Published on 2 Nov 2012

Channel 4 News is 30 – and I was there at the start

I think I’m right in saying I’m the only person who was at Channel 4 News on day one who is still on the programme (though Lawrence McGinty still works at ITN).  And I have to confess to having been absent for 21 years between 1990 and 2011.My memory is that I’ve never worked harder than I did on 2 November – mind you that won’t impress my producers who say I never work hard anyway.

I had to juggle with so many different stories that day that it was miracle they all made air.  I went to the local fish and chip shop that night thinking: “I simply can’t go on like this night after night.  It will kill me.”

But Channel 4 News was grossly understaffed in those days – just 28 journalists – and I think I could name them all.  There were four presenters – Peter Sissons, Trevor McDonald , Sarah Hogg and Godfrey Hodgson, and just four reporters – Elinor Goodman (Politics), Jane Corbin (Home Affairs), Ian Ross (Industrial),  Stephen Phillips (the Arts).  One of the original scriptwriters (we didn’t call them producers) – Damian Green – is now the Police Minister.

Edward Stourton and Charles Hodson became distinguished TV presenters, while Jane Corbin is still a reporter all these years later, and as brilliant and tenacious a journalist as she was then.

Our first editor was Derrick Mercer, a delightful man who came to us from the Sunday Times.

He was full of ideas, and keen on pioneering a new form of TV journalism, but  wasn’t familiar with the mechanics of broadcasting, and fell victim to all sorts of machinations and backbiting behind the scenes at ITN.

Let’s put it this way: Channel 4 News didn’t carry the same respect within the ITN building as it does today, especially with powerful  figures such as the late Sir Alastair Burnet.

So the programme’s first year was extremely difficult.  Often there wasn’t any advertising to fill the ad breaks, and so the screen was filled with a sign saying the programme would be back shortly.

I can’t tell you how depressing and humiliating that was to those of us working on the show.  Our viewing figures fell so low that the lead presenter Peter Sissons joked that it might be simpler to ring the viewers and tell them the news one by one.

It was the 1984-85 miners’ strike which put Channel 4 News on the map, when night-after-night we put a very different, more in-depth, picture of the dispute onto people’s screens, full of the kind of background analysis and behind the scenes reporting which is now commonplace on British TV.

Derrick was followed briefly as editor by the great Paul McKee, then Stewart Purvis, Richard Tait, Sara Nathan, Jim Gray and now Ben de Pear.

But if I get a chance to raise a glass tonight it will be to Derrick Mercer whose role in founding Channel 4 News has been sadly overlooked and downplayed.

So here’s to Derrick.

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7 reader comments

  1. Alison Baxter says:

    Really interesting article………..thankfully, Channel 4 has survived – I am a great fan…..long may it continue.

  2. Aidan Turner says:

    I have watched the show from the beginning. Looking at old clips it loks as though it was run on a shoestring and I suspect that it was. I think that Peter Sissons was crucial. He gave the programme a real air of authority and gravitas which helped to keep the show on the road. I am not sure I would have stayed with the programme without his presenting skills. However, a good team was rapidly built and by about 1985 it was recognisable as the programme we know today, something of a “National Institution” if I may say!

  3. Steve Willis says:

    Channel 4 News – I think it’s the best of all the News programmes. Great team which comes across as having a good sense of humour whilst getting important points across.

  4. fiona harvey says:

    Peter snow is excellent

  5. Sean Blake says:

    Quite agree, Steve. Above all, it respects its viewers’ intelligence by, for instance, refraining from underlining or reinforcing every aspect of a story.
    How refreshing is the absence of those endless pieces to camera from Nick Robinson, and in particular, James Landale (both BBC)and Tom Bradby ( ITV) who rarely start from anything but the bottom rung and often bore into the bargain.
    However, although it is Channel 4 News’s gain, I do miss Michael Crick’s mischief on ‘Newsnight ‘, where he was given more houseroom.

  6. James Hayes says:

    Three cheers(or should that be four cheers?) for Channel 4 News. Recent debacle re. BBC Newsnight and unfounded stories being spun as news, shows why Channel$ is essential.

    Being the victim of a slur is every bit as bad as being a victim of everything else.

    BBC used to be thought of by some as the reputable professional News Channel of Choice. That is no longer the case.

  7. Jonathan Pearson says:

    I agree with everything said so far. I have also watched from day one and gave up BBC1 & ITV news a long time ago. Channel 4 News is news for grownups.

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