If you ask me: Jeremy Isaacs - Press Gazette

If you ask me: Jeremy Isaacs

Sir Jeremy Isaacs' problem when he's talking about the media, he admits, is that he suffers from "golden age syndrome". During a 45-year career in television, recently chronicled in his book Look Me in the Eye: A Life in Television, Isaacs did two stints on Granada's What the Papers Say (1956-68 and 1970-82). He also produced ITV's Searchlight and edited ITV's ThisWeek and BBC's Panorama. On all of these, he demonstrated his firm belief that innovation and quality don't have to be sacrificed for popularity.

An "addict of the newspapers", Isaacs was born in the Hillhead district of Glasgow in 1932 and "brought up" on the Glasgow Herald and the Manchester Guardian. He says there was "less nonsense" then and more quality foreign coverage, especially from the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Mirror, all of which had "absolutely crack foreign correspondents".

When he joined Granada in 1958, Isaacs worked on Searchlight, a programme that took inspiration from Hugh Cudlipp's campaigning Daily Mirror with its commitment to "give people information about the world in clear and simple English that they don't need a university degree to understand".

His production chief, former Daily Express MD Tim Hewat, had mastered the fact that television was primarily a mass-audience medium and that programmes should have something to say. Isaacs took this conviction with him when he was asked by Rediffusion producer/series editor Cyril Bennett to produce ThisWeek in 1963.

Isaacs turned the "much respected, but rather wobbly" programme into a single topic half-hour show devoted to social issues such as poverty, homosexuality, and drunken driving, that had considerable impact.

The programme's success led to him being approached by the BBC in 1965 to work on Panorama. The current affairs programme had been, says Isaacs, "quite remarkable and wonderfully admirable" with "elegant, fierce, individual reporters who had elegance, style and a sweep about them".

After some key journalists left, however, it began to lose its way and Isaacs was brought in to restore its fortunes. But despite the initial enthusiasm of his superiors, Isaacs "came an awful cropper" – falling foul of influential figures on the programme, such as Richard Dimbleby and Robin Day, because he tried to change it "far too quickly without adequate resources and without a friend at the BBC to hold my hand or watch my back."

After 20 months, having turned it from a magazine programme to a one-subject show, Isaacs was told to take it back to a multi-subject programme or leave the BBC.

He chose to leave, and returned to Rediffusion as controller of features, remaining with Thames Television when it took over Rediffusion's franchise, until 1978.

Isaacs, as chief executive of Channel 4 at its launch in 1982, contributed greatly to its distinctive character – introducing programmes aimed at individuals and younger viewers rather than family audiences, and insisting on the hourlong Channel 4 News. Isaacs, who joined the Royal Opera House as general director in 1987, acknowledges that current director of television and content Kevin Lygo believes that Channel 4 is now enjoying a golden era.

"He rather kindly says that those of us who grouch about it only do so because we love it – and he's right." 

"Everything we were doing, we were doing for the first time.

The wonderful thing about joining Granada in the late Fifties was that I came into ITV, which was inventing itself and expanding rapidly, so people got on far faster than they would have done in a hidebound institution.

I'd get little journalistic chores to do. I had no training. Nobody knew what jobs in television meant, but the title of my job was researcher, which was either a dogsbody, fixer or finder, or someone who was involved in getting a story for very modest programmes.

My interest in journalism got an enormous boost by being invited to produce What The Papers Say. I met a lot of terrific journalists doing that. One of the things television was trying to do – and it took years and even decades to do it – was develop its own journalism rather than just being wholly reliant on following newspaper journalism, and to find its own journalists. Granada had local news of course, but wanted to have a networked current affairs programme. Searchlight was the first television tabloid current affairs vehicle.

Hugh Cudlipp's Daily Mirror, at a remove and not absolutely direct medicine into the veins, was a sort of inspiration because it showed how high a popular communicator could aim. Not all of the time, but some of the time.

A punch-up was always supposedly good television, but I thought it was terrible television.

You had to be absolutely impartial on matters of current industrial or political controversy. I agree that television should be impartial, but impartiality took the form of studio discussions, which were hesitating, bumbling, tedious and ineffective. If they went to the other extreme and had something approaching aggression, you got a punch-up.

The problem was you didn't know what the programme was going to say before you made it.

Then this chap Tim Hewat, who was a New Zealander trained as a journalist in Australia, came along. He was brilliant at saying "What are we going to say about this? This is what we are going to say and how we are going to say it." In other words, he was making up a page.

