“We’re not going to take that lying down.” ITV News editor Rachel Corp has words of defiance for anyone who thinks the internet and 24-hour news channels are killing appointment-to-view TV bulletins.
“People thought TV audiences were dying – no, they’re not,” she added.
In fact, in an uncertain period for fellow public service broadcasters BBC (licence fee at risk) and Channel 4 (potential privatisation), ITV News has “been making the case for ourselves in spades at the moment,” she said.
How? With an “absolute priority on eyewitness journalism”.
ITV News started 2021 with a major scoop: its journalists were the only ones to head inside the Capitol in Washington DC with the rioters of 6 January. It ended the year by becoming one of two news organisations, alongside the Daily Mirror, to reveal the Partygate scandal exposing Downing Street gatherings while Covid-19 restrictions were in place.
In between, the broadcaster exposed appalling social housing conditions and the scale of Amazon’s unsold stock wastage – both shortlisted for British Journalism Awards. US correspondent Robert Moore won journalist of the year and his team won the foreign affairs prize for their work at the Capitol, while ITV News London’s Ria Chatterjee won the local award for “in-depth coverage of important issues”. Former ITV News editor Geoff Hill, who died in September four years after being diagnosed with leukaemia, was also recognised with the Public Service Award.
“It’s been a tough couple of years for everybody and tough couple years for journalists and, for me, the fact that everybody in our team is involved in that [success] is great,” Corp said.
Now, ITV News is recruiting more staff and preparing to double the length of its early evening news programme to an hour.
Asked why the ITV team had such a standout year, news editor Corp told Press Gazette some had just been “coping” with Covid while “we were determined to do more than just survive – we absolutely wanted to thrive”. She added that she put “an absolute priority on eyewitness journalism”.
In 2021, ITV’s lunchtime news, which had its biggest share since 2010, averaged 0.9m viewers and was seen by 37% of the UK’s TV viewers during the year. The 6.30pm evening bulletin and News at 10 both had their second biggest shares since 2010, with an average of 3.2m and 1.7m viewers respectively.
'We've proven there is a place for this'
Corp said ITV News's priorities were working: "My editorial approach has always been we're not the BBC, we don't do everything. We're not Sky, we don't do breaking news. We deliver the stories we think matter most to people in this engaging way, putting people at the heart of all our storytelling... stories that are going to cut through and resonate a bit more."
She added: "I think it's making people sit up and listen. And yes, there's a whole wealth of journalism to choose from these days with digital and 24-hour and the rest of it, but actually there's still a place for those bulletins that you go to, you sit down and you get the day's news and everything you need to know."
Picking the stories 'that matter'
ITV News UK editor Paul Brand had two of the defining scoops of the ongoing Partygate row. Daily Mirror political editor Pippa Crerar revealed on 30 November that Boris Johnson and staff at Downing Street were accused of breaking Covid-19 rules with Christmas parties a year earlier.
Before Crerar's agenda-setting scoop, ITV News had already been working on a party story. Suddenly, the public interest was inarguable.
Ten days later, it published a video of Allegra Stratton, the Prime Minister's former spokesperson and a former national editor for ITV News, joking about a party in a rehearsal for televised lobby briefings that in the end never started. One month later, Brand revealed an email inviting Downing Street staff to a party in the garden outside in May 2020.
Corp said ITV News had "set out to deliver that with impact" and that, after the first scoop, it was a matter of "thinking what can we do next? Where can we take this once that had started? Rather than sitting back and [thinking] we've done that one, let's do something else in six months' time."
Despite being the biggest broadcaster in the country, BBC News did not bag any of the Partygate scoops. Asked how ITV News has been leading the way with a much smaller budget, Corp said: "We've always been very strategic in what we can cover, because we can't cover everything, so it's sort of in our DNA to pick the stories from right from the beginning of the day - we'd be very careful about what we pick and what we go about and the stories we choose, we hit them hard.
"Rather than feeling we have to do every single report that comes out or every public policy announcement, we'll pick the ones that matter."
She added: "I think as well, when we do something or when we're onto something, we absolutely jump on it and try to own it and then I think that becomes quite a virtuous circle on it. And so something like housing, more and more people were coming to us and we were doing it.
"So it doesn't matter that we start from a place of smaller resource, we will put the necessary resources into the right things."
The intention, Corp said, is for the extended hour-long early evening bulletin to pack in more agenda-setting stories, rather than change the nature of the programme - meaning there will be no shift to a lighter magazine format for the second half-hour.
"It's a really successful programme, the evening news, it's familiar, viewers know what they're going to get," the ITV news editor said. "So this is an extended version of that, literally... It's very much those sorts of snappy, important stories of the day, just more of them."
'The interesting stories lie' outside London
The programme will also carry more news from outside London. The expansion is creating 27 jobs, which will include correspondents in Wales, Scotland, and the north of England, as well as a social affairs reporter in the north.
Corp said she and the team had been "pushing for some time now to do more coverage outside London - that's where our viewers are and that's for me where the interesting stories lie".
She said news from outside London can be "slightly overlooked" in national bulletins.
"I think there can be a tendency of specialists to sit in London, or the London view being taken, and that's certainly something we've combated for some time and really pushed for reporting out of London but this just gives us more capability to do that... It's really hearing those stories that are not being told at that moment."
Channel 5 News, which like ITV News is produced by ITN, has also just replaced its two 30-minute news bulletins at 5pm and 6.30pm with one hour-long programme starting at 5pm. Corp said their decision similarly showed "news still delivers mass live TV audiences on linear channels... it's a place that people come to, it's the familiarity, it's the tuning in at a certain time... there's something still really powerful about that, as opposed to on-demand content."
On-demand 'news desert' risk
Ben de Pear, who last month left the editorship of Channel 4 News after ten years, told The Drum last week that TV news "lost some of our power" over the past decade as he condemned the "complete vacuum of news or any real programmes that hold authorities to account on streamers" like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Despite being optimistic overall, Corp also worries about news being found if the move towards streaming continues.
"If everything moves to on-demand, where does news sit?" she asked. "I think I would always argue, and ITN more broadly absolutely is arguing, that news has to have prominence in that world. If there's regulation... it has to make sure that we don't end up with this news desert, because it will be so easy in a world where everything is just fed to you - what you said you want - that suddenly you're not seeing news anywhere.
"I think that will be such a loss to this country, when you see how many people are watching on linear TV."
She said: "I think [in terms of] consumer choice, there's no threat in that sense and if they believe they can build audiences, fantastic."
Corp noted that the two newcomers have more of a focus on discussion and debate compared to the public service broadcasters' "impartial, independent news" where "people can come to us, see what's in the news and then make their own minds up". "I think there's room for all of this," she said.
Picture: ITV News