Channel 4 News has a love-hate relationship with Facebook. The internet giant has transformed this small London newsroom into a genuinely global player that registered an astonishing 2 billion video views last year, and yet for all the traffic and kudos the broadcaster’s high quality content brings to the social platform, Facebook pays it a “tiny, minuscule amount of money” in return.
“A proper news organisation can't earn enough money off Facebook to wash its face, it's a huge distortion,” says the Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear. Worse, he argues, Facebook – at a time of alarm over the rise of fake news – is failing to prevent the misappropriation of the broadcaster’s content by third parties, which may distort the material to suit their political agendas. “Facebook say that they are not a media company [but] I believe they are and that, with the amount of money they are making and the power and influence they have, they have to accept responsibility.”
Back in 2014 Channel 4 News was, though highly-respected for its journalism, a news programme with a niche audience, very little advertising revenue, and a limited online operation that attracted 80 million video views a year. But for much of last year it was the most-watched European news outlet in video, thanks in no small part to its extraordinary coverage of the Syrian war.
Much of this content was the work of a single young Syrian filmmaker, Waad al-Kateab, a 26-year-old student whose astonishing body of work, comprising 22 videos grouped under the heading “Inside Aleppo”, has generated 313 million video views and represents an unparalleled portrayal of life inside a besieged city that was mostly out of bounds to western media. The films include 'The Barrel Bomb Baby', featuring a newborn brought to life only after doctors have removed pieces of shrapnel from the flesh of his wounded mother. The child’s fight for survival is a heartbreaking metaphor for the fate of Aleppo itself.
According to de Pear: “We had 300 million views of our stuff from Aleppo but there were 100 million other views for people who stole it off us and those people could do what they wanted with it. A lot of it was in Arabic or Russian and a lot of it could be distorted.” Facebook, he argues, allows “the kid in Macedonia to take that video, put subtitles over it, and pretend it has come from a news organisation he has made up that sounds like a news organisation in America or Britain and completely distort the truth”.
Fighting fake news
At a recent panel event on fake news, hosted by Edinburgh International TV Festival, de Pear questioned Facebook on how much money it was making from the traffic generated by false stories. He has yet to receive an answer. “For every pound fake news has earned for the fake news publisher, Facebook has made at least the same amount of money,” he says now in an interview with The Drum in his newsroom office. “How much money have you (Facebook) made from fake news? What have you done with it? And how much are you spending on combating fake news? Facebook are doing a very good PR job at the moment of looking like they are doing the right thing [on fake news] but they have to accept that people have been able to exploit the freedom of their platform and that people have made lots of money from it and so have Facebook.”
The subject is, potentially, of existential importance to Channel 4 News because of the still unresolved government threat of privatising Channel 4, which provides the news outlet’s budget. Doubts have been raised as to whether a future buyer would be so generous. “Right now we don’t need to [make money from online video] but in the future if Channel 4 was to be privatised maybe we would,” says de Pear. “Facebook are very proud that we are there but they have yet to come up with a way to fund what we do. The stuff we do is unique and very professionally done. There’s no way that the money you get from Facebook could ever pay for a fraction of what it costs.”
Despite this, Channel 4 News has never looked stronger. It has received 14 nominations in the Royal Television Society’s (RTS) Television Journalism Awards, punching way above its weight.
Four of the nominations are for al-Kateab, who de Pear describes as “an amazing filmmaker and an amazing find”.
Acclaimed Aleppo coverage
While other broadcasters have carried footage from political activists inside Aleppo, Channel 4 News recognised that al-Kateab had a profound talent for objective human storytelling. “It wasn't shoving it down your throat. She was just telling observational stuff, little sketches of people,” says de Pear. Channel 4 News took al-Kateab to Turkey for a week’s training in editing and sending material, before she went back to Aleppo.