Tim decided to do an almost crusading current affairs programme along the lines of the Daily Mirror that would drive the humanity of the issue into your head by using page after page. Tim wanted to see if he could adapt the techniques of tabloid journalism to television current affairs. He couldn't do mainstream issues in this way because it would have been blatantly his view, and his view of major political or industrial issues was not welcome or acceptable to his own bosses, his own conscience and to the regulators. Sidney Bernstein and Tim would take simple issues that were totally unlike anything Panorama did. At the end of the programme you knew something you had to go away and think about.

People were frightened that television was so powerful a medium that it would change people's minds about things, and we thought it was so powerful a medium it would help get things done.

We wanted to do a programme about the state of hospitals. But hospital board after hospital board said, ‘we can't let you in because if you show them how terrible things are here it will dismay the people who come here as patients and further dismay their relatives'. That's an infuriatingly tantalising position to be in as a journalist, because they are actually telling you how right you are in wanting to write a story along those lines, but not enabling you to do it.

Eventually one hospital board in Thames Valley agreed to let us in Amersham general hospital if we agreed to also show the inside of another hospital that was the first to have been built since the war.

The Amersham was a good hospital doing pioneering work, but they worked out of Nissan huts.

The geriatric patients, who were in beds 18 ins apart, had to be carried to their beds in armchairs. Even then, the Government insisted we shouldn't be allowed to turn the spotlight on British hospitals unless the minister of health came on the programme to say it was all going to be wonderful one day quite soon.

That indeed had to happen, to my fury and indignation, because I wasn't able to make the punchy programme I wanted to make. It slowed it down.

Ten or 15 years later, in my office at Thames Television, I received a circular from the Friends of Amersham Hospital that said, ‘We desperately need funds to help us do something about the hospital, we've got to try and get rid of the Nissan huts, we're trying to do something about the geriatric wards but we can't. Please help.'

With a 16mm camera I thought you could really stir things up, you could get closer, take television current affairs out of the studio and into people's homes, factories and schools.

When I went to This Week, 35mm cameras were being replaced by 16mm cameras. That is to say, large heavy cameras on tripods were being exchanged for small, handheld portable cameras that could get you much closer to reality.

With a 16mm camera you could get into the middle of a riot, you could go along a line of people applying for unemployment benefit, you could film in tiny front rooms of Liverpool slums, where we did a memorable programme about birth control.

I thought that I could do without a front man and use the subject matter, the people we are talking about, and they would take viewers with them through the rest of the programme. Thus I turned This Week into a one-subject programme and it never looked back.

It had good reporters, such as Desmond Wilcox, and I remember Paul Johnson doing a turn once. It gave the BBC a fright because Panorama wasn't quite the programme it had been five years previously – some really good people had left it. While they were still doing two or three items in a 50-minute long Panorama on Monday night, all of a sudden there was a half-hour of current affairs bang in the middle of the schedule on a Thursday.

British television today tells you how to buy or sell a house across most of Europe, but it doesn't tell you about the politics of Italy, France or Germany.

The news today is far better than it was when I started watching and using it 45 years ago, but current affairs is nothing like as good. There is a tendency to seek the celebrity interview, to do the jolly sexy story, but there is less current affairs that says, we are going to take you and show you what's happening in Darfur or Brazil or devote three halfhours to the French election.

In news there is more accomplished journalism, more people who really know what they are talking about, and, above all, time on the air to tell the story properly. ITN's news was patently a livelier news than the BBC's, but it only ran for 11 and a half minutes. News at Ten was the beginning of a more thorough – without being tedious – approach to news. News is a better service today, which doesn't mean all those people were bad journalists doing it badly, but the guys who were editing had to struggle just to get a minute out of the ITV companies.

ITV had three serious weekly current affairs programmes all in good viewing time: World In Action; This Week and, thanks to John Birt and Peter Jay, Weekend World, that gave you something no one else was doing.

Current affairs doesn't have to be audience grabbing in the same way as superb entertainment or good drama. It's meant to tell those that want to know about what's going on in the world that really matters.

Panorama could do so much more with the resources now available to it, instead of doing how Bob Woolmer was murdered. The Panorama we have, in peak time and presented by someone with no real connection to the programme, is attempting to be more popular than current affairs programmes need to be.

That old Daily Mirror, even if it didn't quite crack it, or quite make it work as it wanted to, was trying to do something that every publisher and journalist needs to be doing.

