought something big was going to happen for him – and it was 1.30 in the morning, he texted me, waking me up and my wife, and all it said was: ‘The eagle has landed.'"

Other highlights include Channel 4's coverage in Iraq, Sri Lanka (which resulted in calls for an international war crimes tribunal) and, more recently, Syria.

In foreign coverage, Gray believes the programme punches well above its weight.

'We have a foreign unit here with three correspondents, just three: Lindsey Hilsum, the editor, and two other correspondents, Jonathan Miller and Jonathan Rudman. Abroad we have two, one in Asia and one Washington."

Key to its coverage is 'placing your editorial bets where you think you'll have most impact".

Faced with the superior resources of BBC and Sky News, Gray admits it is 'quite professionally satisfying'when he beats them to the big stories.

'Take the Tsunami, for which just last month won a BAFTA,'he says. 'It's really quite heartening for a programme of this scale.

'We're well funded for what we do but in terms of global reach we have to be quite crafty and quite inventive about what we do."

Guru-Murthy puts Gray's success down to 'troublemaking'and 'breaking stories rather than just following the same news agenda as everybody else".

He adds: 'It's a very strong quality I think, because television's full of ambitious automatons who are solely focussed on getting up the greasy pole, and he's very different in that respect."

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