From Big Issue in the North magazine
It was fifty years ago this month that World in Action was first broadcast on the the Independent Television Network. It was a weekly half hour investigative series that by unveiling corruption and underhand practices attracted large audiences. It brought down government ministers, unsafe criminal convictions, dodgy businesses, civil servants and police officers. Some TV critics believe the end of the programme in 1998 was part of a general dumbing-down of British television. There seems though very little likelihood of anything similar returning to our screens over the next few years.
World in Action’s first programme, broadcast on a Monday in January 1963, was about Cold War defence spending. It began 75 minutes after its more established rival, Panorama, which on that night was a profile of the prime minister Harold Macmillan.The next day, the Daily Mirror panned the Panorama programme for praising Macmillan excessively, with too little analysis of his character. World in Action would be different - much harder hitting.
It would not get too close to politicians, would film on location and undertake rigorous research. It would not talk down to viewers and where possible tell the story through the voices of ordinary people as this was known to carry more authority with the viewing public. It was about making the programmes accessible to all - and popular culture was in its remit in way that it wasn’t for stuffier programmes.
World in Action was produced by Granada, one of the original Independent Television Authority (ITV) franchisees from 1954, which had been founded in 1956 by Sidney Bernstein and his brother Cecil, who had built up a successful southern-based circuit of 60 cinemas and theatres. They had initially opposed the establishment of commercial television but Granada, which served the North West, went on to acquire an inrternational reputation for its programming, of which World in Action was just a part.
According to Andrew Jennings, who switched in 1986 from the BBC to World in Action to ensure his blocked documentary concerning corruption in Scotland Yard was broadcast: “The Bernstein family were great to work for as despite being bosses - the capitalists - they never interfered.
They were from East London and they were Jewish, and as a result theycouldn’t get decent jobs because of discrimination. They graduated into areas where the only thing that mattered was talent.
Their background meant they combined a hard business edge with a strong public service broadcasting ethos and Sidney said: “We always considered our responsibility to the public was the first charge on the company.”
“As a result they were more than prepared to also take up issues that others claimed the public would have no interest in - one of which was apartheid in South Africa. The critics were made to eat their words when programmes drew massive audiences and undermined support for that abhorrent system.“
Jennings made a number of programmes for World in Action, including an investigation of Britain’s involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, in which senior officials in the US Government facilitated the sales of arms to Iran in order to fund the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras. Today he is best known for his exposure of corruption at football’s governing body, FIFA.
When World in Action was given a new slot after Coronation Street, audiences grew to well above those at Panorama, reaching 23 million at their peak. With the resulting advertising revenue then the high costs associated with all forms of investigative journalism could be covered and healthy profits were made.
Not all the advertisers though were happy, especially if they happened to be the subject of one of the programmes. Long serving producer, Ray Fitzwalter, who worked for Granada from 1970 till 1993, says: “It didn’t happen frequently, but when we revealed that aspirin could in some circumstances damage users’ health then there was phenomenal pressure applied to drop the programme. It took 23 months for it to get on air.”
The pressure, he says, came from the drug companies and their trade association.
Another health programme that attracted considerable publicity was the Village that Quit, made in 1971. Villagers from Longnor, Staffordshire were challenged to stop smoking and the reasons for their success or failure were studied. The programme was made after the first authoritative report on the dangers of smoking and it was one of the first reality based TV programmes that are so popular today.
Fourteen years later, Fitzwalter took a gamble when he decided to employ, and partner with two researchers, a journalist called Chris Mullin. The budding politician had been examining the case of the Birmingham Six, a group of Irishmen convicted for a series of bombs that had killed 21 people in England’s second city on November 21 1974.
Despite their protestations of innocence there were few people who believed there had been a miscarriage of justice. Fitzwalter wasn’t one of them but he was willing to develop the circumstantial evidence Mullin had assembled to see if something more substantial could be uncovered.
At stake was also the reputation of numerous policemen, lawyers and judges, one of whom Lord Denning, had famously said at the men’s appeal in 1980: “If they won, it would mean the police were guilty of perjury, violence and threats and that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted and thus erroneous. That cannot be right.”
