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.
Follow @MichaelLCrick on Twitter.