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  1. The Weekend Report
3 February 2024

The quiet radicalism of ITV

From Mr Bates to social housing, the “challenger” channel is marketing itself as Britain’s least metropolitan broadcaster – while dodging claims of bias from ministers.

By Anoosh Chakelian

It’s 10pm. You’ve made it through the day. Dinner’s done, the kids are in bed, and you have some time before your eyelids start drooping to find out what’s been going on in the news. Which channel do you turn to?

Most tune in to BBC News at Ten. But if you switch over to ITV and watch carefully, you’ll notice the channel has started making very different story choices to those of its competitors.

A standout example came on 9 November 2023, when the then home secretary Suella Braverman defied Downing Street by publicly criticising how police deal with protest. The BBC led with a political report on the row. But ITV opened with an in-depth story on no-fault evictions, following a number of households left homeless at short notice.

This isn’t a one-off. Often, ITV’s news output deprioritises the latest Westminster bust-up or global development for a story reflecting societal problems in the UK. Returning to the same themes – such as social housing and hidden homelessness – the top of ITV News’ bulletins focus on Britons’ day-to-day lives in a way none of the other major news broadcasters do.

Other examples of leading stories include crumbling hospital buildings trumping Vladimir Putin’s speech on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; families made homeless through rent rises coming before the Pakistan cable car rescue; and bankrupt councils above Hawaii wildfires. Last December, an eviscerating intro about Britain’s poor productivity by one of its main anchors – the genially disappointed Tom Bradby – went viral: “Picture a country going backwards, where workers haven’t had a decent pay rise in 15 years, public services are on the verge of collapse, and the gap between rich and poor grows year on year…” it began.

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Stories by a new investigations unit, staffed by Imogen Barrer, head of investigations and special projects, and Dan Hewitt, investigations correspondent, often end up “top of the shop”, I’m told.

“The presenters, Tom Bradby specifically, but also Julie [Etchingham] and Mary [Nightingale], all of them, often lead on original journalism at the beginning,” Barrer told me. “They really care about our investigations so will champion them and put them at the top of the bulletin – especially with Tom, he’ll be the first to bowl over to us and say ‘that has to lead on the News at Ten’. Which you don’t see on other news channels.”

Hewitt, who has worked at ITV News for five years, has noticed this develop over the last two-to-three years: “It’s genuinely a daily conversation. We’re now really open to asking: ‘Does our audience care more about the thing everyone’s talking about, or about the thing we found out?’ And we have the confidence to say: ‘You know what? We’re going to put this top of the shop, because we think our audience cares about this.’”

In January 2024, the quiet radicalism of the broadcaster grew louder. Its four-part drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, pushed the UK government into overturning the convictions of hundreds of subpostmasters wrongfully prosecuted for fraud. And its shocking, exclusive footage from Gaza – showing a civilian waving a white flag being shot dead – led to Rishi Sunak and US officials being questioned over whether Israel had committed a war crime.

So if BBC News is seen as the establishment, Sky News the establishment but shinier and more expensive, Channel 4 News the social justice warrior, and GB News the populist reactionary, then what is ITV?

ITV News lives in a modern glass-fronted building on central London’s Gray’s Inn Road – its glistening façade of windows reflecting the jumble of Sixties office blocks and Georgian townhouses that line the street opposite. A pristine café called Outtakes sells coffee to staff in the foyer. Up in the newsroom, an airless stretch of low ceilings and ash-grey carpets – house plants gasping for life under flickering screens – Andrew Dagnell, the editor of ITV News, showed me around.

“We are the least metropolitan of all the news services,” he told me as we settled on to the navy corner sofa of his office. “We are embracing that wholeheartedly: we want our evening news to feel like a programme that is as much across the four corners of the UK as possible.”

Straying from the Westminster-first formula is a conscious decision, he confirmed. Succeeding the editorship in September 2022 at the age of just 36 (he recalled having to postpone his paternity leave when the Queen died a week after he started), Dagnell, now 38, a former Sunday Mirror and News of the World reporter, set the tone as head of newsgathering in 2019-22 for what he calls “democratising investigative journalism”.

“The phrase ‘investigative journalism’ conjures images of sitting in a dusty corner, surrounded by piles of paper, and we’ve tried to recast what it means,” he told me. “Move away from ‘investigations’ and ‘original journalism’ being something where you have to wear a mac and have a magnifying glass and get leaked documents, and make it a lot more relevant to people’s lives.”

