Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear has mixed feelings about the BBC. He sees Newsnight as his main rival and variously describes the corporation as “stifling”, “crippling” and “a monster”. Equally, though, he speaks with relish about the level of competition it offers him.
Hours before this interview, Press Gazette unearthed and published a list of PR contacts on the BBC’s website totalling more than 220. And this, largely, sets the tone for the next hour, with De Pear keen to emphasise the mismatch in resources.
- February 27, 2020
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“We’ve got one person here,” he says, pointing to Channel 4 News PR Hayley Barlow, who is sitting beside him. “Head of a department of one. She does HR for the department, she’s head of accounts. If we were on the BBC scale, we’d have about 15 people.”
It doesn’t take long for conversation to veer towards Newsnight.
When De Pear was promoted from foreign editor to editor in July 2012, Newsnight was about to go through a tough period. While Plebgate, Lord Rennard and the Palace of Sexminster have taken Channel 4 News from strength to strength, Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine have made life difficult for the BBC Two flagship.
According to Broadcast, Newsnight recorded an average audience of 605,400 between January and April this year, down from 614,400 in the same period last year – but has increased its audience share. De Pear says that Channel 4 News's figures for this period showed an average audience of between 650,000 and 700,000. He says that while there has been a 2 per cent drop year on year in viewing figures, Channel 4 News has improved its share of the audience by 0.1 per cent.
Asked about how the balance between the two programmes has shifted in his time, De Pear is diplomatic – to an extent.
“It’s a hard period to assess," he says. "In terms of the impact our stories have had, Channel 4 News has probably never had a better year…
“In terms of us versus them, they’ve been evolving. The editor [Ian Katz] started half way through the year, they were recovering from what was probably the worst period of any broadcast programme in history, and they have recovered.
“Whether they are the same programme that we used to compete with before is arguable. Because they’ve perhaps become a little bit less serious…
“Are they a more competitive programme than they were last year? Definitely. We still watch it. Half the newsroom here tunes in to Newsnight on a pretty regular basis."
De Pear also sees ITV News, BBC News and Sky News as competitors but says that Newsnight is "the one that we judge ourselves against". He adds: "I think it’s an incredibly healthy time for British broadcast journalism to have two strong, daily broadcast journalism programmes.”
Newsnight faces a new challenge next month when 'face of the programme' Jeremy Paxman leaves after 25 years.
“For a lot of people Paxman is the reason you watch the show,” says De Pear. “I’m going to miss him… He took it to a new level. He’s a big loss to us all, not just Newsnight.”
When asked about possible staff moves between the two programmes, Barlow interjects: "What about the rumour Paxo's coming here?" De Pear says: "I can’t confirm or deny those rumours. I don’t know what Paxo’s going to do, but I doubt he’s going to end up in news. Which is a great loss.”
Probed further on where he thinks Paxman could end up, he says: “Maybe Sky. But I think why would you leave Newsnight to do Newsnight news anywhere else would be my question. Except Channel 4 News. But he’s not coming here. Only he might be – allegedly.”
Channel 4 News presenters: Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Jon Snow, Cathy Newman and Matt Frei.
Channel 4 News, of course, has its own veteran presenter of 25 years, Jon Snow.
Snow may be 66 to Paxman's 64, but De Pear plays down any suggestion that he could also step down soon, describing his time there as “his first 25 years”.
How long will he go on?
“I have no idea. All I know, I’m constantly asked this question, but Jon still amazes me with the energy he has,” De Pear says, telling of Snow’s passion for news, his ability to attend various events during the day before writing Channel 4 News’s headlines and his riding a bicycle into work every day. He adds: “The day Jon takes the bus or taxi to work is the day that he becomes a mortal like the rest of us.”
De Pear started his career in print, on an internship at the Staines and Ashford News, before joining Sky News as a runner.
Sky provided a “steep learning curve” in “an incredibly harsh environment”, says De Pear. "It was run by all these psycho Australians that Murdoch had sent over. I think the first time I went into the newsroom on shift someone shouted at me, ‘are you the runner?’ And I said, ‘yes’, and he said: ‘Well go and get the fucking cappuccinos.'" He rose to become an assistant on the newsdesk and then a foreign producer covering major stories around the world.