The RTS has recognised al-Kateab’s 'The Last Flower Seller of Aleppo', a poignant mini documentary of a man nurturing hazelnut and loquat plants with his son amid the ruined city. Al-Kateab is the wife of a hospital doctor, giving her access with her small DSLR camera to almost unwatchable scenes of the tragedy of war, including two boys grieving over the body of their little brother. “The most incredible thing,” says de Pear, “is she filmed most of her work holding a one-year-old baby daughter because she didn't want to leave her anywhere because you never know what is going to happen in Aleppo. And for the last three months of the siege she was pregnant.”
Only as the city finally fell to regime forces did al-Kateab and her family leave. On Monday evening, Channel 4 News broadcast an interview she gave to presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy in Turkey. “I’m just focused on telling all the world what’s happening in Aleppo,” she said of her ability to keep filming in the face of such awful scenes. The flower-seller, we learned, had died in shelling.
Guru-Murthy is on a shortlist of three for the RTS Television Journalist of the Year, alongside his fellow Channel 4 News presenter Matt Frei. Had the awards come a little later, their colleague Cathy Newman would surely have been a contender too, after her outstanding recent work investigating allegations of the violent abuse of young men at Winchester School and the University of Cambridge by a prominent Christian barrister with ties to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Newman has pursued the alleged perpetrator John Smyth to Cape Town, and uncovered further claims against him in South Africa and Zimbabwe as he protests his innocence. She was tipped off on the story because of her previous work exposing the abuse of Kenyan street children by a former British public school teacher. It is unusual for the programme to put so much resource into investigating one individual but the Smyth story has “opened a can of worms”, says de Pear. “The church doesn't really know what to do because there are more and more people coming forward and it has been 40 years of silence.”
Channel 4 News has the capacity to take on such stories largely because it has a dedicated investigations team, led by Job Rabkin, capable of supporting specialist journalists on complex and lengthy inquiries.
The programme’s investigation into the Conservative Party’s election expenses, a story initiated by the irrepressible political journalist Michael Crick, has prompted probes by the Electoral Commission and by 22 police forces in 29 constituencies. De Pear believes that the British press has “missed a trick” in not giving the issue more prominence. “Even if they only say three [polls] have to be rerun it is still a massive story.”
A liberal agenda?
There are critics, such as the Sun columnist Kelvin MacKenzie, who think Channel 4 News leans too far towards a liberal agenda. The programme’s editor says its stance is “in a challenger mode – we just hold power to account”. It is regulated by Ofcom for impartiality, he points out. “We are for factual truthfulness and at the moment there is a battle going on over the truth.”
It doesn’t always get it right. De Pear admits “we missed Brexit” (it is now trying to increase its reporting outside of London) and viewers who watched the programme on the eve of the US election can be excused for being mystified by Donald Trump’s victory.
The editor claims he had a gut feeling that the Republican candidate might prevail, though he admits that was not “reflected in the show”, which clearly pointed to a Hillary Clinton win. He blames the misjudgment on the American pollsters who insisted their methods were “more sophisticated” than the UK ones who had been embarrassed by Brexit, and on a type of voter who won’t engage with journalists. “I think there is a disconnect between those who are happy to speak to the media and are easy to find and those who are not happy to speak to the media and are harder to find, and are probably poorer and less trusting of the media.”
As a TV programme Channel 4 News is growing, with audiences of between 700,000-1 million, well above those of its old rival Newsnight on BBC2.
The TV journalism is repackaged for an online audience by a digital team headed by Jon Laurence, who de Pear describes as being “brilliant” at “working out how to edit and distribute our material”. The total Channel 4 News headcount is 130 – “tiny”, says de Pear – and only 12 are dedicated to digital journalism. De Pear acknowledges that the BBC has become a “tough competitor” in online video but adds that “they have a slightly bigger team… I think they have 3,000 people working on digital”.
But it’s not just the BBC that has cause to compete with Channel 4 News. In the crowded world of online news, it’s not enough to follow a common news agenda. “Channel 4 News had to stand out amongst broadcast journalists by having distinctive stories that had big impact and that no one else was doing, and other broadcasters are learning that now,” says de Pear. “The agenda has changed for everyone and it is becoming slightly more of a Channel 4 News agenda.”