The flagship story in this vein was an exposé of the UK’s terrible social housing provision. In late 2020, Hewitt – then a bored political correspondent “itching to get out of Westminster” – began pitching housing stories. The following year, he visited Fransoy Hewitt (no relation), a Croydon Council tenant. He was shocked: for two years, a leak had been left unfixed – her flat was riddled with damp and black mould, the carpet sodden, fridge unplugged to avoid electrocution, her sofa and children’s toys and shoes wrecked. The family had been confined to live, cook, eat and sleep in one bedroom.

This began a series of reports that led to a Housing Ombudsman investigation, changes to the Social Housing Regulation Bill, Dan Hewitt giving evidence to the Housing Select Committee of MPs, and an award-winning documentary.

The segment brought changes internally, too. Management granted Dagnell the investigations unit he’d been lobbying for – Hewitt, 35, was promoted to investigations correspondent and Barrer, 37, was put in charge of it. “We zone in on one, two, three-max stories at any one time – housing was one of them,” he said. “It’s opening up to a wider audience.” ITV won’t give me viewing figures or demographic details, but said the audience share of its news programmes “remains above or equal to pre-pandemic levels”. According to Barb Audiences data, in the first week of 2024, the Monday and Wednesday editions of ITV Evening News both brought in just over 3 million viewers, compared to 4 million an episode for BBC News at Six (news programmes from Channel 4, Sky, TalkTV and GB News failed to chart in Barb’s top 50.)

The aim is to grow an audience that hasn’t been monopolised by rivals. Cuts to BBC’s Newsnight last November will render it a talking-head analytical show without investigative resources, as the public broadcaster struggles to engage the “non-metropolitan” viewers ITV is courting. In 2022, Ofcom warned the BBC that lower socio-economic viewers – known as “C2DE audiences” – feel “persistently underserved” by the broadcaster. This is a constant source of anxiety within the BBC.

One media insider suggested that ITV News’ change in direction is driven mainly by commercial necessity, and that the broadcaster was spooked by the relative success of newcomer GB News in pursuing its own agenda on issues such as small boats crossings and Just Stop Oil. They also suggested the channel had for too long attempted to echo the priorities of BBC News, so a change in direction was overdue.

“We still have to fight really hard against big institutions – be they political or otherwise – prioritising the BBC over us, but we quite enjoy being the underdogs,” said Dagnell. “I like being the challenger brand, because I always feel we’ve got something to prove.”

ITV is now known as the go-to channel for housing stories. Michael Gove, the Housing Secretary, offers the broadcaster interviews and exclusives (he announced Awaab’s Law – new rules for social housing landlords to fix damp and mould, after the two-year-old Awaab Ishak died of mould exposure – on the channel). Viewers have noticed too: a recent in-studio analysis of the housing crisis by Hewitt was viewed more than five million times on Instagram.

How, then, does ITV News avoid the culture war between mainstream broadcasters and our increasingly GB News-orientated government? Ministers have recently been touring studios accusing the BBC, and Sky News’ coverage of the Universal Credit system, of bias.

“The danger of the stuff we do is that you end up becoming campaign journalists, which we’re not,” said Hewitt. “I actually thought we would by now have been accused of that, but we haven’t. Ministers still come to us and haven’t said ‘we’re not going to speak to ITV because they’ve clearly got an agenda’ – I think because we’ve tried to tell the story fairly.”

In a political atmosphere preoccupied with the wishes of “Red Wall” voters, promises to “level up” England’s towns, and outward contempt for the “metropolitan liberal elite”, there is also more of an incentive for politicians to court Britain’s self-proclaimed least metropolitan broadcaster.

“I think our politicians are looking to us as a way to understand what stories matter to the British public,” said one ITV News source, when I was trying to work out why – with all its hard-hitting social affairs reportage – it hadn’t drawn complaints from touchy ministers.

With arrivals like GB News and TalkTV loudly disrupting Britain’s broadcast news landscape, ITV’s output was initially overlooked. But by 2022, the Reuters Institute’s “Digital News Report” showed ITV News had the highest net trust rating among all UK broadcasters. And over in Croydon, Fransoy Hewitt and her two young sons had finally been rehoused.

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