British News Documentary

World in Action, Britain's long-running and most illustrious current affairs programme, goes out in prime-time on ITV (the main commercial channel) and is produced by Granada Television, a company with a reputation for innovation and "quality" programming. First launched in 1963, with Tim Hewat, an ex-Daily Express reporter, as its editor, World in Action was the first weekly current affairs programme in Britain to pioneer pictorial journalism on film and to risk taking an independent editorial stance. In comparison with Panorama, the BBC's rival current-affairs programme, which was studio-based and featured several items, World in Action was, in the words of Gus Mcdonald, "born brash." It devoted each half-hour episode to a single issue and, abandoning the studio and presenter, put the story itself up-front. The lightweight film equipment gave the production team the mobility to follow up the stories at first hand and to bring raw images of the world into the living room. A conspicuous and influential style evolved with interviewees framed in close-up talking directly to camera, cross-cut with fast-edited observation of relevant action and environmental detail. The hard-hitting approach compelled attention and made complex social issues accessible to a mass audience for the first time.

Having firmly established the idea of picture journalism on TV, World in Action consolidated it position in 1967 under David Plowright when an investigative bureau was set up, and it is on the quality of its investigative journalism that the programme's reputation chiefly rests. Award-winning episodes have included "The Demonstration" (1968), observing the mass protest outside the U.S. embassy against the bombing of North Vietnam; "Nuts and Bolts of the Economy" (1976), a series exploring different aspects of the world economy; and an investigation into "The Life and Death of Steve Biko"(1978). The programme has been equally wide-ranging with domestic topics, covering stories such as the exposure of police corruption in "Scotland Yard's Cocaine Connection" (1985), revealing the British Royal Family's tax loop-hole (1991), and investigating the dangers of different types of contraceptive pill (1995). Over the years the programme has fearlessly and impartially pursued the truth, exposing injustice and falsehood, and frequently running at odds with the powers that be. In this respect the programme's long-standing, but eventually successful, fight to secure the release of the six men wrongfully convicted for the IRA pub bombing in Birmingham provides the outstanding example.

World in Action: The Man Who Wouldn't Keep Quiet
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

World in Action stands as one of the finest achievements of public service television in Britain--of programming driven by the desire to inform and educate viewers as much as to entertain them. In the course of its long run it has provided the training round for some of the most distinguished names in British broadcasting, as well as pioneering innovative programme approaches such as under-cover and surveillance work, and drama documentary. How it will continue to fare in the more competitive broadcast market following deregulation remains to be seen. However, it is possible that to maintain its prime time slot the emphasis will shift away from costly long-term investigations and international stories to focus on populist health and consumer issues which can be guaranteed to deliver large audiences.

- Judith Jones and Bob Millington




Corner, John. The Art of Record. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.

Granada: the First Twenty-Five Years. London: British Film Instiutute, 1988.


See also British Programming