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Get Channel Four current affairs gigs

DOROTHY Byrne, head of News and Current Affairs at Channel Four (C4), was our speaker at the LFB meeting in September. She is also a former editor of The Big Story, a former World in Action producer, a Fellow of the Royal Television Society for her contribution to journalism, and winner of the Women in TV award. She described herself as "The oldest woman in TV... we all started out together" when there were "more women than men" in TV current affairs, but the women "gradually disappear like in an Agatha Christie novel."

Dorothy joined the NUJ with her first job at the Waltham Forest Guardian, aged 24, and was surprised to find she'd been put on a Race Relations Board sub-committee. She later discovered it was "because the paper was so racist." She was an activist in the provincial newspapers national strike of 1978-1979.

Moving to TV, she became Mother of Chapel (Union workplace rep) with broadcast and entertainment union BECTU at Granada.

Doing the right thing for freelances

Of exploitation of freelances, Dorothy noted that "Nearly everyone who works outside the news for Channel 4 is a freelance." C4 "doesn't directly make any of its own programmes": these are "commissioned from independent production companies, where quite a number of people are freelance... Some are employed as freelances for ITN, some for small independents bought in by ITN,". People working on C4 current affairs programmes are generally "some two [steps] away from me", she says.

While this means "we don't give people jobs" Dorothy says "If a film gets commissioned, it's "my job to ensure they get the best..." it's "really important that we pay people for their work." and that C4 "don't steal their ideas and they get paid for their ideas... All these people out there who are trying to pitch their ideas, not knowing what will happen... we try to protect them... It's really important that we defend the rights of people working in a vulnerable ways."

At C4 "We are unionised "at C4 news... In terms of the ill-treatment of freelance journalists we're much more on the case than when I started... 22 years ago... it's something we've got to be conscious of."

She "helped to introduce contracts to protect people working on the programmes... people who work for us have to treat the people working for them properly, both onscreen and offscreen. They have to have diversity as well... they have to, they don't have any choice" In practice, "diversity", means independent production companies that do work with C4 need to demonstrate that there is "ethnic diversity" in their team, or that within the team "somebody is disabled."

Furthermore, "we are increasingly interested in social diversity." She notes that "newer people entering the industry, their parents are rich, so many of them went to private schools," Westminster in particular. When Dorothy first went to work in current affairs she was the first person there with a degree not from Oxford or Cambridge.

Pitch perfect

Dorothy "would really encourage members to pitch an idea. In drama you've got to have an idea that's really worked up" but "if you've never worked in TV that doesn't matter to us, a good story is a good story." Don't spend loads of time on developing ideas. She gave members who were at the meeting her email address.

An example of a successful pitch to C4? A young man, a journalism student, who'd never made a programme, "just rang" to say he'd made a student film with the police, and they hadn't made him sign anything! The result was a documentary around the cry "GLF!" ("Go Like Fuck!") - the unofficial battle-cry shouted during the police road training programme. The young journo got paid by an indy company, and "the police were really upset."

If "people have a really good idea, we help and support them. When we get a pitch... I say, can I give your idea to C4 News? C4 would negotiate to buy story and negotiate with you what your role would be. Would you be in an associate producer role? If it gets bigger, I'll give you the names for at least two independent production companies for you to go and see, or I'll tell them what the story idea is, and ask, will they meet you?". Or she might put you in touch with another outlet. "It might seem odd that I would help you sell your story to the BBC. It's in my interests to have many people working in TV, people who are experienced."

...and respect for proposals

Some "shocking" stories" about nicking ideas have come Dorothy's way over the years. Freelances pitching an idea being told "we're already doing that" is a common scam in broadcasting, but "we are really strict about that at C4." When an idea comes in, we keep a record of an idea, and we have three weeks to respond to it."

And "if they just write back and they just say, 'Oh, it was really nice to see you for a coffee,' my alarm bells are ringing - I know the sort of thing that production companies try on." "If you think anybody stole and idea... you should definitely get on to me." She observes that "if they stole your ideas, they're going to steal someone else's idea and they're going to steal another of your ideas next week."

A member of the audience claimed his story had mysteriously found its way onto the BBC after a single meeting at which they'd "picked his brains" with no follow-up. Dorothy suggested, "Send it to Tony Hall and tell him what happened to you... it's really important that if this sort of things happen, that it goes to very senior people." (For how Karl Barling took bullying to the top of the BBC, see here.)

On women in TV

On sexism in broadcast media, Dorothy observed that when she gives talks, female freelances say, that's all very well, but in my little production company I knew my one-month contract wouldn't get renewed unless I went to dinner with the man who ran the company. "The only way I find out is if freelances tell me: if you think that's happening you should tell me directly."

A Broadcast magazine survey found women in TV have a lower birth rate than China. Dorothy's heard too frequently from female colleagues, "I want to have a child so I don't mention it to my employer" It's very difficult if you don't have a staff job. She herself "went back to work five and a half weeks after having a baby," as she was then "a freelance, no money... You hear all this stuff about maternity or paternity leave," but "how can you have babies if you're a freelance?" There's "a huge group... that have real difficulty" in this area.

Suing the prosecutor

Dorothy is particularly proud of C4 successfully suing the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for libel. This was after the CPS, in response to Undercover Mosque backed the West Midlands Police in claiming the documentary's clip of the imam saying, "Take that homosexual man and throw him off the mountain" was taken out of context (transcript here). C4 won and got "a bunch of money (£100,000) which they gave to the Rory Peck Trust... I have no doubt that made it easier for other journalists working for us."

Last modified: 21 Sep 2015 - © 2015 contributors
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