by Professor James Gow, Kings College London
It rained solidly everywhere across the UK and the rest of Europe on 25 September 1992 (with parts of Northern Ireland excepted), as the black, black clouds on the final weather report on the Channel 4 Daily showed (1). The pathetic fallacy for the demise of a great, but failed, experiment was clear — although the atmosphere in the studio was anything but sentimental, as everyone working on the programme crowded into the studio for the very last moment of the show, laughing and cheering ‘goodbye!’ That weather report itself was irreverently augmented by ‘Madman’ Mickey Clark (the ‘Business Daily’ segment presenter) sitting behind weather woman Caroline Righton’s shoulder, disrupting and causing laughter all round. So, the Channel 4 Daily went off air with a smile on its face, despite being a fascinating and, in some regards prophetic, attempt to do something serious, in line with Channel 4’s general mission to provide alternatives and its sibling from ITN studios, Channel 4 News, to break the mould and present news in a deeper manner. Although separate programmes, the two Channel 4 news broadcasts overlapped and shared with each other at ITN, as both engaged with a changing world — the end of the Cold War and the onset of a ‘new world’ in a period that mapped on to the Channel 4 Daily’s three-year lifespan, from 1989 to 1992. Despite this notable record, there has been almost no scholarly attention to them. Yet, between them, with the morning broadcast paving the way as the day started, they captured all that was important and produced easily the best-informed and most insightful coverage of the major events dominating global change — and they left a legacy, largely unnoticed, across television news, as I shall indicate.
Doing Things Differently: Understanding the World
The very last credits rolled on the left side of the television screen with a long list of those who had worked on the programme, though not all of them — there were also ‘thanks to everyone who has contributed to the programme — especially our viewers.’ On the righthand side, a montage of images included not only reminders of the programme’s features but also the world stories it had covered: Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Iraq, the end of the Soviet Union with Russian leader Boris Yeltsin’s publicly confronting Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on stage, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, the end of Margaret Thatcher’s long period as UK Prime Minister, the liberation of hostages such as Terry Waite in Lebanon and the Yugoslav dissolution and conflict. That packed period of change always had the best and most acutely judged treatment of those events. This was in the Channel 4 spirit, while produced by ITN, to do news differently.
Doing things differently was the essence. Controller Jeremy Issacs had appointed a woman, Liz Forgan, as head of journalism to mark the commitment in this regard. That also included the idea that half those working on the news should be women. Forgan, a newcomer to television news, took a vision to potential suppliers and selected ITN (Independent Television News), believing that Channel 4 could work with ITN’s ‘energy and brilliant news sense and force them to import some thinking and analysis…’ The mission she gave ITN was unusual: at least a third of the programme on international affairs, a dedicated economics specialist, no sport and no Royal Family stories, and the aim to transform television news from ‘incident to explanation.’(2)
Although the seriousness and and distinctiveness of this approach had a ‘troubled’ launch(3) and rocky first few years, by the the mid-1980s, impelled by its renowned coverage of the UK miners’ strike in 1984-5, the Channel 4 News came into its own, fulfilling Forgan’s mission. By the end of the decade, its dedication to ‘foreign’ affairs left it far in advance of others, as the Cold War came to an end. Others, of course, captured the events, reporting on the drama. What distinguished Channel 4 News, however, was its stream of rich and consistent commentary. Not only were its journalists seeking to provide deeper understanding and background, but there was a distinctive approach to using ‘talking heads’ — specialist commentators.
The best example of this was Peter Frank, Professor of Russian Politics at the University of Essex.(4) Channel 4 News had signed him as a regular contributor, an unusual move, where the normal practice in television news is only to turn to academic (or similar) voices to fill a gap when a story is new and nothing much is known about it, and a ‘better’ talking head (for example a participant in a story) is not available.(5) He was the best informed and most insightful guide to change in the Soviet Union, developments inside the Soviet Communist Party and the Kremlin, and to the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Russia (and, of course, other countries). Much of the time, it was as though he had been inside discussions and events themselves, as he was able to give the audience a crisp and clear insight about that which had happened but also that which was going to transpire — he was rarely, if ever, wrong in his analysis of situations and projections of where these conditions would lead. This was the epitome of the Channel 4 model: an international story covered with genuinely informed explanation, involving a trusted academic or specialist providing consistent interpretation.
