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Future of TV

Ben de Pear fears TV news has 'lost power' as he moves on from Channel 4 News editorship

By Ian Burrell, Columnist

February 9, 2022 | 8 min read

Now on the outside after 10 years as Channel 4 News editor, Ben de Pear tells Ian Burrell why TV news is not the persuasive force it once was, and argues streamers won't be able to fill the void if it's weakened any further.

Channel 4 News team

Ben De Pear has said goodbye to the Channel 4 news team after 10 years as editor / Channel 4

Television news has “lost power” in holding to account those in power, after calculated efforts by politicians to undermine the credibility of media, says the departing head of Channel 4 News.

Ben de Pear, who has edited the flagship news programme for a decade, also fears that rogue regimes are able to commit war crimes due to a new “impunity in international affairs”, and that audiences are becoming increasingly “immune” to pictures of atrocities on social media.

He argues that public service newsrooms need to be preserved and supported because Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming services “have no requirement or desire to do the news”.

His comments come as the government is reviewing the future funding models of Channel 4 and the BBC and ministers have suggested that Netflix-style subscription packages for these outlets might better suit the viewing public. Prime minister Boris Johnson is currently resisting calls for his resignation over the “partygate” scandal exposed by ITV News and newspapers, notably the Daily Mirror.

De Pear, who stood down last month (28 Jan) to be replaced by former BBC Newsnight editor Esme Wren, identifies a paradox in which news media has become able to disclose more yet has less impact. “TV news, over [the past] 10-15 years, whilst it has been able to reveal more, we have lost some of our power,” he says. “Our version of the truth used to be far more believed and pervasive.”

'We are always being attacked'

He claims that “the leaders we have at the moment here and in America” have damaged the media by persistently questioning its motives.

“That’s a narrative that is really dangerous in this country and others, that somehow if we say or reveal something the governments don’t like they can turn on the messenger,” he says. “It has been the most frightening thing for me over the last four or five years. Almost 100% of what we report is true and verified and yet we are always being attacked as being somehow partial or with an agenda or…there’s a conspiracy going on. It’s just rubbish, we are talking about newsrooms full of professional journalists who report the truth.”

During De Pear’s time as editor, Channel 4 News has won five Emmys, three Baftas and been named News Programme of the Year four times by the Royal Television Society. Some of its greatest achievements, in his estimation, have been the uncovering of despicable human rights abuses during the civil wars in Sri Lanka and Syria.

Yet he claims the international justice system has become so weak that atrocities go unpunished. “With Sri Lanka there was never a war crimes investigation even though the evidence was overwhelming. In Syria there isn’t a formal war crimes investigation even though the evidence is overwhelming,” he says. “The last 10 years I think there has been impunity in international affairs where there has been an imbalance of the great powers who would normally force cruel regimes into some sort of tribunal or reckoning. That’s no longer there.”

Channel 4 News’s Sri Lanka coverage, which began when De Pear was foreign editor, depended on mobile phone footage shot by third parties. “That wasn’t verified or shot by professional cameras. It was shot by people on mobile phones and every broadcaster who was approached turned it down,” he says. “I watched it and thought ‘Well, that’s obviously happened.’” The footage of apparent atrocities was used with the caveat that it was unverified.

“That changed a lot of TV coverage because people immediately realised that a lot of video journalism had been democratised because people suddenly had quite good cameras in their pockets on their mobile phones,” he says. “It changed things and made it harder for human rights violations, massacres, attacks of armies on civilians to happen without people filming it.”

He praises his bosses at ITN for backing the coverage, which led to furious responses from the Sri Lankan government. “The Sri Lankans called us liars and said that we had doctored the footage and staged it but it showed grievous human rights violations that the UN verified, saying at least 40,000 people died at the end of the civil war.”

Channel 4 News again broke convention during the civil war in Syria by working with local filmmakers who were able to operate where western journalists could not. “We couldn’t get our own crews inside so we found people on the ground in Syria who gave incredible witness testimony and filmed devastating material.” Consequentially, it produced For Sama, a documentary by Syrian film-maker Waad Al-Kateab that was nominated for an Oscar.

But such exposure of human rights abuses has not stopped them happening. De Pear worries that the abundance of graphic material on social media is making the public more impervious to atrocities. “I wonder whether people have become slightly immune to it,” he says. “If you put ‘Syria torture’ or ‘Syria death’ into YouTube, you can see all sorts of stuff. There has been a strange correlation between the amount of video evidence of horrible things happening alongside a serious lack of accountability from the UN. We are in a period of impunity. If you think back to Yugoslavia or Sierra Leone or Liberia, people were held to account for terrible war crimes.”

De Pear joined Channel 4 as a foreign producer in 2005, working in hot spots including Lebanon, DR Congo, Somalia and Afghanistan. He was made foreign editor in 2008 and editor in 2012.

Another key moment of his time in charge was the programme’s undercover investigation into Cambridge Analytica, in which the data firm’s bosses boasted of harvesting the personal information of Facebook users and deploying it to help put Donald Trump in the White House. “We just ran what they told us themselves,” he says.

He is proud of the show’s use of ‘local’ reporters such as Somali-born Africa correspondent Jamal Osman and Peru-based Latin America correspondent Guillermo Galdos. “Instead of sending the great white man to tell you about a country he probably doesn’t understand very well we have reporters from those countries who can tell you first hand what is happening and who will get more honest stories.”

Fallouts with Downing Street

Another highlight was coverage of the Windrush furore, for which De Pear says he was scalded by Theresa May’s Downing Street staff. “Number Ten said to me explicitly, ‘We are fed up with you reporting this story that no one else seems to care about’,” he says of a scandal originally broken by The Guardian. “And they (Downing Street) limited our access during that period.”

The programme later fell out with Johnson’s Number Ten after it replaced him with an ice sculpture when he did not appear at a pre-election debate on climate change.

De Pear claims Channel 4 News has faced similar hostility from Labour. “Our difficulties in politics came as much from Corbyn and Labour as they did from Theresa May or Boris Johnson’s people. The lack of trust and vehemence was quite worrying at times.”

While he is convinced that Channel 4 News will remain a fixture in Channel 4’s schedule, he is alarmed by suggestions that public service broadcasters (PSBs) should model themselves on streamers. “The government is continually taking about the streamers and what a great example they are of a media business but they rarely talk about how there is a complete vacuum of news or any real programmes that hold authorities to account on streamers,” he says.

“It’s great streamers exist but if you were on a desert island and all you had was Netflix and Amazon you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on in the world. Most of their best factual or documentary content starts life at a PSB and they have yet to prove that they fundamentally care about much other than the bottom line.”

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