Channel 4 News has moved from gentle bias into full-blown activism

Handout photo issued by Channel 4 of Dominic Raab (left) and Rory Stewart during the live television debate on Channel 4 for the candidates for leadership of the Conservative party, at the Here East studios in Stratford, east London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Sunday June 16, 2019. See PA story POLITICS Tories. Photo credit should read: Tim Anderson/Channel 4/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder. 
Dominic Raab and Rory Stewart during the live television debate on Channel 4

The show has misjudged why fewer people are tuning in

It’s been a difficult few days for Channel 4 News. First was the revelation that its viewing figures were declining, facilitated by what it calls "Brexit fatigue". Then came their appalling attempt to use a homophobic attack on a London bus as a vehicle to smear Boris Johnson.

Johnson chose not to appear on the programme’s leadership debate over the weekend, fearing it would be ‘cacophonous’ and calling for a more ‘grown up’ debate. Channel 4 responded, in a very grown-up manner, by leaving an empty podium for him on the stage. The debate itself, chaired by Krishnan Guru-Murthy, divided opinion, with plenty of accusations that the format was too inflammatory, and that members of the audience and even Guru-Murthy had taken cheap shots at the MPs.

It’s not a great look for a news programme, accused of immaturity by Boris Johnson, to go on to prove him right. The show has done little to alleviate its image as an increasingly partisan, out of touch entity over the past few days, as its viewing figures attest.

I certainly wouldn't boycott Channel 4 News; I rather enjoy it. Some of its journalism, its depths of reporting, its determination to cover stories passed over by other major broadcasters, often at great cost to its team, is brilliant. The show maintains an admirable commitment to showcasing the arts. And though some revile them, a media landscape without the likes of Jon Snow, Matt Frei, Lindsay Hilsum and, until recently, Michael Crick, would be poorer.

But it tempers some of its very best broadcasting with thinly-veiled activism, masquerading as journalism. The past week is simply the latest in a very long line of unedifying moments. 

Snow’s assertion that he had "never seen so many white people" at a pro-Brexit rally in Westminster a few weeks ago was crass and unbecoming of a journalist many consider a national treasure. Yet it could have passed for a momentary lapse in judgement. Last week’s attempt to tie a homophobic attack on a couple on a bus in Camden to Boris Johnson, through an arguably loaded question, however, was orders of magnitude worse. It was planned, timed, and seemed utterly irrelevant to the subject at hand. 

No matter that London voted remain and purports to be one of the most tolerant places on Earth (though, in fact, it isn’t). This isolated case, of teenage boys below the age of 18, was used to take a pop at the likely next prime minister, days before he was due to take part in a televised debate. It was shoddy. Little wonder that Johnson didn’t turn up – why would anyone willingly do so, knowing in advance the whole thing was a bear-pit designed with him in mind? And if he wasn’t turning up, why would the viewers? 

Something tells me Channel 4 News has misjudged the reasons why fewer people are tuning in. "Brexit fatigue" may well be real, but it doesn’t seem to be affecting most news outlets – just ask the folks at TalkRadio or the Spectator, whose listeners/readership are both up, or the Guardian, which has managed to reverse its long decline in sales to finally start turning a profit. Brexit is many things, but in the news business, it’s no bad thing - and in any case, hardly Project Fear’s most chilling threat – "a hard Brexit will result in fewer pro-remain TV news programmes." By citing "Brexit fatigue", Channel 4 are admitting that they are getting it wrong, while seeking to blame the public for their flagging figures.

Without a Boris to bait, the candidates, host and audience were forced to tear strips out of each other, appearing cacophonous and at times childish – much as he had predicted. Inadvertently, drawing attention to his absence may have helped rather than hindered him.

Guru-Murthy’s line of questioning wasn’t brilliant, either, with a particularly low blow coming after Sajid Javid suggested education was his focus, only to have "what about knife-crime?", a London-centric issue driven by, among other things, poor education, thrown back at him.

Guru-Murthy also managed to unite the candidates against him, first with a potshot at Javid, suggesting he wasn’t important enough to be invited to a state banquet, and then, by calling Michael Gove a hypocrite. Gove rode to Javid’s defence, whilst Jeremy Hunt and Rory Stewart elicited the warmest applause of the evening for pointing out to the host that to err was to be human. Channel 4 News should know all about that by now.