Denning was wrong and “careful examination of the photographic evidence; the alleged confessions, the explosives evidence and the forensic testing produced new evidence,” says Fitzwalter. Also convinced was the home secretary Roy Jenkins who told World in Action there was sufficient doubt to warrant an appeal. When it was shown the programme helped start the process that eventually led to the overturning of the six men’s convictions in 1991.
“It was a proud moment for World in Action,” says Fitzwalter. “I loved working on the programme as there was always something new and original to get stuck into. Journalism is a great way of enjoying a continuing education and good journalists are by nature curious people. Britain is also a very secretive society in which civil servants and politicians have had years of practice and training in how to conceal things.”
None of which failed to prevent John Poulson being sent to jail or Conservative Home Secretary Reginald Maudling being forced to resign in the 1970s when World in Action revealed in The Friends and Influence of John L Poulson how the architectural designer had financially courted his political contacts at Parliament and in local Government in order to win building contracts.
Regulatory body the IBA banned the programme without seeing it, citing only “broadcasting policy”, prompting Granada to protest by broadcasting a blank screen. Following widespread complaints of censorship, the IBA relented and the programme finally went out.
Three months after the programme Poulson was arrested on June 22 1973 and he was convicted and jailed for corruption on February 11 1974. Maudling had obtained a directorship in one of Poulson’s companies and another employed his son. He quit his Government post in disgrace.
In 1975 Maudling became shadow foreign secretary under new leader Margaret Thatcher. The grocer’s daughter is known to have hated World in Action and said it was “just a bunch of Troskyists.” In the event, it was Thames TV who angered her the most when it broadcast Death on the Rock. This revealed that the three IRA members who had been shot by the SAS in Gibraltar in March 1988 had been gunned down in cold blood. Official sources had claimed they were armed and set to detonate a bomb.
Fitzwalter believes Thatcher had her revenge when the Conservative Government passed the 1990 Broadcasting Act, which replaced a ‘public service’ requirement on regional TV licence holders with a ‘quality threshold.’ Companies saw the chance to reduce their commitment to expensive progamming.
According to Fitzwalter: “Some programmes with high ratings continued to be made but public service elements were very vulnerable and arts and religious programmes disappeared on ITV, whereas children’s programmes were largely replaced by imported cartoons.
“Current affairs became harder to make and began to disappear or be moved to less favourable slots. Investigative documentaries were considered too expensive when you can make a programme by putting three MPs in a studio. As Paul Jackson, the programme controller at the new Carlton Television, said in reference to the Birmingham Six programmes: “We are not in the business of getting people out of jail.”
A disappointed Fitzwalter eventually left Granada in 1993.
Five years later, after World in Action incurred costs of £1.3 million and paid out libel damages of £50,000 to Marks and Spencer for falsley claiming it knew one of its suppliers was using child labour in a Moroccan factory, the programme was closed down following the departure of many of its top journalists. The final episode, number 1274, was Britain on the Booze, was shown on December 7 1998.
Award-winning British documentary filmmaker Leslie Woodhead, who left Granada in 1989 after twenty-eight years working there,says: “I regretted the passing of World in Action, and the spirit of enquiry it represented, which helped make some of our most mischievous and inventive programmes including the one I worked on about hiring mercenaries for the war in Biafra, Nigeria which involved trying to sell a submarine to arms dealers.” Woodhead’s films in recent years include The Hunt for Bin Laden and The Day Kennedy Died which will be released on the fiftieth anniversary of the president’s death next year.
Today, Fitzwalter is using his World in Action experiences as chairman of the editorial board at the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. This is best known for its work on the destructive capacity of US drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it is now recognised that the vast majority of those killed are civilians and children rather than terrorists. The Bureau has also revealed how the Help the Heroes military charity is subsidising Ministry of Defence building projects rather than spending donations on practical, everyday help for injured service personnel.
Fitzwalter does not believe there is any chance of a World in Action mark 2 appearing on our screens soon. But if it did, then what should they investigate first?
“The banking industry would draw a good audience,” he says.