Between 2000 and 2005 he was based in Johannesburg. He covered news in Baghdad, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Liberia and Zimbabwe among other countries. And it was during this period that De Pear was given three months by foreign editor Adrian Wells to concentrate on getting an interview with Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe (below: Reuters) – “his first in five years”. Wells told De Pear: “If you don’t get it, it’s my failure. If you do, it’s our success.”
While working on other stories as well, De Pear says he dedicated time and effort to getting to know the Zimbabwean government at a “really anti-British time” . He says: "You actually had to sit with them and get pissed with them and spend time at their houses to understand the mentality and understand the language and the message that Mugabe was giving about Zimbabwe… It was an incredibly emotional process."
He says there was no compromise on editorial freedom involved in his interview. De Pear did everything he could to speak to Mugabe, but refused numerous requests to not ask Mugabe certain questions.
De Pear describes this no-compromise rule as one of the “guiding principles” of Channel 4 News. But he fears the same standards are not being upheld elsewhere in UK broadcasting.
“Recently, there have been examples of interviews being bagged and you’d see them avoiding the main questions,” he says. An example? “Kelvin MacKenzie. Ever since Alex Thomson doorstepped him, we’ve wanted to do an interview with him. [But] we won’t compromise on the fact that we want to ask about Hillsborough… He’s appeared on other programmes, but hasn’t been asked.”
De Pear describes the 2004 Mugabe interview, conducted by Stuart Ramsay, as “one of my proudest moments”.
Having lived in several countries including Barbados as a child, travelling and foreign reporting is one of De Pear’s passions. He has a policy of making sure all journalists work on the road at least once every couple of months, and he makes no exception for himself. For his last major trip, De Pear went to South Africa to cover Nelson Mandela's death – “I drove the truck around and stuff… I knew where I was going”.
De Pear is also comfortable talking about the less glamorous side of the job: when the best time to target his audience is (7pm is not ideal, but 4OD and Channel 4+1 help viewing figures); when the best hours to interact with them on Twitter are (9pm onwards); and the proportion of black-minority-ethnic and youth viewers (19 per cent and 17 per cent respectively).
Away from the hour-long daily programme, De Pear is also pleased with the programme's online performance. Channel 4 News claims to have had its best ever month for online traffic in March, with 1.6m unique visitors. Its film, 'On the trail of a Mexican drug lord', has generated more than 1.1m YouTube views and John Spark's blog from the Thailand protests in January is said to have generated more than 200,000 'hits'.
But he is quick again to point out the challenges presented by the BBC. “When it comes to the digital side, we are swamped. I wouldn’t even call it David versus Goliath. We are like an ant versus Goliath when it comes to the BBC. It stifles competition online,” he says, adding that a good online exclusive for Channel 4 News will often get far more traffic on the BBC website when it is followed up.
Channel 4 News has, he says, no more than 50 journalists, eight of whom will be working online “on a good day”. He says that the BBC has thousands of journalists who are able to work online each day (BBC News says it has 8,000 staff including 5,500 journalists).
“We know that we can compete in television news – because it’s all about that hour-long programme, or that three minutes of television. We know our journalists and cameramen are as good as theirs, if not better,” he says.
“But we are swamped by the BBC’s online resources. We constantly think how can we put this out and keep the traction we have, because it’s such a monster. It’s just a massive thing.”
He adds: “Our biggest priority is to extend even further our digital reach. But we are, in terms of television news websites, swamped by their size, their ability to deploy resources.”
Newsnight may have fewer journalists than Channel 4 News, but De Pear says it is still an unequal battle: “Newsnight always argue with me that they’ve got half our staff. Which means complete bollocks. Because they are top of the pyramid. They have a staff of ten, eight, but there’s at least 8,000 journalists and they can choose from all that resource. So there’s got to be a better way of doing it.”
Despite his issues with the BBC, when De Pear is asked what, if anything, should change in 2016 when the BBC’s Royal Charter is up for renewal he urges caution.
“It’s a delicate ecosystem, and it works, so don’t tamper with it too much,” he says, adding: "I do think there are always ways to improve the model. I’m still a massive user of BBC and BBC News, but I just think the volume is crippling.”