Alex Thomson is one of the most important and influential television journalists in the UK today. He is a regular presenter and chief correspondent for Channel 4 News and has been involved in some the most important news stories in the past decade. No stranger to controversial situations, he has reported from places like Northern Ireland during its latest troubles, Syria during its civil war, and more recently from Kelvin MacKenzie’s front door, leading to the infamous ‘doorstepping video’ that can be found on YouTube from last year.
It is with this in mind that I ring his number, panicking quietly as it connects. One Cherwell journalist to another, I keep telling myself. I’ve been lucky enough to get him on a day when he is free: not only is he frequently out of the country reporting, but when he is at home, he has two young sons, George and Henry, to look after.
After a few polite preliminaries, I open by asking him about his time at Oxford. Thomson studied at University College between 1980- 1983, the golden Thatcherian years.
“We liked to wreck things” he tells me. “ A lot of graduate recruiters at that time had links with the apartheid regime in South Africa, so we got in the way and exposed them.” It is at this point that I discover that he too wrote for Cherwell while at Oxford, where he picked up a taste for exposing foul play early on in his career.
Thomson fills me in briefly on his busy career: after graduating from Oxford, he was faced with the option of doing a postgraduate degree in journalism, or scraping along near the bottom of a local paper “making the tea and unwrapping the custard creams”. In the end, he tells me, he opted for a postgrad journalism course at Cardiff. He then briefly worked as a researcher on ‘Wales Today’, before taking up a much sought after traineeship at the BBC, then cycling around India for a year, a story which he tells in his book Ram Ram India.
Back at the BBC he worked in Northern Ireland, where he was a reporter on the current affairs prog r a m “ S p o t light”. He was involved in producing a documentary about the shooting of three unarmed people in Gibraltar by the SAS.
The Thatcher government, uneasy about this, attempted to cut some of the programme.
“I felt this was censorship,” he says, “so I retaliated by leaking that the government had tried to censor the documentary.” Simple as that. It seems his taste for exposing foul play had begun to take a front seat early on for Thomson.
“After that my position at the BBC was untenable,” Thomson reflects. “Luckily I got offered a job at Channel 4 where I have been ever since.”
We turn to his current role as chief correspondent for Channel 4 News. “At Channel 4 investigations are long-running, so things resurface, and you often get to come back to investigations and stories many years later”. In the 1990s the Northern Ireland situation resurfaced, in the form of the Saville Inquiry.
“We’d interviewed a number of sources over Bloody Sunday,” Thomson explains. “Many were anonymous sources who wanted, without any consideration of financial gain, to let the world know what had gone on.”
The Saville Inquiry asked Thomson to reveal these sources, but as he says, “to reveal sources who had put themselves at risk would have been against my integrity as a journalist, and a breach of confidence.” For a while he was threatened with contempt of court and even imprisonment, but in the end it came to nothing.
For a man who spends a lot of time in the public eye, his private life offers little relief. In 2000, Alex became a father to George and Henry. Henry is autistic, and I ask how the experience of raising an autistic child has affected him. “My wife Sarah is an investigative journalist,” he says, “so over the years she has acquired the skills to get inside systems and institutions, and if need be, fight them.”
For many years, the couple had to fight local authorities in order to obtain the care that Henry needed. It seems to have been a tough struggle for both of them: “It was a hell of a fight, but in the end we got what we wanted, and now Henry is flourishing at school.”
I bring the topic up to the present day, relishing the chance to ask the man who edits Channel 4 News what he actually think of current affairs. I am intrigued, for instance, to know what his thoughts are on the recent publication of the findings of the Leveson inquiry.
“Well, it was certainly a very interesting piece of theatre,” he muses. “Not very relevant to the realm of television j ou r n a l i s m though. The things that the News of the World was accused of were already illegal: it is illegal to hack someone’s phone, and it is illegal to pervert the course of justice, there’s no denying that.”
“But what was interesting is the revelation that successive judges, chief constables and Prime Ministers have been systematically intimidated by the tabloid press. The power of blackmail that they have is both corrupt and corrosive; those in power are in thrall to it. In my opinion Rupert Murdoch is one of the greatest threats to the institutions of this country.” This is clearly a man who understands these scandals, and whose strong views are informed by the perils of his job.
It is no surprise, then, that his view on the recommendations of the report are just as forcefully expressed: “I believe that if tabloids wish to turn over someone’s private life, then you should first go to the courts, and have to prove it is really in the public interest. If the Archbishop of Canterbury commits adultery, or it’s politician who speaks about ‘family values’ then yes it is in the public interest, but if it’s someone like a footballer who has said nothing about ‘family values’ then no, it just isn’t.” He takes this further: “It is our right not to live in a system of corporatised blackmail”.
I ask him about his ‘door-stepping’ video involving Kelvin MacKenzie. It was an incident memorable enough, to make it onto Charlie Brooker’s 2012 wipe.
Alex went to interview Kelvin MacKenzie last year at his own home, only to be ignored and eventually have a car door slammed on him. He remains pragmatic in his stance on this: “A number of things need to be said here. First, if you dish it out, you should be able to take it. Second, he has never explained why he overruled his own journalists over Hillsborough. We emailed him beforehand and went round to interview him without cameras originally, playing everything by the rules. When I came round the first time, he told me to ‘fuck off’ and then slammed the door in my face.” A horrible incident to happen to any journalist, but this seems to be a regular occurrence for Thomson, a man who in any case reported from some of the most dangerous political warzones of this decade.
But a good journalist never gives up, and following this incident, he then went round a second time, with cameras, and the events were captured on camera as visual evidence. “In my view, his behaviour was farcical and he made a public idiot of himself.”
He notes, “In the end, we got nine complaints to Ofcom. Since we did everything by the book, it wasn’t overruled, and to cap it all 1000 people liked the video on YouTube.”
Political warzones, hacking scandals and leaking news are all in a day’s work. But what about when Thomson isn’t reporting to a backdrop of Syrian gunfire? “I do enjoy swimming, particularly in the sea at Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast. I did a marathon last year, but aside from the fact I did it for charity it was a pretty daft thing to do to my body!”
Finally, I ask if I can have a photo for our interview. He replies, “It would probably be best for you to use one of me in the field, as that’s where