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Dispatches (1987-)

Courtesy of Channel Four Television

Main image of Dispatches (1987-)
Channel 4, tx. 30/10/1987-present
Over 500 editions of typically 30-60 mins, colour
SponsorChannel 4

Weekly current affairs documentary strand.

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In creating Dispatches soon after being appointed commissioning editor for current affairs at Channel 4 in 1987, former BBC producer/programme editor David Lloyd rejuvenated the television current affairs form. Until that time, the TV current affairs models had been BBC's Panorama (1953-) and ITV's This Week (1956-78; 1986-92), both reliable and dependable flagships of investigative journalism with their in-house programme teams of journalists and intrepid film crews. However, the immediacy of the television news magazines (News at Ten, Nine O'Clock News) had made such traditional weekly documentary programmes seem uncomfortably out of date with events.

By constructing Dispatches entirely from one-off commissions, and thereby allowing more flexibility, a greater diversity of approach and a more rapid response to the topics of the moment, Lloyd returned originality and freshness to the TV current affairs documentary. The programme soon distinguished itself as a formidable window on world affairs through its mixture of investigative documentaries that offered new, unknown information or a completely new story; original presentations of topics that had already been in the news; and different ways of presenting material, such as dramatisations, or the use of a small aspect of a problem to illustrate the larger issue. In essence, Dispatches was about giving people information that somebody, somewhere would rather they didn't know.

Investigations that merit special mention from the strand over the years include award-winning programmes such as the examination of how flaws in the legal system let rapists off ('Getting Away With Rape', tx. 16/2/1994), how electrical equipment used for torturing people was sold by British companies to regimes around the world ('The Torture Trail', tx. 11/1/1995) and, in 'Murder in St. James's' (tx. 10/4/1996), a particularly disturbing documentary suggesting that the shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher during the Libyan embassy siege in 1984 could have been a cynical murder, involving a second gunman, in order to bring the British into line as part of the U.S. campaign against Libya.

More recently, in 2001, journalist Saira Shah made 'Beneath the Veil' (tx. 26/6/2001), a multi-award-winning documentary for which she went undercover in Afghanistan to expose the Taliban's gross maltreatment of women. Five years later, journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy returned to the occupied country to see if life for women was any different than it had been under the Taliban regime in 'Afghanistan Unveiled' (tx.17/5/2007). She concluded that the liberation of Afghan women was mostly theoretical.

Tise Vahimagi

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