Dorothy Byrne interview: Covid-19 crisis could be 'new beginning' for politicians and journalists working together

“I genuinely hope that this is a new beginning for politicians and journalists to work together for the benefit of our democracy.”

The coronavirus crisis has made Dorothy Byrne, who just stepped down after almost 18 years as head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, feel optimistic about the future relationship between journalists and politicians.

Byrne, who spoke to Press Gazette to mark the end of her tenure as she moved to a new editor-at-large role, was scathing towards the UK’s political leaders and their relationship with the media in her MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival last year.

Calling Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn “cowards”, she said then: “If they really believe in the policies they promote, they should come onto television to explain them, to allow them to be scrutinised and to justify them.”

Speaking eight months on, Byrne points to the daily coronavirus press briefings and says: “Lo and behold, the Government has realised that if it wants the public to trust it, the leading politicians must appear on television and subject themselves to scrutiny.

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“There are tough and challenging questions asked at those press conferences and different journalists ask different questions from different angles.

“And I think it’s because the public have seen that scrutiny and seen that it comes from different places – the Daily Mail, Channel 4 News, Sky News, the Daily Mirror – that they have trusted what they have heard, and they don’t feel this is just the Government telling us what to think and expecting us just to believe it.”

Byrne goes on: “I’ve heard some people say journalists shouldn’t ask tough and challenging questions at this time. The opposite is true.

“If you want people to trust you, you must be seen to be being scrutinised in a tough way. Otherwise, a lot of the people would think ‘well, they’re just getting away with that’.”

There were reports of a bitter dispute between Channel 4 News and the Conservative Party in the run-up to December’s election, but Byrne insists “a lot of that was drummed up by certain media” using anonymous sources.

Going forward, politicians should learn from the current crisis and hold themselves up to “proper lengthy scrutiny” in the next election period, Byrne adds.

The veteran journalist praises the “absolutely outstanding” work being done across the broadcast and print spectrum during the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s been journalists who have gone out in this country and discovered what is really happening… [in] the most fantastic public service role,” she says.

Byrne points to Ofcom research showing traditional broadcasters are highly trusted sources of coronavirus news:  83% of people trust coverage on BBC TV and Channel 4, followed by 82% for ITV and 75% for Sky.

“So the public has really trusted us and we’ve done the most terrific job. We should keep saying how important journalists are and not let people put us down.”

Still, Byrne remains concerned about the future of regional and local journalists, especially after recalling her own experience as a health correspondent in East London and Essex in her early career.

“Again and again in this crisis it’s been information that we’ve got from local areas, which has informed the national debate… we really need journalists with local knowledge with in depth knowledge of what’s happening in their hospitals and care homes to be informing us now.

“I feel very concerned when I read about what is happening to local papers, and I think that the Government needs to think imaginatively about how we ensure that local and regional papers survive this crisis.”

High-quality journalism ‘priority’ for Channel 4

Channel 4 is one of the many media organisations to have taken a financial hit because of coronavirus, reducing its content budget for 2020 by £150m after reporting a “severe impact” on ad revenues in early April.

But Byrne says: “Whatever happens, I feel confident that we will always have the money to make high quality, investigative and revelatory journalism. That will be the number one priority of the channel.”

Another coronavirus-related worry for the news industry is online disinformation, which Byrne warns could come to a head if a vaccine is found.

ITN, which produces Channel 4 News, has called for the Government to impose “strong sanctions” on social platforms that do not take stringent measures to remove fake news.

Byrne declines to share what specifically she thinks should be done, but says: “We can’t just drift along like this, with absolute nonsense being purveyed on the internet with no comeback at all…

“We must not forget there are ludicrous anti-vaxxers and they’re there and they will come on to the internet, talking rubbish. And we need to all be ready for that. And the Government needs to be ready for that.

“Because there could be very serious consequences if these people are allowed to talk the normal drivel that they talk.”

Looking back

She goes on to share five achievements she is particularly proud of from her time at Channel 4:

  • Investigations including the 2018 Cambridge Analytica exposé
  • “Daring to talk about things that other people find difficult” such as issues facing ethnic minority communities
  • Taking opportunities to be a bit “cheeky” – such as setting up a fake Guantanamo Bay in east London as part of an investigation into the use of torture
  • Increasing the number of women on-air
  • Using more foreign journalists and realising “we didn’t just need tall white blokes to tell us what was happening in [another] country”
Future of Channel 4

And looking ahead, Byrne sheds some light on what she will be focusing on in her new role.

“Going into this very difficult financial time, one of my roles will be to help and support everybody in maintaining the ethos of our channel, which is revelatory, investigative, challenging journalism, that tells you about people and places which no other broadcaster would, and that will be key for me in my at large role to just really support people in what will be a difficult time.

“But I also have a very specific role as well that I’ve taken on, which is to improve the environmental sustainability of our programme making.”

One side effect of the coronavirus pandemic – not being able to send journalists to the epicentre of the story in places like Italy and the US – resulted in broadcasters working with more freelance journalists in other countries, and Byrne hopes this continues.

“Some of the very best films that Channel 4 has shown have been filmed by these marvellous journalists in other countries who we have discovered were there all the time. And think how that will help the planet if journalists don’t feel they have to fly to the place to see it.

“So I want to help Channel 4 come up with a plan to build on what we’re doing now, to make our channel significantly more environmentally friendly. Because if we think Covid-19 is bad, and it is, it’s terrible, the potential effects of climate change are even worse.”

Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

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