Chris Shaw’s Exit Interview: ITN Editorial Director On Harry & Meghan’s Press Relations, Ice Sculptures & The “Laissez-Faire” Regulation Of GB News

EXCLUSIVE: Chris Shaw has left the building. The Oscar-nominated British news executive is calling it quits after an on-off love affair with news producer ITN that has spanned 40 years, affording him a front-row seat to the biggest stories of his generation. Semi-retirement beckons, but not before a valedictory interview.

So is this Shaw unleashed? Has he, as Andrew Marr memorably put it when he left the BBC, found his voice after being constrained by ITN’s duty to impartiality? Not quite. It will take more than a jolly phone interview to break the habit of a career. But there is little doubt that he is looser-lipped on his final day at the office — and that’s good news because few are better placed than Shaw to reflect on the state of news in the UK.

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His decorated résumé includes helping Rupert Murdoch launch Sky News in 1989 and, nearly a decade later, performing a similar trick for Channel 5, now owned by Paramount. He has clutched BAFTA and Emmy gongs for films including PBS Frontline’s Children of Syria, while the documentary short Watani: My Homeland earned him an Oscar nomination. Shaw also boasts a couple of big royal scoops: Harry & Meghan: An African Journey opened the floodgates to the Sussex saga and The Queen’s Green Planet can lay claim to one of Queen Elizabeth II’s only major interviews.

We start with the final five years of his career, which have given him a unique vantage over the tumultuous fallout from Brexit, war in Ukraine, and a global pandemic. During this time he has served as ITN’s Editorial Director, standing atop a “Himalayan range” casting an eye over its news supply to the UK’s three biggest commercial public broadcasters: ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5.

Shaw has felt the ground shifting beneath his feet as ITN’s traditional, trusted reporting is being disrupted by what he describes as “loud voices” in the room. He’s referring to Murdoch’s Talk TV, spearheaded by the never knowingly reserved Piers Morgan; and GB News, the right-wing, conspiracy theory-indulging channel once backed by Warner Bros. Discovery.

“Broadcast news is slap bang middle of what’s loosely called the culture wars,” Shaw says. “People want to be more trenchant, emphatic, and opinionated because that’s the thing that draws attention and it puts regulated journalists under some kind of pressure.”

Talk TV and GB News have embraced Fox News-style presenter monologues and both have turned to serving politicians to front primetime shows. Nadine Dorries, the former Culture Secretary, has her own Friday night platform on Talk TV, while Jacob Rees-Mogg is another senior Conservative imparting his worldview on a nightly basis for GB News. It’s hard to imagine either being booked to host ITN output.

Ofcom’s “Laissez-Faire” News Regulation

Shaw thinks Ofcom, the UK media regulator, is policing new broadcasters with a more “laissez-faire” approach, though the regulator did appear to draw a line in the sand this week. It launched an impartiality investigation into GB News for allowing two Tory MPs, Esther McVey and Philip Davies, to interview Chancellor Jeremy Hunt about the Budget. Similar interviews, including Dorries’ sit-down with her former boss Boris Johnson, have escaped scrutiny because they offered “alternative viewpoints.”

Shaw says ITN’s 50-year pedigree in TV news means it is bound by a more traditional approach to impartiality, but that doesn’t mean it is inflexible. ITV News has adapted its bulletins to embrace a more direct vernacular, while Shaw points to the arrival of former BBC presenter Dan Walker on Channel 5 News. “He’s got a fantastic way of communicating complicated stories with an everyman tone,” he says.

Shaw does worry, however, that ITN’s broadcasting clients could get drowned out by the noise. “If it got to a situation where a rival news channel started eating away significantly at audiences, or you have a scenario like in the U.S. where Fox is a market leader, then that puts huge amounts of pressure on the legacy broadcasters to follow suit, doesn’t it?”

