The Unknown X-Men and Women of Journalism who took on News.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are now seeing the beginnings of another stage of human evolution”, said Dr. Jean Grey to a hostile hearing.
There it is! I said.
Movies are an allegory of the real world. The Avengers catalogue the epic battle of good over evil from multiple agents after the thawing of the cold war. The Day After Tomorrow’s apocalyptic weather storms literally foreshadowed the havoc-wreaking weather across the world. Then, X-men, where misfits troubled others because they were different, could do things differently and threatened existing power structures.
“There was a sprinkling of weird dust if you’d been at Channel One”, said BAFTA award winner Dimitri Doganis behind one of the last decade’s most seminal stories The Imposter. “People were both suspicious of you’, he added, “and thought you could do something that no one, or very few people could and thought you had this mastery of the dark arts of television”.
Channel One was this gathering of the X-Men and Women setting out to do things differently — break traditional TV and video journalism. Like the Marvel franchise, Dimitri typified the group’s make up who were from an array of backgrounds, different hues, religions and genders.
But there was one thing they, a bunch of twenty somethings, all had in common. Chosen from 3000 applicants across the breadth of the UK, they were radical, young, believed journalism was broken, and had strong convictions to do things differently. “The feeling of the interview to get in”, says Patricia Adudu, now a media star in Birmingham “was they didn’t want people who fitted into a box”.
They were being given the reigns too, backed by an established newspaper group, one of Fleet Street’s finest editors Sir David English, a management and editorial team that included ITN’s wunder editor Nick Pollard, £50 million, and a man Micheal Rosenblum who had a master plan.
That master plan included, incredibly, allowing journalists to film and edit their own stories, coupled with a filming formula to boot. That was twenty six years ago, an eternity in this media age, when a journalist merely operating a camera could cause a union walk out, so why is this worth the column inches now? Three factors.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are now seeing the beginnings of another stage of ̶h̶u̶m̶a̶n̶ ̶e̶v̶o̶l̶u̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ political discourse and disinformation. Current politics has exposed general TV journalism’s achilles. The rise of the social media platform TikTok feeds a new cinematic content style. And, a find in my garage yesterday may yield knowledge for academics of the past.
To get Channel One, this illustration may help.
Imagine peering into a universe of story forms. Inside is a box called TV News from which emerged various networks who agreed on codified conventions. Their styles and beliefs in story telling were crafted in the 50s and 60s. The purple stream emerging from outside of the box in the 1990s was Channel One TV.
It was coming at journalism outside of the box and wasn’t considered a member of the news family because of what they did. Channel One literally exemplified the idea if you want to reform news, you literally would have to think outside the box.
These 30 X-men and Women chosen from 3000 people operated outside of the conventions of normative news, so much so, that like the X-Men they were generally treated as pariahs.
Some professionals picked fights with them for trying to destroy the industry. “Yeah, a sound man from ITN pulled my feed during a press conference” remembers Tim Woolgar who is today the founder and reigning UK boxing-chess champion. “We squared up outside”, he says. Industry animosity to them meant generally they were all but unemployable if they left Channel One on their resumes when applying for new jobs.
Why and what did they do?
Many hadn’t been schooled in news making and were being trained in videojournalism. The trainer Michael Rosenblum noted anyone he interviewed for a job at Channel One with a BBC news background, ‘They were out immediately. We didn’t want them”.
There’s a saying, “If you want to know the temperature of water, don’t ask a fish”. If you want to radically change news, the answer is unlikely to come from a dye-in-wool news executive. As the history of innovation has shown throughout the years exaptation usually comes from outside the traditional community. You only need to study the history of art, design and tech to illustrate this.
I was one of the 30 who hid this part of my background for years. Comments like MickyMouse TV, or “that rubbish”, weren’t uncommon from industry.
After a rewarding time at Channel One TV, I left and joined one of the UK’s leading networks Channel 4 News as a videojournalist and producer working alongside the inimitable Jon Snow. I also worked as a creative director for one of the London’s most respected Commercial TV directors Jon Staton. Jon had been the TV producer for the famous ad agency Saatchi and Saatchi during a golden period of its history.
