Old-fashioned journalism counters the election spin

Channel 4’s attorney scoop shows how digging out stories can set agendas”

The document published by Channel 4 News, so far from standing up
the case of the Government’s critics, stands up the case the Government
has been making all along.”

Well there you have it, from the mouth of a man who tells it
straight, who isn’t in doubt. The Attorney General may be reticent when
it comes to explaining his advice upon the war, but when it comes to
identifying the source of a scoop, like Tony he’s a “pretty straight
sort of guy”.

So, first of all, thanks Lord Goldsmith, for clearing that one up.

Before
we get to the nitty-gritty of Channel 4 News and the breaking of the
biggest story of the election, let’s state what really matters about
all this and that is that it’s a time to celebrate. To celebrate that
stories still wrest the agenda from politicians. I’d like to think
everyone could take comfort from that in the era of spin. Indeed, this
whole election was held to be so spun, before nominations had even
opened, that broadcasters and most papers were keen to set up instant
rebuttal units.

Channel 4’s Factcheck website has been combing
through a whole host of claims and counterclaims with great vigour. ITV
News has been “unspinning” contentious statements. All the serious
papers have been hard at it too. Nothing of substance was left to mere
political parties.

All of this is welcome enough – but what’s
better by far is old-fashioned digging out of stories being the means
of setting the agenda. It’s not really the case that the C4 scoop put
the war back on the election map. In fact, both Michael Howard and
Charles Kennedy had been turning the screws since the weekend before,
culminating in the Tories’ “liar” campaign.

But just as the war
theme appeared to be about to run out of steam, it got the ultimate
shot in the arm with the leaking to Channel 4 News of the Attorney’s
advice. And just to clarify, the programme secured this scoop on its
own efforts, not in collaboration with any other media.

There was
something delicious the morning after our scoop about the sight of
expensivelysuited bankers in the City looking on with mute astonishment
as the press conference, staged by Tony Blair and (his good friend)
Gordon Brown to talk about the economy, turned into the most dramatic
set-piece event yet of the campaign.

As the mute suits looked on,
the hackery went for the political jugular. Not a word on the economy
but the sight of Gordon coming out to say how much he respected Tony.
Would he have gone to war in the same circumstances? Yes. One little
word – but a big political statement. Tony left to mouth not one, but
two, silent “thank yous” to Gordon as Patricia Hewitt went on to
endorse the stance on war – but Tony’s “thank yous” upstaged everything
she was saying.

What on earth did the money men think of it?

Instead
of reflected glory of mammon they got the fallout from the most
unpopular decision Mr Blair has ever made in office. I’d have loved to
see some vox pops of the nonplussed.

Not that the nonplussing was confined to the City.

On
the night of the Attorney story, our programme editor Chris Watkins
said: “Look, it’s probably a complete wild goose chase, but go anyway.”
So cameraman Ken McCallum and I headed to Stamford Bridge where the Red
among the Blues, Michael Howard, was already in the ground waiting for
the Champions’ League match to start.

Faced with the choice of
persuading Mr Howard to react to the story live among thousands of
Chelsea fans at ground level, or invade somebody’s flat where ITV News
Channel were doing pre-match reports from the balcony, I chose the
latter.

Finally, just as the owner of the flat arrived home, he
was confronted by Michael Howard emerging from his bedroom after a
last-minute change of tie.

“Good job I’m a Tory mate,” he said, eyeing up Mr Howard as we more or less bundled him onto the balcony and waiting camera.

He didn’t want to take a lot of questions.

Wouldn’t do anything live. He clearly knew it was big, yet was curiously reticent in his response.

Subsequent
declarations that he’d have gone to war apparently in the face of
everybody on earth saying Saddam was no threat, goes some way to
explaining his demeanour.

All in all it was a good deal more dramatic than the following 90 minutes inside the ground.

All
of that following on a day of more subtle dramas in and around the
newsroom. One of those days when a dummy running order was posted on
computer screens for a dull looking programme that was never going to
be. When extraordinary lengths were taken to avoid our worst anxiety:
not so much somebody else getting a sniff of the story (though that
would have been bad enough) as lawyers getting a whiff and slapping an
injunction upon us.

That would have been a cruel twist. Because
what matters about that day was that it brought to a climax weeks –
months even – of effort from the team to elicit trust and a
relationship with sources involved. It was, in the end, all about hard
work and careful work, not luck.

As ever with these things, you
prove your mettle to your sources by what goes out on screen and how
secure your protection is of people helping you get it there. This was
built up gradually through the programme’s exclusives detailing the
various changes of view on the war from the Attorney and the allied
scoop of the Elizabeth Wilmshursts’ resignation letter, and its highly
charged section which the Government tried to censor.

All along
the line the programme had led the pack and all the while trust was
building to secure the big fish by landing rather carefully a whole
serious of smaller – though important – catches.

All this meant
that when the big one was in, we not only knew it was copper-bottomed,
but we also knew what to do with it. This wasn’t the unexpected receipt
of something we weren’t sure of. The BBC, faced with a sudden
out-of-theblue brown envelope drop, hadn’t a clue.

Understandably they didn’t know if it was for real and couldn’t find out. Minutes were ticking by.

Their Six O’Clock News programmes came – and went – with nothing.

We not only knew it for what it was, but had all the people lined up in advance to react to it.

None fully briefed of course until the latest, most safe moment.

Post-Hutton,
it seems the BBC were unable to move on it, only broadcasting after
they’d watched Channel 4 News. I’m not sure we are worthy, particularly
on the big occasion, to be the BBC’s litmus test of truth – but hey,
it’s nice to be asked.

Imitation’s a pretty sincere form of flattery – but verification’s better by far!

Alex Thomson is chief correspondent on Channel 4 News

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