Channel 4 is at risk of being sidelined at this general election. The BBC, ITV and Sky are gearing up for their leadership debates, but Channel 4 doesn't have one.
So Gary Gibbon, the Channel 4 News political editor, must judge these gladiatorial contests from the outside like the rest of us. "They've got to work out who they want to be seen ganging up on," is this seasoned observer's take on the strategic challenge for the would-be PMs. "There are three of them there with equal time, which is a phenomenal opportunity for the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg. So do you dare to turn round and gang up on Nick Clegg or do you dare to ally with Nick Clegg?"
Gibbon's elegantly expressed opinions are highly valued in the lobby. He combines the authority of having worked on Channel 4 News's political coverage for 20 years with a willingness to get in the faces of politicians. He describes his style as "staying the right side of the line, not cynical but sceptical and arching an eyebrow". When the shadow Chancellor George Osborne recently tried to convince Channel 4 News viewers that the Tories were newly embracing the concept of co-operatives, Gibbon asked him: "What was it about the socialist co-operative movement that first made you join the Thatcherite Conservative party in the 1980s?"
That's what the editor of Channel 4 News, Jim Gray, would call a "poky" question. Gray knows this will be a tough election campaign for his outfit and accepts that the historic debates are set to be a "domineering element". But he's not going to roll over and let the other broadcasters have a free run and is up for causing a ruckus. "The whole raison d'etre of Channel 4 News is to provide things that you won't get anywhere else. We have a higher priority on investigative journalism ... being a bit poky, provocative, causing a bit of trouble now and again. Those values should be cranked up frankly during an election."
A week from now Channel 4 News will stage its own variant on the prime ministerial debates, a clash of the Chancellors involving Osborne and his opposite numbers, Alistair Darling and Vince Cable. The contest will be hosted by Krishnan Guru-Murthy.
This focus on business is central to Gray's election coverage strategy. In a separate initiative, under the working title Britain's Next Boss, he is concentrating on the three main party leaders, subjecting their performance during the campaign to the weekly assessment of a panel of British business figures. "We will be regarding the three principals almost as competitors to become the boss, the chief executive, of UK plc. We will look at their corporate leadership skills; clarity of vision, strength of decision-making, clarity of communication. We are talking to a range of business leaders and will have some panellists who are regulars and some who guest as specialists when a theme has emerged during that week."
These initiatives will run in parallel with a series of online features such as Who Knows Who?, for which Gray makes great claims. "It tracks the interpersonal connections between people in news stories; it just gets bigger and more naughty," he says of this bold attempt to graphically link the power players of Britain in a way that would delight conspiracy theorists. Judging from a visit to the site it still has some way to go. Gordon Brown, for example, has a mere 64 connections, nearly all of whom are Labour MPs, whose acquaintance one might have expected him to have made. David Cameron has a meagre 75 connections, including Aston Villa (his football team) and Barack Obama. "David Cameron gave a copy of Lily Allen's album Alright to Barack Obama (source: NME)", reveals Who Knows Who?.
Party activists might be more nervous about Fact Check, a spin-deciphering idea that the broadcaster lifted from America after the 2004 presidential election, and has now re-branded in order to associate the site with Cathy Newman, the Channel 4 News political correspondent. "That's already making quite a bit of traction. What it does is grab hold of claims, counter-claims, statements and promises and tries to tease them apart," says Gray, who is pleased at the way Fact Check qualified the claims made by Gordon Brown last week on defence spending and Sure Start centres for children.
Then of course there is Gray's evergreen lead presenter. "Right now I've got Jon Snow out on the road filming and preparing material that will have a different feel to it," says the editor. "It will be less forensically analytical but much more empathetic to capture the raw experiences and views of people. It's more of an exercise for Jon to listen than to talk to people."
In reality Gray is not so much ordering Snow on the road as letting him off the leash. "He has this sense of active curiosity. It's Jon who will go to Haiti, Jon who will go to Iran, Pakistan and India and find out for himself. Now it's Jon who is going to many places around Britain to find out what the real story is. We haven't got to chain him to the office, he just wants to get out and in this case it's to Hull or Luton rather than Port-au-Prince."
Snow's Changing Britain reports from key political battlegrounds will begin this evening. At the last election, Snow and Gibbon exposed the Attorney General's legal advice on the Iraq war. It was the scoop of the campaign and announced by the presenter to Gray with a text saying: "The eagle has landed." As the rival broadcasters prepare to receive the party leaders, Channel 4 News has its eye out for another set of talons.Reuse content