It’s telling that Jon and I should have had a meeting of minds. Some years later, after turning to academia, I would track down those at Channel One. They included Marcel Theroux, now an author and accomplished documentary maker, also brother of Louis Theroux. Julia Caesar became a BBC business presenter and now makes documentaries. At Channel One she would eventually earn the respect of camera operators with her trade mark bright red jacket because also she had the nous to catch celebs. She became so well known that actor Tom Cruise would remember her on his visits to the UK.
Dimitri Doganis’ more recent venture was an artistic blurred expose of Cinema, journalism and documentary, American Animals. It’s the story of four US college students planning a heist and is a true story. Remarkably, the story includes the real characters discussing scenes.
In a wide ranging PhD study, it became clear that a sizeable number of Channel One videojournalists were using cinema to reframe journalism. I was amongst them. “We were taught this efficient creative way to make films” says Dimitri, “but I also came at in with my love for Cinéma vérité or documentary”. “It allowed us to achieve art” says Steve Punter, who became head of Channel One’s political unit.
But it was also that they news was local. They coined the phrase: news you can use. This local attribute gave communities currency that they mattered. It wasn’t uncommon to be walking down the road to be shouted at: “Channel One!”
Those findings would spawn a new, little unheard of, practise called Cinema Journalism which only now is attracting industry attention. It built on the work of a 1960s icon Robert Drew, behind Direct cinema who contributed to the study. Amazingly, much later some of the key industry figures of the 1990s would confess that Channel One was way ahead of its time.
Jon Staton, who passed away three years ago, would have been intrigued by this cross-over mixing cinema styles used in commercials with journalism. It’s what tacitly brought us together in the first place.
Interestingly, you’ll find very little academic papers (if any) on Channel One TV, which is highly significant. There’s never been a considered ethnographic (field) study to show how and what they did.
It’s as if there was a stock market crash and no one noticed. It’s simple really. Academics tend to study communities from which they interview members and build knowledge. In effect you can reinforce TV News thinking by ethnographic studies on those you deem to be practising proper journalism.
A number of journalists did write about the movement, but that generally academics didn’t represented a lost opportunity to map a future of innovation.
We’re practising more or less the same journalism as the 1950s says a former senior BBC executive Pat Loughrey, “and that can’t be the answer”.
Its importance now is underscored by platforms that actively architect styles that are artistic and cinematic, such as TikTok, which specialises in cinematic moments, or beats.
This week a find in a garage after twenty six years unveiled rare batch recordings of Channel One TV which could revive interest in what the group were trying all those years back. Cinema is cultural and era defined, so the way in which the videos should be observed is in their context of the mid 90s.
All of which reinforces the idea of the X-Men, which I enjoyably re-watched.
Again, why is this all relevant? You could ignore the missed innovation of the past and what it could mean today, but you can’t ignore how ineffective generally TV journalism is proving again a new world order.
In that order politics has destroyed any rules with propaganda and disinformation by gaming journalism. It’s learnt to exploit the gaps framed by traditional journalism’s constructed conventions. Ladies and gentlemen, we are now seeing the beginnings of another stage of ̶h̶u̶m̶a̶n̶ ̶e̶v̶o̶l̶u̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ political disorder. Is there a solution? If there is it lives outside of the current box of Television news. If there is it’s not solely tech-driven with smaller cameras, but resides in the camera of the mind.
The simple way to look at this, I told a TV streaming summit in Denmark in March was what if Netflix did news, but not as you know it? And why is it that younger audiences would rather watch a cinematic remake of a news event, rather than the news itself — a question a student asked me. What then if you could locate the next generation of X-Men and Women? Would news execs make the same mistake as the past? The X-Men film series can be watched on Disney+ They at least have the answer.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a filmmaker and leading writer on @Medium in journalism. He has contributed to the British Library’s forthcoming exhibition book on the history of news, and is co-founder of a new journal Representology with Birmingham University. He lectures in innovation and international reporting at Cardiff University. Email him here gyimahd@Cardiff.ac.uk