It is something of a paradox that, at a time when upstart news services are pushing the boundaries of freedom of expression, impartiality has rarely been so important to the likes of the BBC and Channel 4 News. The BBC had an existential crisis over the watchword just last month when Gary Lineker tweeted his disapproval of government asylum policy. Shaw’s former boss, former ITN CEO John Hardie, has been drafted in to review the broadcaster’s social media policy.

It’s a “thorny” job, says Shaw, who doesn’t subscribe to the idea that impartiality can be codified into rigid social media rules. “Language changes, people’s sensitivity changes, the context changes,” he says, audibly wincing at the task ahead of Hardie. Shaw was partly responsible for drawing up ITN’s own social media rules, but says the company has preferred to make judgments on a case-by-case basis. Journalists have left for transgressions, most notably former ITV News presenter Alastair Stewart in 2020. Ironically, Stewart ended up at GB News before his own retirement last week.

Channel 4’s “Ugly” Relationship With Boris Johnson

Channel 4 News is often accused of having a liberal bias by detractors on the right, but has never been found in breach of Ofcom’s impartiality rules, despite clashes with the government. Shaw admits the Krishnan Guru-Murthy-fronted news service had a “very touchy relationship” with Downing Street when Johnson was at the height of his powers.

Asked if the former Prime Minister’s top advisor Dominic Cummings threatened to privatize Channel 4 unless its news operation fell in line, Shaw says: “There was lots of tittle-tattle of that nature around the place and dark stories of this, that, and the other. Everyone was dishing it out around the time of that [2019] election and it got pretty fractious… I don’t think Channel Four News did anything wrong in that period, but things got pretty ugly.”

Never was this more true than when Channel 4 News replaced Johnson with an ice sculpture after he declined to participate in a debate about the climate emergency in November 2019. The government threatened to review Channel 4’s broadcasting license. Shaw, who was in the building when the televised debate turned frosty, reflects on it with a certain amount of fondness.

“The ice sculpture became emblematic of a poke-in-the-eye culture at Channel 4 News regarding the government. It was a bit of fun, it was an absolutely harmless piece of fun. And it made the point that despite the public commitment to environmental initiatives, that particular government wasn’t willing to put [Johnson] up in that debate,” he says.

“The ice sculpture became shorthand for a strained relationship. Don’t you think it’s quite funny that a lump of ice became a political hot potato, if you excuse me for mixing my metaphors. Wasn’t there something faintly preposterous about all that?”

When not making mischief, Channel 4 News has had a hand in some of Shaw’s most memorable work. He points to the 2011 BAFTA-nominated film Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, which he says mobilized international opinion about the Sri Lankan civil war. Shaw is “happy” that the broadcaster will remain in public hands, saying it stands for “high-quality, progressive, adventurous filmmaking.”

Harry & Meghan In Eye Of “Appalling Storm”

His other memorable scoops found a home on ITV, not least Harry & Meghan: An African Journey, in which fissures in the royal family over Prince Harry and Meghan Markle spilled out into the open for the first time. It was the documentary in which Markle told Tom Bradby that “not many people have asked if I’m OK” amid the intense media spotlight on her marriage.

Did they know straight away that the footage was explosive? “That little conversation in South Africa seemed so outlandishly unexpected and shocking … we knew we had something pretty extraordinary,” he replies. It was the start of a years-long story, but Shaw admits that the snatched conversation Bradby had with Markle seems tame now following revelations in their Netflix series and Spare, Harry’s book.

He thinks there is an unavoidable “contradiction” in the Sussex’s desire for privacy and their willingness to share intimate details about their lives. “I feel a bit sorry for them because I think they’re in the eye of the most appalling storm and they didn’t mean to go there,” he says.

Semi-retirement will be rather more sedate than the rush of these big exclusives. Shaw has just purchased his first iPhone after being welded to a work phone for much of his career. He is planning to “dabble” in making documentaries and he admires podcasts for their ability to get people “addicted” to a narrative that can span several episodes.

Shaw might be stepping back from storytelling, but he’s not done with telling stories.

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