Television news came in for a bashing by top-level executives this weekend as journalists were accused of lacking the will to find exclusive stories and broadcasters of timidity
Channel 4 News: airs exclusives by independent producers and still has time for Michael Jackson’s court case
Speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, the executive editor of Sky News, John Ryley, said that few television reporters “want to bring you stories no-one else has got” – expecting instead to be told what to do.
“Many reporters I know don’t want to deliver new stories. It’s a pretty sad indictment of news,” he said. “Having worked at the BBC, ITN and at Sky, my overall impression is that too few reporters come up with stories.
“I think there needs to be more pressure put on them by the news desk and programme teams. And I think it comes down to training. A key part of all that needs to be getting people to think differently about the need, if you are a reporter, to bring in a story.”
Dorothy Byrne, Channel 4’s head of news and current affairs and business, said broadcasters followed too “narrow” an agenda and followed their rivals’ running orders too closely.
“I flick from channel to channel and they all have the same lead items and judge how well they did by whether or not their running order is the same as everyone else’s,” she said.
“If one broadcaster’s number six item corresponds to another’s number two, then they worry they did less well in presenting their news agenda.”
Her comments came after a session entitled Not the Nine O’clock News in which the BBC’s director of television news, Roger Mosey, questioned Channel 4 News making the Michael Jackson court case its lead.
Insisting that charges of child abuse against the pop star were globally significant, she said: “You don’t need to be ashamed of leading news with a popular story. A news that’s confident about itself and confident it is serious can do a story like that and lead on it.”
Byrne, who was formally appointed a year ago, also told Press Gazette that news bulletins should include more current affairs to add context.
“I’m talking about expanding the agenda and redefining what is a news story. In news, countries don’t exist until war breaks out – in current affairs, we’ve learnt that’s not true,” she said.
“The biggest lesson learned from September 11 was that you don’t just follow the agreed agenda, which is heavily defined by what politicians are talking about, because you don’t serve the viewers well by doing that.
“For example, current affairs had been looking at Islam before September 11 – maybe not enough.
News should have covered it more, in particular because it is an important aspect of British life.”
Byrne also advocated more use of independent current affairs producers.
Part of her role has been to introduce a number of “indies” to ITN, who have been able to file reports for Channel 4 as part of the news producer’s Independent Fund.
She said independents had a “very high hit rate” in getting exclusive news stories and receiving awards for their coverage.
Byrne cited Phil Cox, the journalist, film-maker and founder of Native Voice Films, who is credited with bringing international attention to Darfur (Press Gazette, 25 March 2004); the Iranian film maker Mazari Bahari, who produced a number of films for Channel 4 News inside Iraq, including the first interviews with Iraqi children who alleged they had been abused in coalition jails such as Abu Ghraib; and Steve Bolton Productions, which made an exclusive film for Channel 4 News about Welsh MP Adam Price’s attempt to impeach Tony Blair, before newspapers took up the story.