26th November 2009, 3:05pm
Journalists off the mark on key news stories
News coverage of the Iraq conflict The run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not a crowning glory moment for British TV according to Dorothy Byrne, Channel 4's Head of News and Current Affairs.

"It was not one of our finest hours and we failed to expose the enormous amount of lies that were being generated and spun as truth," she said.

Byrne, the latest guest speaker at the University of Lincoln's Journalists Speak Out Journalism series, also said journalists had failed to grasp the scale of the recent financial crisis and were way off the mark as the crisis unfolded.

"Journalists relied too heavily on information from friendly economists they should have dug a bit deeper and carried out proper investigative reporting. They must try harder in my book on these big issues."

The core of her talk at the University's Lincoln School of Journalism was on whether the Ratings War should dictate how much news and current affairs programming is made by the four main terrestrial channels.

Byrne, who has spent the last decade at Channel 4, believes that making good current affairs programming is a priority for any public service broadcaster.

"The pressure on Channel 4 and the BBC to make good news and current affairs programmes has increased enormously over the last few years, due mainly to the desperate financial problems at ITV and Channel 5," she said.

"I can categorically say that Channel 4 is committed to making programmes like Dispatches and Unreported World we would not be meeting our public service remit if we didn't."

Byrne said that increasing the annual number of Dispatches from 12 to 40 over the last five years has helped boost quality too: "It's not just that we've got more, we've got better and better. You get more and more people coming to you with better and better ideas."

And spreading the load over the year allows her to fret less about ratings for individual programmes.

"If you cut back on news and current affairs, you lose the justification for Channel 4. Alongside documentaries and some fantastic specialist factual programming, our news output is what we win awards for it is our justification," stated Byrne.

But she insists programmes like Dispatches must engage more with viewers and not leave them with a feeling of hopelessness.

"When we make a programme about human rights issues in Liberia or Guatemala we must give the viewer some hope at the end we need to energise and empower the public," she said.

She referred to Comic Relief and Children in Need as having the winning formula a case of the public feeling it can make a difference.

Byrne admits that we're living in remarkable times and that politics has suddenly got incredibly interesting again: "Our country is at war in more than one country and thanks to Osama bin Laden, the old maxim that foreign affairs are boring no longer holds."

A graduate of the World in Action school of current affairs, Byrne once flirted with the idea of joining the Byzantine corridors of power at the BBC. But now she says: "After all the things I've said about them, I think that's very unlikely. I absolutely love it here and I've got a passion to keep Channel 4 news and current affairs at the top of the pile."
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