Ian Burrell: Newsnight versus Channel 4 News – the stakes just got higher

Media Studies

Ian Burrell
Monday 12 August 2013 01:33 BST

I was having breakfast the other morning with a senior BBC executive who surprised me by saying he was looking forward to the upcoming contest between Newsnight and Channel 4 News. It's not a battle you'd expect the BBC to fancy, given Newsnight has had its chin on the floor for much of the past 10 months while Channel 4 News is well on course, after a string of agenda-setting scoops, to hold on to its title as news programme of the year.

After expressing admiration for the swashbuckling Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear, the BBC chief told me how much positive energy the incoming Newsnight editor Ian Katz had brought to New Broadcasting House during a prolonged scouting exercise last month (he officially starts on 2 September).

Then, days after the breakfast, Paul Mason, Newsnight's economics editor, announced he was following colleagues Michael Crick, Shaminder Nahal and Jackie Long and crossing over to the rival team.

For Katz it will have been a bitter blow, although the decision is not a reflection on Newsnight's new regime but due to concerns the BBC's strict rules might inhibit Mason's future ambitions in writing and innovative story telling. Books he has previously written have been checked line-by-line by his employer, even though the BBC does not pay him for that work. Nonetheless, the acquisition of a familiar Newsnight face – who had been advising Katz on improving the BBC programme – is a coup for De Pear.

Both programmes fish in similar journalistic waters. The competition between them is keen – probably more so than between the BBC and ITV 10pm bulletins, even though those air at the same time.

So how will it play out? Flexibility, the issue which swayed Mason, is a crucial factor. Channel 4 has always portrayed itself as fleet of foot in any comparison with its public service rival. But the situation in this instance is more complex: Newsnight is the smaller operation. Its close-knit team of about 10 reporters is about one third of the strength of C4 News, which also employs a big support staff. Channel 4 News – although slightly longer, at an hour to Newsnight's 50 minutes – is obliged as a bulletin to cover the day's news agenda.

But clearly this also means Katz has fewer resources. He will want to counter this by breaking Newsnight out of the guarded silo in which it has previously operated, allowing more of the BBC's vast pool of journalists to consider it a potential platform for their work. This would include improving relations with Newsnight's traditional internal rival, Panorama, whose editor Tom Giles is a friend of Katz's.

Though Katz has lost Mason, he has poached Channel 4 News head of home news Rachel Jupp, one of De Pear's close friends and valued executives. He is also being guided by Jim Gray, De Pear's predecessor and the BBC's new head of current affairs.

But Channel 4 News is in the position of strength. One thinks of Cathy Newman's story of the sex scandal of Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard, or Crick's scoop on the story behind Plebgate, or Rupert Murdoch, secretly taped by his staff at The Sun railing against the police. Then there was Jamal Osman's expose of the treatment of African immigrants by the fascist Golden Dawn movement in Greece and Inigo Gilmore's investigation into police brutality against miners in South Africa.

Given all this, De Pear, who manages an elite team of correspondents and an international network of freelance film-makers, can simply carry on. He can wait for Katz to try and make a game-changing move.

There is wariness at Channel 4 that Katz, who has spent his career in newspapers and is the former deputy editor of The Guardian, will introduce Fleet Street sharpness to Newsnight. Regulated by Ofcom, television journalism is regarded as more cautious in landing exclusives. Against this, the new man will be conscious that, after the Savile and McAlpine sagas, the BBC2 flagship will be sunk by another serious error. For months, it has been playing safe. Katz knows he needs scoops to restore Newsnight's reputation but he has assured Jeremy Paxman and his colleagues that lively debate is an essential part of the programme's formula. He also knows he is learning about the visual medium.

I expect Katz to make major changes, including to the presenting line up. Victoria Derbyshire, a temporary host this week, will hope she made a good impression. But the new editor will bide his time until the end of the year.

As both teams privately admit, these shows are home to some of our best broadcast journalists. Let's hope added competition helps them both to thrive.

Capaldi's letter: has he got the curse of Entwistle?

So, the new Doctor Who Peter Capaldi wrote to the Radio Times at the age of 15 expressing admiration for the BBC's greatest creation of science fiction.

In a letter of congratulation to the magazine, the schoolboy who would later embody the character of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It used language rather different from that associated with the fictional doctor of spin. "May I congratulate you on your excellent Dr Who special," he wrote. "The Dalek construction plans will have no doubt inspired many a school to build their own Daleks. Who knows, the country could be invaded by an army of school Daleks!"

The last time similar correspondence was ceremonially unearthed, it was to reveal how incoming BBC director-general George Entwistle had, at the age of six, written to the "Derector of the BBC" to complain about Tom and Jerry being dislodged from the schedule by the over-running of the budget. Entwistle lasted 54 days in the top job.

At least Mr Capaldi's fate as a Time Lord rests largely in the hands of the script-writers.

The ups and downs of Murdoch's relationship with China

Reports that the Wall Street Journal's Chinese language site has been briefly blocked by what is known as the Great Firewall of China echo previous examples of censorship against Bloomberg and The New York Times.

But along with the obvious fears over the threat to freedom of speech, there is a certain irony in the development. For years, Rupert Murdoch – sometimes with the help of his now estranged wife Wendi – courted Chinese Communist Party leaders and worked with the country's censors and state broadcasters to further his business ambitions in the region.

When Murdoch was buying the Journal in 2007 some of the paper's China-based staff tried to wreck the deal, writing to shareholders to complain that Murdoch's company was "sacrificing journalistic integrity to satisfy personal and political aims".

But it appears the WSJ's output still rankles with the Chinese authorities and that, despite his contacts, Mr Murdoch's media properties are not immune to dirty tricks.


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