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13 September 2021

Will Channel 4 News survive?

As the channel faces the threat of privatisation, there is deep anxiety inside the newsroom.

By Ian Burrell

There is a palpable anxiety inside the Gray’s Inn Road newsroom of Channel 4 News that ill befits a programme that has stood up to such powerful adversaries as Facebook and the Communist Party of China.

Its journalists are wondering which of its senior figures will be next to go. Jon Snow, the face of Channel 4 News for 32 years, is leaving at the end of the year. So too is Ben de Pear, the programme’s dynamic editor for the past decade, whose tenure has seen it named News Programme of the Year four times by the Royal Television Society, won five Baftas, six Emmys and earned an Oscar nomination.

De Pear’s deputy, Nevine Mabro, left for a current affairs role at Channel 4. Home news editor Emily Wilson joined the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, while head of foreign news, Liliane Landor, quit to return to the BBC. Senior foreign correspondents Jonathan Miller and Jonathan Rugman have gone too, although all the departures appear unrelated.

What is exacerbating staff fears for the very future of the programme is that the loss of so many senior figures coincides with plans by the government to privatise Channel 4. Worse, the programme has been told to expect budget cuts.

With its working culture of robust interviewing, investigative journalism and long-form analysis, Channel 4 News has been a discomfort to governments of all political stripes since its launch in 1982. But Boris Johnson’s administration has been at war with the programme and Downing Street refuses to field ministers for interview by its presenters. 

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The Tories were furious when Channel 4 News replaced Johnson with a melting ice sculpture when he declined to take part in a pre-election debate on climate change in 2019. Media and data minister John Whittingdale has long wanted to put Channel 4 into commercial hands and a consultation on privatisation ends next week.

“The newsroom is very unsettled,” says one insider. “People don’t stay in jobs forever but it’s the fact that it’s all happening at the same time as privatisation.”

So concerned are the show’s journalists that they requested clarity from Ian Katz, Channel 4’s chief content officer, who addressed the newsroom via video link last week. “He was asked, ‘What the hell is going on, can you give us reassurance here?’” says one source. Katz sought to rally the team, saying the hunt was on to find a new editor who would maintain the programme’s traditions.

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Channel 4’s PR and lobbying strategy for resisting privatisation is focused on getting independent producers to argue that the channel, which this month opened its new headquarters in Leeds, is essential to the UK’s regional broadcasting ecology, including Red Wall areas. 

Channel 4 News, which was prominent in Channel 4’s previous campaign to ward off privatisation, is being left out of this debate because it is seen as a “losing game” that could cost the channel sympathy among Tory MPs, one journalist claims. “[Katz said] we have got to convince a number of Tory MPs not to vote for privatisation, [and] they don’t like the news, so let’s go on about the other things Channel 4 does and let them understand it’s all about the regional economies.”

Katz went out of his way to deny persistent rumours that the channel is taking advice from Johnson’s former director of communications Lee Cain on how it should oppose Tory privatisation plans. Cain was instrumental in the ministerial boycott of Channel 4 News, and denounced the melting ice sculpture as “a provocative partisan stunt”.

[See also: How Secunder Kermani became the face of the BBC’s Afghanistan coverage]

At the top of Channel 4, there is firm backing for the challenging journalism that has recently made Channel 4 News more watched than ever, thanks to its enormous success on social media, particularly in the US. The programme helps the channel to fulfil its remit of engaging with under-served communities by delivering strong reach among young and BAME audiences. Its fine record of foreign coverage and committed reporting of climate change chimes well with the Channel 4 brand.

Even if the fight against privatisation is lost, bosses are confident that the case for a sell-off is so weak that the government would have to give solid guarantees to preserve the channel’s commitment to news under commercial ownership. “Short to medium-term [news] is probably more protected than most other things [in the channel’s output],” says one senior source, “but in the longer term a commercial owner would probably try and get the requirements eased.” 

That scenario arose with Channel 5’s owner Viacom, which in June applied to Ofcom to drastically reduce its commitment to broadcasting news in prime time.

The truth is that Channel 4 News is facing imminent upheaval, even without privatisation. The new editor will want to make their mark, which could mean a shift in approach or a new talismanic presenter. Channel 4 News is made by ITN, the CEO of which Deborah Turness is headhunting an editor in conjunction with Louisa Compton, Channel 4’s head of news and current affairs and sport. It’s an important call. They will realise that the departure of Snow and De Pear signals a new era but will not want to be accused of capitulating to political pressure amid the threat of a sell-off.

Inside the newsroom there is talk of leading candidates. Esme Wren, editor of BBC Newsnight, is seen as favourite, followed by Rachel Jupp, editor of BBC Panorama and former head of home news at Channel 4 News. Both are outstanding candidates with a record of holding governments to account. Wren had to deal with an angry Downing Street reaction to Emily Maitlis’s opening monologue on Dominic Cummings last year, which led to Newsnight being reprimanded by the BBC. Could Maitlis be a future presenter of Channel 4 News?

However this plays out, tumultuous times are ahead. Channel 4 News is right to feel unsettled.

[See also: The BBC must not be intimidated by the press vendetta against Jess Brammar]