Briefing Notes: Channel 4 News

Ritchie Cogan
Ritchie Cogan 29th July 2014

[Job Rabkin has been dispatched to South Africa for coverage of Mandela and so Rob came in his place.]

Who’s who on Channel 4 News

Nevine Mabro, Head of Foreign News and Head of Channel 4 News Film Fund

Rob Hodge, Deputy Foreign Editor

Job Rabkin, Commissioning Editor, Channel 4 News Film Fund

Their foreign reporting team comprises: Jonathan Miller, Jonathan Rugman, Lindsey Hilsum, Matt Frei (and Alex Thomson). Matt mainly covers Europe. John Sparks in Bangkok covers Asia. They have a few freelancers they work with regularly: Jamal Osman, Inigo Gilmore and Guillermo Galdos (based in Peru).

What is the USP of their foreign coverage?

Nevine and Rob explained that C4News has a small team of foreign correspondents and only two overseas bureaux (Washington and Bangkok) so they are always looking to do things differently from other news organisations, to find their own angle and to cover unique stories, which are not being covered elsewhere. So, for example, this week Alex Thomson has been reporting from the Central African Republic (CAR) whilst other news organisations have been mainly focused on Mandela.

Under their new editor, Ben de Pear, C4N is giving more priority to original journalism and exclusive stories, rather than just following the journalistic pack. So, for example, in Syria they have tried to cover events with small, locally based teams, with good contacts on the ground, rather than parachuting in big teams and big name reporters. In Asia, John Sparks has spent a lot of his time covering Burma. In South America, they have started commissioning more reports from Guillermo. They have used Jamal to cover Somalia but also to bring a fresh approach to other foreign stories – for example he covered the rise of the far right in Greece.

Another USP is the fact that on C4N foreign reports can run much longer than in other news outlets. Alex Thomson has been filing stories this week that are 5-6 minutes long. Rob said that on Al Jazeera stories were typically 1’45” – 2’ long. And films commissioned for the film fund can run 10-12 minutes.


Working with NGOs

Nevine and Rob gave some tips for NGOs pitching stories to them. They found it frustrating that many NGOs sent them generic press releases which didn’t feel tailored or relevant to their needs. They spoke about the need to build relationships, to meet over coffee, to get to know the NGOs. Stories should have a sense of importance and urgency – there should be a real story to tell, with a narrative, preferably an arrangement involving exclusivity. They were also keen to work with NGOs who could help them get access to difficult places – for example, they are working with Save and MSF in CAR. Save helped with visas and transport in country.

The relationship should be mutually beneficial – Save know they will get coverage of the humanitarian crisis in CAR and some mention of their work, whilst C4N know they will get an important story which no one else is covering. This particular relationship has worked well. Nevine and Rob have no qualms about working with NGOs – they are in sympathy with their aims. They will cover the issue but it won’t be PR for the NGO.

There have been bad experiences with NGOs – Nevine cited an example where a C4N team went to Somalia with an NGO (she didn’t name the NGO) with the aim of filming in two places. All was fine to start with, but when they arrived at the second location, they found that they did not have the right permissions and so couldn’t film. The NGO had been responsible for getting the permissions and had messed up. The correspondent (also not named) was furious.

Nevine and Mabro said they were often asked to go on trips with NGOs and most of the time they said no. What made them say yes to the CAR filming trip? There was no tipping point as such said Rob, but they had been watching CAR for some time and had wanted to go. The timing was right. The story was becoming more important and so the offer of access came at the right time. Alex Thomson had been due to go to Afghanistan but they decided to send him to the CAR instead.

The Film Fund

This is a pot of money which Channel 4 gives to ITN to spend on independently made films so these 10­12 minute pieces are all made outside ITN, by freelancers and independent producers, although the final film may be voiced by a C4N reporter. Recent examples include a film made in Aleppo, another in Homs, a film in South Africa about militant Afrikaaners, a film following a woman in Afghanistan who had been the victim of rape and ended up marrying the rapist.

The Film Fund used to be run in a traditional way with indie producers pitching ideas and going off and making the films once they’d been commissioned. This has all changed now and is much more fluid. Ideas for the Fund can come from anyone and can be pitched to Nevine, Rob or Job. Next year, Job will focus more on investigations as they hope to do more of these. You can come with a raw idea, some footage, a filmmaker, any combination in fact. If they like the idea they will make it happen. They have a


network of freelancers they work with and some correspondents like Guillermo who they are keen to continue to work with. The ideas can be wide ranging, either a new angle on a big news story or a completely off the agenda story. They do a lot of these films – almost 40 in the past year. It’s fertile ground for NGOs.

The audience

C4N has an older demographic but higher reach amongst ethnic minority audiences than any other news provider. They are also watched by a lot of students. They are trying to broaden their appeal to win more younger viewers but the fact that they are on at 7pm makes this challenging.

What stories are they looking for in 2014?

They plan to cover the Philippines (after Christmas), Afghanistan, Syria, Gaza, Iraq and also they are on the look out for good South American stories for Guillermo as they’d like to do more with him. He’s recently covered animal trafficking in Brazil which went down well – they’d like to do more environmental stories. He has also reported from Tegucigalpa in Honduras (the world’s most dangerous city) and Brazil (favelas). And he is currently doing a piece on illegal coalmining in Peru.

Mark Galloway


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