Through tumultuous years, this model shone in coverage of the Yugoslav dissolution and war, where coverage was also excellent, as well as in relation to other events around the globe, including the collapse of Somalia, civil strife in Algeria and, of course, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the global response to it. The model continued in essence though to 2022 and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, where once more, the coverage was informed and explanatory, though using the experience in the team to fulfil the ‘Frank’-like role, for instance long-term foreign affairs correspondent, Jonathan Rugman. Forgan’s vision for Channel 4’s dedication to genuinely informed international affairs in the round had become the norm.
Doing Things Differently: the ‘Television Newspaper’ Experiment
That same ethos also underpinned the sibling Channel 4 Daily, which had further ambition to be different. Breakfast television has launched in the UK with a ‘comfy sofa’ model. The starting point for Channel 4’s first foray into early morning broadcast was radically distinct, with Channel 4 Chief Executive Michael Grade’s ambition to rival BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in seriousness,(6) but with a revolutionary concept, as the trailer for Channel 4 Daily proclaimed: ‘To start your day, and every day from now on, you wake up to a new television newspaper, delivered, bright and breezy, Monday to Friday, with a supplement at the weekend, to, right to your breakfast table: it’s the Channel 4 Daily.’(7) Continuing the more-than-analogy, viewers were told: ‘And on the front page, the news from around the world with Carol Barnes.’ Barnes was one of the best known figures in British News, having been one of ITN’s News at Ten, presenters for years and one of the first female newscasters. She had longed to be free of co-presenting with her male colleagues at News at Ten, so, after some consideration, opted to be the anchor for this new experiment.
I feel impelled to insert a personal diversion at this stage and to disclose an interest: the first interview I did live on television was with Carol Barnes for the Channel 4 Daily, very early one morning in April 1990 (probably the 8th, but possibly the 22nd) — the first of very many I did for Channel 4 Daily and Channel 4 News. The interview was memorable not only for being my first, but also for the incredibly cold studio and for the genuine excitement of doing it with Carol Barnes — which greatly impressed my journalist father-in-law. That occasion was also memorable because it was on Slovenia’s elections — the first democratic, pluralist elections in communist Central and Eastern Europe. The elections were historic and were one highly significant step in the unravelling of communism in Europe and the disintegration of the Yugoslav federation of which Slovenia was a part. Yet, the most interesting aspect of this was that television news was giving serious attention — and seeking serious, informed background and explanation — on events in a place hardly anyone knew. It was, indeed, as history unfolded, a very important news story — as the best broadsheet newspapers also realised (not only in the UK, but also in the US and, especially, Germany). But, on television, only Channel 4 caught it right at the start and gave it treatment in depth and detail. This moment merits recognition here, not for the personal salience, but for the way it exemplifies the spirit of Channel 4’s news practice and, even more, the ‘newspaper’ aspect of the Channel 4 Daily, in particular — covering with breadth in a way that television news might not otherwise do, but the ‘quality’ press probably would.
The ‘television newspaper’ was significant, experimental concept. The core of it was, of course, news. On the hour, each hour, Barnes would provide a news report and on the half-hour, there would be a fifteen minute block of world news, presented by Barnes in London, the renowned Michael Nicholson in Washington DC and the fairly new (but later to be renowned) James Mates in Tokyo. There was a range of feature sections as a newspaper would have, at fixed times, including show business and culture, business, a quirky non-sport sport section (that did not actually cover sport news), games (including ‘Countdown Masters’, a bite-size version of the flagship on Channel 4’s daytime output). and comics. The studios were all quite simple and minimalist, perhaps with a few computer screens, or an internal window — indeed, the US and Japan bits of the news looked as though they were broadcast from box-room studios (Mates certainly looked as though he was somehow squashed into the studio). And this ‘newspaper’ of many parts was held together by an off-screen announcer, whose soothing voice would mark transitions. However, that disembodied voice also made the broadcast perhaps slightly dry and impersonal — conceptually fine for a neutral role in turning the pages of a newspaper, but strikingly unconventional for television.