We are there to give the public the knowledge and insights that they need to understand the world, the relationship between this country and the world and what is going on in this country, and equip us to be democratic citizens.

I knew it was impossible to do justice to anything that really mattered within a commercial half hour of 24, 25 minutes.

When I started Channel 4, I insisted it have an hour-long news because I had seen something very like it operating on PBS in the US. I'm very proud of that today. The BBC said publicly that I was crazy, that an hour-long news programme would never work, but of course, although it was a terrible programme to start with, it did work.

A lot of things take time to run in and I was too insistent on the high-intellectual calibre of the presenters, Sarah Hogg and Godfrey Hodgson, superb journalists and very bright people. But not enough attention was paid to the mechanics of getting the programme on air. Then ITN, with our agreement, brought in a new editor from within ITN, Stewart Purvis. He did a fantastic job and Channel 4 News is a programme of which I am very proud and admiring, as long as they don't overstep the line and find themselves in the position of saying "this is what we think about this". That's not what they are there to do.

A 25-year-old [Channel 4] is going to do his own thing, it doesn't matter what Grandad thinks, it's what they want to do.

I'm trying to relax into that role fully in time for the 25th birthday celebrations in the autumn. I've decided I'm giving up, I'm surrendering; I'm going to stop grouching about Channel 4. Kevin Lygo says, rather kindly, that he doesn't mind people knocking it, because it shows they still love it.

That's quite true, it's the only reason I go on about Channel 4. So with its 25th anniversary coming up I'm bringing myself round to saying only that I admire Channel 4, I'm fond of it and will be celebrating with Channel 4 and saying that there are no programmes that I really dislike, except Big Brother, Celebrity Big Brother and Deal or No Deal.

The posture Channel 4 takes is that we have to do all these programmes that people like Jeremy don't like, in order to afford the programmes that he does like.

They're running the channel, they've made their decision based on that notion. They are going to have to find economies elsewhere and they are saying that they will not try to make economies initially in public service programming.

We will need to watch like hawks to ensure that is how they conduct themselves. It's said that Desperate Housewives now costs more than £900,000 an episode. If you say to a supplier we absolutely have to have this thing you've got, then they'll say, well, it will cost you a bit more.

Acquisitions like that are amusing hokum that you may have to forego if you can no longer afford them. But the reason it's no use me or anyone else going on about Big Brother is that they have hooked themselves into Big Brother, and to Celebrity Big Brother and to Deal or No Deal at, I would guess, highly enhanced prices for three years to come, because they sincerely believed that without them they wouldn't have an income and, above all, they didn't want to see them on a competing channel.

So they bought into them.

That means it's no use huffing and puffing about the things that are going to happen in the next Celebrity Big Brother. They've made their minds up and left themselves very little room for manoeuvre.

It's a paradox that a channel that does such wonderful things should rely on programmes like Big Brother to pay its bills.


The person I most admire…

In my working life I have worked for several people I hugely admired. The three bosses I most admired were Sidney Bernstein at Granada; John Sainsbury, who was chairman of the Royal Opera House when I was general director there; and that loveable maverick figure Ted Turner, who ran CNN and invited me to make a series about the Cold War. They were all inspiring leaders with a vision of excellence that they wanted everybody who worked for them to live up to. All of them created the spaces in which good work could be done, they made room for somebody to do something that seemed to matter. They were passionate and devoted to detail, sometimes infuriatingly so, but because they cared, you forgave them.

The worst bollocking I ever had…

The one I most remember wasn't a bollocking, but when I tried to correct some words that the, I think, brilliant reporter Robert Keele was writing for his commentary, and I said, "You don't want to say that and that do you?" He said: "Oh do shut up and go away." I realised that with people as good as that, you don't try to interfere.

I knew I had made it when… The edition of This Week that told me I was on the right road was a programme about drinking and driving that I did at Christmas 1963. We showed how many people had been killed, who they were, and how ludicrously irresponsible as a society we were in regard to drinking and driving. We went on new year's eve to a pub in Hampstead. The car park was full and people were ordering 10 pints, whiskies and a brandy at New Year. "And how are you getting home?"

"Driving, of course." We ran this programme and asked the Home Office minister if he would introduce legislation to prevent people drinking and driving. He said, "No, I couldn't do that, the public wouldn't stand for it."

Then he woke up and put his brain in gear, paused and said: "But if you did many more programmes like this, then we could." So we did, not then, but another government did [introduce legislation]. I thought then, this is working.