Media: Rob Brown
If the chief executive of Channel 4 is serious about finding radical alternatives to ITN, he should produce his flagship evening bulletin outside London. Nothing could be more radical than ending the metropolitan stranglehold on broadcast news in Britain.
Monday 10 November 1997
Michael Jackson, Channel 4's chief executive, has challenged independent producers to come up with a radical alternative to the service that has been supplied for the last 15 years by ITN. If he means what he says, Mr Jackson should set his mind to making his flagship evening bulletin the first national news programme to be produced outside London. Nothing could be more radical than ending the metropolitan stranglehold on broadcast news in Britain.
If that means ditching ITN, so be it. It is pretty preposterous for one company to supply news to all terrestrial commercial channels in this country, namely Channels 3, 4 and 5. Pluralism and diversity demand that editorial control is shifted away from that glitzy glass building in Grays Inn Road.
It certainly shouldn't be shifted just a few miles westwards to BSkyB's headquarters at Osterley. Sky News is obviously keen on sharing costs. But, as a public service broadcaster, Channel 4 should, as a matter of principle, have absolutely nothing to do with the chief enemy of public service broadcasting in Britain: the Murdoch empire.
Instead, Michael Jackson should draw inspiration from Mr Murdoch's arch- enemy, Ted Turner. The founder of CNN has painstakingly built the world's fastest and most profitable global news machine from a base in Atlanta, Georgia.
America's broadcast news establishment, huddled together in the media capital of New York, laughed at first. CNN, they superciliously scoffed, stood for "Chicken Noodle News".
But, as he showed on his visit to London last week with his glamorous wife, Jane Fonda, Ted Turner is having the last laugh, and it's a long one. As he told a lunch-time audience at the Reform Club in Pall Mall, he is donating $1bn to the United Nations because he has so much money that he could never spend it in his lifetime.
Now America's largest private landowner, Mr Turner was able to make the biggest single gift to charity in history because, some time back, he had a marvellous entrepreneurial insight. He realised that, in an age of dishes and digits, geography is history. Satellite technology has made it possible for a global news machine to be located in Atlanta, or anywhere else.
So, there are absolutely no technological obstacles to Channel 4 News relocating its studios to Sheffield or Liverpool or Glasgow. Of course, there would be an outcry from the London broadcast news establishment. Like their American counterparts, they'd probably think up some snide sobriquet for such a show. They'd call it "News from t'North" if it came from Yorkshire, or "Black Pudding Bulletins" if it came from Lancashire.
But a national news programme produced from beyond the M25 would have a chance to do something that no news programme located in London has ever done: to reflect the rich diversity of the British Isles and provide a world view that is not filtered through a London lens.
It is all too easy to forget something that London newsdesks constantly forget: 80 per cent of the UK population lives outside London, and almost as big a percentage deeply resents the way wealth and power in Britain, the most centralised state in western Europe, is concentrated in south- east England.
Surely Michael Jackson, who was raised in Macclesfield, has not been supping in the mediapolis for so long that he has forgotten this fundamental fact about contemporary Britain. There are signs that he himself has not succumbed to metropolitan myopia. One of his first acts on taking office was to establish an office in Glasgow to drum up more programming from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Cynics suggest that Stuart Cosgrove was cast out to the Celtic Fringe as part of the Jacksonian purge. There may be some truth in this. But there's no denying that Michael Jackson did more to decentralise C4 in his first nine weeks than his predecessor Michael Grade did in nine years.
And he's clearly intent on doing more. It has just been announced that the tender to produce Channel 4's new flagship politics programme - the successor to A Week in Politics - has just been awarded to Ray Fitzwalter Associates in Manchester, which will produce the show from a studio in that city. The programme will pull in reports from journalists in a number of UK cities.
This model should now be extended to the new Channel 4 News. As Bernard Clark, head of Clark Productions (the company that makes Dispatches for Channel 4) pointed out in this paper last week, there are a thousand independent producers dotted around the UK, many run by experienced news and current affairs hands such as Ray Fitzwalter, a former producer of World in Action.
As it celebrates its 15th anniversary, Channel 4 should place its faith in the companies that have supplied its creative life force from day one and grown into maturity with it - the indies.
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