The Channel 4 Daily, however, did not connect with much of an audience. It was discontinued because, as Grade owned: ‘We researched it carefully and promoted it widely… [and yet] virtually nobody watched it.’(8) That summing up was reflected in another part of those very closing moments of the programme with which I started this article, when Dermot Murnaghan (who had replaced Barnes as anchor) summed things up in the final seconds: ‘Good luck to everyone at The Big Breakfast — hope they enjoy the early starts as much as we do; goodbye to our viewer — I’m sure they’ll miss us; and, finally, out last look at the headlines — there they are!’, as he turned a yellow sheet of paper towards the camera. The stylish exit with humour — and nod to the very different creature that would follow — hit the nail on the head: the lack of audience.
The problem was probably that the world was not ready for a ‘television newspaper’ with its different segments — the news element was competing with Today on the radio and The Times in print, while other aspects were probably seeking a commercial radio audience, or the tabloids. There is no necessary reason why these aims and ambitions could not be aligned and in the age of the internet, the ‘television newspaper’ might have better chances: apps, news websites, and even the main broadcast components of television news now all share the elements that shaped the Channel 4 Daily. No British broadcaster — perhaps no broadcaster anywhere — has the seriousness and depth that the Channel 4 venture — in line with the surviving Channel 4 News — brought. But, all the others subsequently went further in that direction. And the segments, time slots, bureaux in different time zones and style of the Channel 4 Daily became echoed in any 24-hour news broadcast and very evidently in BBC World News. In many senses, the ‘television newspaper’, in adapted forms, continued 30 years after the conscious experiment to make it had seemingly failed.
The Channel 4 Daily represented a fresh and full approach to coverage of foreign affairs and war at a crucial juncture in history, alongside its sibling Channel 4 News. The Channel 4 Daily ran across the crucial years at the end of the Cold War, from 1989-1992. Conceived as a 'television newspaper', this unprecedented approach offered audiences serious, highly informed and accurate reporting and insight into events, using consistent sources to be completely on top of events — such as the end of the Cold War, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the international response to it, the onset of war in Yugoslavia and Somalia, and the collapse of the Soviet Union — if not ahead of them, in contrast to other news providers who focused on image and experience more than insight and understanding. While the Channel 4 News continued some of this after 1992, the elements of consistency that produced top quality in the Channel 4 Daily years were less evident. However, it is likely that the seriousness of coverage was a factor in the demise of the breakfast broadcast, as Channel 4 replaced it and its lack of viewers with the highly popular entertainment magazine The Big Breakfast.
About the Author
James Gow is Professor of International Peace and Security at King's College London. He is currently leading a British Academy funded research project on the Foto Depo of the History Museum of Bosnia and Hercegovina, the the latest in a series of projects on Art and Reconcilation.
(1)‘Channel 4 Daily Final 15 Mins’ available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E06UecbKOjQ accessed at 8 November 2002
(2) Liz Forgan interviewed by Peter Caterall, ‘Channel 4: News and current affairs 1981–87’, Contemporary British History, Vol.12 No.4, pp.120-1
(3) BFI, ’Channel 4 News’, Screenonline, available at http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/579963/index.html at 9 November 2022
(4) Robert Service, ‘Peter Frank Obituary’, The Guardian, 10 December 2013 available at https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/dec/10/peter-frank accessed 9 November 2022
(5) Milena Michalski and James Gow, War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing Contemporary Conflict New York: Routledge, 2007, p.188
(6) Michael Grade, Chief Executive, Channel 4, quoted in Jones, Morning Glory p.104
(7) ‘Channel Four Daily Trailer’ available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1rePDs7lOI accessed 9 November 2022
(8) Michael Grade, quoted in Jones, Morning Glory p.110