Channel 4 investigative journalism series Dispatches has provided ample evidence of the fact that journalism can make a difference over the last year or so.
Editor Daniel Pearl is convinced that without Dispatches we would have little idea about the police misconduct surrounding the Plebgate affair or about police spying on the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence.
Today there was a Bafta nomination for a Dispatches investigation into the plight of civilians on the frontline of a civil war in – Syria: Across the lines. This followed a hat-trick of prizes for Dispatches at the RTS Awards in February and a British Journalism Awards win in December for Plebs, Lies and Videotape.
Pearl, who has been Dispatches editor since March 2012, says Plebgate is a good example of Channel 4’s distinct journalistic voice.
Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell was sacked after a front page report in The Sun alleged in September 2012 that he had called police officers “Fucking plebs” outside Number 10.
Working with Channel 4 News, Dispatches uncovered CCTV footage which disputed the police account of the Plebgate altercation and also discovered that a key police witness had lied about being there.
A 22-minute version of the investigation was rushed out in December 2012 on Channel 4 News ahead of police arrests and the full Plebs, Lies and Videotape Dispatches was aired in February last year.
Pearl says: “It’s a good example of where Channel 4 comes into its own. Everyone was looking in one direction and took the position that the Tory toff must have said that. They didn’t really bother to investigate the story properly. We had a hunch it didn’t add up.”
He said that Tory MP David Davis received a letter saying that the police inquiry into Plebgate was concluded in September 2012: “After our film the inquiry restarted and they started arresting people….We had three or four journalists working on it – they are the Met.”
In November the CPS charged one police officer, the one who falsely claimed to have witnessed the incident, with misconduct in public office. PC Keith Wallis was later jailed for six months.
Announcing its findings in November, the CPS questioned the editing of the CCTV footage aired by Channel 4 only to later issue an apology to the broadcaster.
Pearl says: “We found a good story and the reaction of the organisation was to kick dirt in our eyes and throw mud at the story”, which he said was a fairly typical response.
Meanwhile Mitchell is suing The Sun for libel and the one police officer directly involved in the altercation is suing Mitchell for calling him a liar.
The Police’s Dirty Secret aired in June last year and revealed how a Met police officer spied on the Lawrence family during the botched investigation into the death of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. It led the news agenda then and again last month when an independent inquiry confirmed that the Met had spied on the Lawrence family and the Home Secretary announced a public inquiry into undercover policing.
The Lawrence programme came about as a result of a meeting with between Pearl and Guardian journalists Paul Lewis and Rob Evans.
“They had written a book on undercover policing and there was a bit in there on Stephen Lawrence that hadn’t been massively investigated at that point. We did a deal in about 15 minutes. I went to see Jay Hunt (C4 chief creative officer) upstairs and after a five-minute conversation it was all agreed ready to go.”
The documentary was a joint venture between The Guardian, ITN and Dispatches. The Guardian ran the story first at 7pm on Sunday evening, it then went on the ITV 10pm news before the Dispatches on the Monday night.
Pearl wants to encourage more such joint ventures and said he is particularly keen to hear from newspaper journalists who are looking for a broadcast partner on a story.
After a brief (better paid) stint in the business world at Anderson Consulting, Pearl began his career at the BBC as a researcher on current affairs programmes.
He was deputy editor on Newsnight under Peter Barron and spent three years as Craig Oliver’s deputy on the 10pm news. He was then deputy editor of Panorama for two years.
Under Pearl, Dispatches has held its audience at an average of 1.3m per episode, possibly helped by the fact it no longer competes head to head Panorama. Dispatches now airs at 8pm with Panorama on at 8.30pm.
The 40 or so half-hour programmes a year often focus on subjects which are close to the heart of consumers such as: Secrets of the Discount Stores, Are You Addicted to Sugar and The Property Market Undercover. Under Pearl there has also been a strong emphasis on health and personal finance.
Is this approach an intentionally populist one? “We try to focus on things that matter to people, on things they care about.”
Citing budget retailers TK Maxx and Poundland as two examples he says: “A lot of these big organisations have never had proper journalistic focus on them and that is one of the things we’ve tried to do.”
Among the biggest ratings winners for Dispatches over the last year or so have been: Secrets of Poundland (3m), Rich and on Benefits (2.2m), Secrets of you Supermarket Shop (2m) and Are you addicted to Sugar? (2m).
The biggest critical success of the last year has probably been Syria: Across the Lines – Olly Lambert’s report of every day life on both sides of the front line in the Syria civil war (pictured below). So far it has won eight major journalism prizes.
Pearl says: “There is a clear distinction between programmes you want a lot of of people to watch and programmes where it’s not about audience.”
Pearl is one of a long list of BBC high fliers to jump ship in recent years to join Channel 4. Others include Michael Crick, Matt Frei, Jackie Long (all to Channel 4 News) and Liz MacKean. MacKean worked on the Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Saville which was spiked by editor Peter Rippon. She is now a Dispatches contributor.
Whereas the BBC employs some 5,500 journalists, Channel 4 employs hardly any directly at all. ITN provides its news coverage, and Dispatches is almost entirely commissioned out.
Asked why he thinks so many talented journalists have been keen to leave the BBC, Pearl says: “People moved for different reasons. The great joy of working for Channel 4 is it’s such an outward-looking organisation, it’s very small
“Hundreds of people make the programmes but none of them work here.
"We don’t spend all our time gossiping about who’s up or down in our own organisation. It’s a real difference from the BBC.
“In those ways the BBC is very inward looking. You could have years when you don’t meet anyone outside the BBC. Most journalists want to be out there meeting people.”