Media: Channel 4 savours the viewers' feeling for Snow

Channel 4 plans to revolutionise in its newsroom, but wants to hold on to what research identifies as its main asset - Jon Snow. Paul McCann, Media Correspondent, asks why Britain's most upmarket newsreader is so crucial to the channel.

Staff at ITN's Channel 4 News were sanguine yesterday over the impending departure of their editor, Sarah Nathan, and plans to let competing producers pitch for the programme.

The only person who is guaranteed a job with the news programme when ITN's contract ends in June 1999 is the show's anchor of the past eight years, Jon Snow.

"No one is pretending it is the happiest day in our careers," said one source at the programme yesterday. "I for one have been examining my contract. Either I'm out and we're all out, or I'll be doing something pretty different here in the future."

But other reporters maintained that Channel 4 had put them through periods of doubt before. "This time it looks more serious, that's why Sarah's gone - but really, who else can do news if not ITN?" said one reporter.

While ITN believes a new editor is needed to try to hold on to the contract, Channel 4 was at pains to emphasise that Snow, 50, will stay with the award-winning show: "We are all fans of Jon here," said a Channel 4 insider. "He is part of the future of Channel 4 News and anyone who comes forward with new ideas will have to include him."

Channel 4 has internal focus group research which shows that Snow, the cousin of Tomorrow's World presenter Peter Snow, is one of channel's best-loved names. Viewers believe Snow combines "gravitas and authority" while carrying a "whiff of the anti- establishment" about him, according to viewers.

"Viewers also believe that Snow is a reporter himself, getting his own stories, he's not just a pretty face," says the Channel 4 insider. And Snow became the story himself in September, when Buckingham Palace went out of its way to rubbish his story that The Queen had originally opposed any kind of state funeral for Diana, Princess of Wales.

Indeed, Snow's anti-establishment tendencies are not confined to his lurid ties. He was sent down from Liverpool University for his anti-apartheid activities and has set up and run a day centre for homeless people. In the Eighties he was carpeted by ITN bosses for signing a petition in support of the striking miners. But Channel 4 feels his presence can help to maintain continuity in what is likely to be a revolutionary shake-up of its news output.

Beyond concerns about the presentation of news, the channel's chief executive, Michael Jackson, is also interested in new views on the philosophy the news programme should have, and the kind of agenda it should follow.

He is asking producers to suggest a new template for the show, to dispense with the structured "package" of filmed report followed by interview and he also wants to see how far "off the beaten track" Channel 4 should go with its own stories.

However, sources at Channel 4 dismissed out of hand speculation that the planned changes are related to Channel 5 moving its news to 7pm.

Mr Jackson is being encouraged to look at more than just the form of the programme, but also its structure and organisation.

"The idea of one news provider for the channel is questionable," said Bernard Clark, head of Clark Productions, which makes Dispatches. "There are a thousand independent producers in the UK, many of them run by former editors of Newsnight or Panorama, and they could all feed stories to one central production crew. It's the kind of distinctive and innovative programming Michael Jackson says he wants."