Backroom poise keeps the news team ahead 

17 July 2023


Cover of the TVTimes

From the TVTimes for 3-9 March 1984

Peter Sissons lives with his ex-teacher wife, Sylvia, in the Kent village of Hartley. ‘We have three children. Michael, 13, Jonathan, who is 10 and Katie, who’s three,’ he says. ‘That’s enough. The family is complete, we are no longer working on it – whereas Channel Four News is complete, but we are still working on it.’

That is his comment on the changes that continue to take place on commercial television’s longest news programme; moves that are lifting it far away from the doldrums of the past, when once or twice it received the doubtful distinction of a ‘zero rating’. That didn’t mean that no one watched it on the evening in question but, as one critic noted: ‘If you’d packed all its viewers on to a London bus, there would have still been plenty of room on top.’

Peter Sissons who, with Trevor McDonald, presents the programme, does not take kindly to such remarks. ‘That’s history. It happened because we made several basic errors of judgment when we started. In our efforts to become the leader of a new generation of news programmes, we took it for granted that the audience would be there.’

Experienced television newsmen watched with trepidation as Channel Four News filled its back rooms with journalists whose undoubted talents in other fields did not make up for their inexperience of the tele- vision medium. Most have been replaced, and the team is now headed by one of the country’s most experienced news producers, Stewart Purvis.

‘I intend face-lifting the programme by stealth,’ he declared at his first staff conference after taking over the reins. His ‘slowly, slowly’ approach has had an astonishing effect on the programme’s popularity. Ratings have shot up in recent months and the viewing figure is now regularly around one million.

‘The programme is now more viewable,’ says Sissons. It has got hard news up front; stories that are genuinely important and not put there in an attempt to be different from other bulletins. As it is, we can give a full background to news, plus features about the arts, politics, finance, and so on. Other news programmes simply don’t have the time and resources to do so.

‘I think we’ve achieved an enormous amount, simply in starting to break the British public’s habit of tuning in to the news early in the evening. With Channel Four News, we are now genuinely able to say, “Watch us and you can go out in the confident knowledge that you haven’t missed anything important.” That policy proved itself successful when the ratings rocketed recently during important news times.

The punchier, more immediate style of Channel Four News is not the only thing that’s attracting more viewers. Behind the scenes they are now armed with the newest technological aids to efficient news presentation.

‘We’ve become “paperless”. No one types any more. Everything is banged straight on to computers which, if called upon, could reassemble the entire programme in under one minute,’ Sissons says.

Meanwhile, film has been exposed as a time-waster. Everything is now shot on video tape. Viewers are rarely aware of these changes. It takes time for their impact to become evident. But what has always been a news programme’s vital and unchanging ingredient is a good presenter.

Sissons has long been acknowledged as a consummate professional – not to mention the housewives’ heart-throb of News at One, from which he moved when Channel Four started up, back in November 1982.

Any regrets? No. ‘I enjoy this more than anything I’ve ever done before,’ he states, which isn’t saying much, remembering the war in Biafra, when a bullet through both legs ended his career as a war correspondent.

Sissons, 41, was born in Liverpool, grew up during the Beatles boom and was a boyhood friend of Paul McCartney. But after coming to London, via Oxford University, he didn’t start his ITN career as a presenter. He was a junior reporter, scriptwriter, news editor, foreign news specialist and a voice-over commentator.

He doesn’t miss the thrill of news reporting, however. ‘There’s a tremendous excitement on a live news programme, particularly if the news is changing while you are on the air. And when you say those magic words, “News just in…” and you are privileged to pass on something that almost no one in the world knows at that moment – that really gets the adrenalin flowing.’



Conference, with people stood around in a room

A debriefing rounds off another busy news day.


pictures by Paul Stokes

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