Ian Burrell: Those who fear control of the press might want to listen to this man
Media Studies: Nervous newspaper publishers have spent the weekend trying to put their ducks in a row
Ofcom can be "a huge pain in the arse," says Ben de Pear, the new editor of Channel 4 News. "But if you follow the code it actually makes your journalism rigorous and it's there for a reason."
The written news media is alarmed by the sudden prospect that the broadcasting watchdog might be invited to regulate the press. Lord Justice Leveson's report last week proposed that the Government-appointed body be given an overseeing role in ensuring that the next press regulator functions correctly. More, the judge waved the stick of suggesting that Ofcom should be given full regulatory powers over written media organisations which refuse to sign up to the independent system (with statutory underpinning) that he has set out in his report.
Nervous newspaper publishers have spent this weekend trying to put their ducks in a row. The industry wants to offer its unified backing to a beefed-up regulatory system, which will allow David Cameron to fulfil his wish of not implementing Leveson's call for legislation on the press. To satisfy MPs, the papers are noisily endorsing most of the judge's proposals – but the involvement of Ofcom is beyond the pale.
So De Pear's view of Ofcom as ultimately a journalistic force for good might surprise press colleagues. "You can pretty much do what you want and it will only stop you broadcasting something if the evidence won't stand up in court," he says. "I don't want to say 'I love Ofcom'. But it does work."
Many in the newspaper industry will still read those comments with a certain cynicism. Press journalists regard themselves as the shock troops of the news media, breaking the stories which shape the political agenda and feed the broadcast bulletins. And haven't we just seen how Ofcom doesn't always work? The abject failure of the BBC's Newsnight to follow the most basic of journalistic standards prompted the Lord McAlpine episode.
De Pear, giving his first interview since becoming editor of C4's flagship programme four months ago, has seen how easily a rival can be brought low by a single story. He talks of right of reply (something not given to Lord McAlpine by Newsnight) as a fundamental Ofcom standard and he claims that ITN's "brilliant compliance team" walks the floor of his newsroom with a view to helping difficult stories on to air. "We work hand in hand," he says. "I want to push it as far as we can to tell the truth but what we don't want to do is get it wrong or not follow procedure."
He resists any temptation to kick an opponent when it's down. "It's really important that Newsnight continues – I can't see any reason why it wouldn't after 30 years of being incredibly successful," he says. "There are not that many investigative programmes and Newsnight is one of those. It's one of the programmes we judge ourselves against."
Despite the inhibiting climate, in which public faith in journalistic accuracy can rarely have been lower, De Pear is anxious that Channel 4 News increases its hit rate of exclusives and has the confidence to put self-generated stories at the top of the show, while remaining a "hybrid" programme that also analyses the big issues of the day.
His secret weapons include "Mani", a former Paris primary schoolteacher and fluent Arab speaker, who last week won the Rory Peck Award for News for his Channel 4 News report "Horror in Homs", in which he filmed rebels in the besieged city as they were shelled by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. "Rather than the traditional Western journalists who go in with a big team and a translator, Mani kind of embeds himself with people and tries to tell the story of the war as it is seen by them," says De Pear. "He gets amazing personal testimony."
The editor also praises Jamal Osman, a young British-Somali journalist who won Journalist of the Year at this year's One World media awards for his films on Somalia for Channel 4 News. "He goes off and meets with [Somali Islamist group] Al-Shabaab – their leadership know him," says De Pear. "He made an amazing film about British Somali youth sent back to Somalia to learn traditional values. They were driving around in four-wheel drives and whistling at women. He has incredible stories that you don't see anywhere."
Channel 4 News scored an unexpected viral hit with chief correspondent Alex Thomson's remarkable foot-in-the-door confrontation with former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie over the Hillsborough inquiry's rubbishing of the paper's infamous front page story blaming Liverpool supporters for the 1989 disaster. De Pear, who worked with MacKenzie at Sky News, said: "We spent about four days asking to interview him and I couldn't understand why he should be able to dictate terms of how he answered questions given that his whole journalistic career was about asking questions of people he wanted answers from."
These comments on journalistic standards and De Pear's sympathy for government-appointed media regulation are more credible for his having led Channel 4 News's brave and relentless coverage of massacres committed by Sri Lanka's army at the end of the civil war.
The programme has broadcast 25 films on the subject – having obtained grisly footage of executions and other atrocities – and prompted three United Nations investigations. It has also been repeatedly dragged before Ofcom by the Sri Lanka government. "We were 'Ofcommed' at least four times," he says. "By the third or fourth time, Ofcom were saying 'We don't necessarily believe what these guys are saying but we need to go through the process'." That doesn't sound like the enemy of free journalism that some are describing.
Can great programmes put the BBC back on track?
Just as Lord Justice Leveson was calling for statutory underpinning of the press – while ignoring the unregulated internet – another major story was breaking at the end of last week.
The development, which was widely reported and made the splash in The Sun, was the arrest of another high-profile children's television presenter by the police team on the Jimmy Savile sex abuse investigation. The press refrained from identifying the broadcaster but some bloggers had no such qualms.
Another sex story, even though not directly related to Savile, is not helpful to the BBC. Despite the publication of the Pollard "Newsnight" review later this month, and the Dame Janet Smith inquiry into the activities of the Jim'll Fix It presenter, the organisation is desperate to put the Savile and Lord McAlpine stories behind it. Danny Cohen, the BBC1 Controller, says that the only way it can do that is by making great programmes.
The BBC is eagerly anticipating the opportunities provided by the 50th anniversary next year of the global hit Dr Who and the centenary in 2014 of the birth of Dylan Thomas, whose life will be dramatised. Also in development is a new production of I, Claudius, the Robert Graves novel which was one of the BBC's most successful dramas of the Seventies. It is a story of an empire in upheaval, threatened by failed leadership, bitter rivalries and sex scandals. A fresh start then.
Crunch time at The Guardian
Compulsory redundancies now seem certain at The Guardian, in spite of management promises that the losses at Guardian News & Media would never lead to such an eventuality.
The company lost £44.2m in the year to March and was looking to find around 100 volunteers to leave the staff. But little more than one third of the required numbers have come forward ahead of an extended period of enhanced redundancy terms which finishes at the end of next week.
At the culmination of a historic week for the publisher – with publication of Lord Justice Leveson's report, after an inquiry prompted by The Guardian's story about the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone – it finds itself in an "official dispute" with staff trade union members who met on Friday after the discovery plans have already been drafted for cuts to several departments.
There had been hopes that the need for sackings could be avoided by encouraging senior staff to accept pay cuts that might save the jobs of colleagues.
But a company spokesman describes such a plan as a "non-starter", saying it would not achieve the savings required.
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