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Channel 4

Volume 458: debated on Thursday 15 March 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Roy.]

I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss the subject of Channel 4 and public service broadcasting. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), is in the Chamber for this debate, but sorry that I have had to take him from pressing duties elsewhere, at the launch of the new digital service.

The debate offers the House its first formal opportunity for a full and frank discussion about the offensive and—in my opinion and that of many others—racist material broadcast on Channel 4 two months ago. In January, Channel 4 began broadcasting the latest and fourth series of “Celebrity Big Brother”. The channel’s 24-hour, seven-day-a-week coverage of celebrities isolated in a house in Hertfordshire attracted millions of viewers who had tuned in to see a narrative of human interaction. However, that series revealed a much uglier side to so-called reality television. It began with bullying, derogatory cultural references and blatant racist behaviour against the Bollywood actor Shilpa Shetty from Jade Goody, Danielle Lloyd and Jo O’Meara—a trio of young female celebrities. Two of them have since apologised for their behaviour.

It is not necessary or productive to provide a full list of the incidents of abuse that took place inside the “Big Brother” house, but to have an understanding of the situation we should remember that over successive days and weeks Ms Shetty was called “Shilpa Poppadum”, asked whether she lived in a “house or a shack”, told to “go back to the slums” and repeatedly referred to as “the Indian”. Those were the bits that were broadcast, although for the many hours of footage that were shown many more hours were not aired. One wonders how much of it was in a similar vein.

Given the 24-hour nature of the programme and its wall-to-wall coverage, it is not surprising that the public’s reaction was so intense. The programme holds the record as most complained about in British television history. More than 40,000 complaints were received by the authorities. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, Ministers and 91 Members of the House made it clear that they felt that the programme was doing a disservice to the multicultural society we have achieved today and was providing a major platform to the minority with such prejudiced sentiments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport spoke for many when she said in a personal capacity that “Celebrity Big Brother” was nothing more than “racism masquerading as entertainment”—one of the most powerful and commendable statements made by anyone on this subject.

Of course, offence was caused not only to the British Asian community, but to our friends and allies in the sub-continent. Fortunately, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was leading a delegation to India at the time and could properly and immediately represent the rejection of the racism shown on “Big Brother”. Otherwise, I fear that even greater damage would have been done to our standing abroad.

It is of credit to Britain that this series of “Big Brother” resulted in a final victory for Ms Shetty, who won herself many admirers when she became the first ever ethnic minority winner. The Minister himself spoke for millions when in the Chamber on 29 January he congratulated Ms Shetty on her victory after what he described as a “ghastly few weeks” on the programme.

Throughout this sorry state of affairs, Shilpa Shetty carried herself with dignity, calm and grace—a real ambassador for Asian women the world over. The millions who voted for her also deserve congratulations on their rejection of those who sought to demean and humiliate her. We should rightly pride ourselves on the steps that our country has taken in recent years to change our national culture into one that accepts differences and respects diversity.

The loser from the whole incident was the broadcaster Channel 4. Through ignorance or wilful neglect, it allowed these broadcasts to continue through to a very bitter end and then sought to justify that on the basis that its viewers had chosen Ms Shetty as the winner even though Channel 4 had no role in or influence on the final result. In so doing, it lost the support of its viewers and it lost a multi-million sponsorship from Carphone Warehouse and the advertising revenue of PepsiCo as those companies took the right decision to stop supporting it. It also lost the revenue from its premium rate phone lines as it was forced into donating the money to charity. Finally, it lost the trust of the nation, which had looked to Channel 4 as a responsible public service broadcaster and as a real champion of ethnic minority broadcasting—hence this debate.

The initial response of Channel 4 during the peak of public outrage was most disappointing, as it distanced itself from the outrage felt by many. On 18 January, Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson went on the “Today” programme and provided Mr. Jim Naughtie with a succession of “no comments”. As the interviewer aptly pointed out, it was a great irony on that day that it appeared that the only person in the country with nothing to say on this major news story was the chairman of the broadcaster responsible for it.

By lunchtime, when it was apparent that such stonewalling would not do, its chief executive, a tie-less Andy Duncan, appeared before the world’s press in Oxford. His statement offered the opinion that what constituted racism was a “complex” area. It appears sadly from a successful career at Unilever that Mr. Duncan, the man who promoted the catchphrase “I can’t believe it’s not butter” also could not believe that it was racism. Mr. Duncan went on to say that it was “unquestionably a good thing” that the programme

“raised these issues and provoked such a debate”.

Others believe that the role of “Big Brother” has a less grand purpose than creating a national debate on major issues. In fact, it was the very same Mr. Duncan who reportedly said 20 months before that “Big Brother” made no claim to provide “social or moral education” but was just a very important entertainment programme for Channel 4. Rory Bremner could have turned up on 18 January and would have done much better.

It is perhaps not surprising that Channel 4 was so unprepared for the reaction. Remarkably for a major public institution, it is run by an all-white management board. Despite the channel’s professed commitment to providing a service to all minorities, there is no way that any member of the board could have understood from personal experience what racial discrimination felt like. Perhaps that is why they found the issue so complex.

Overall, the response of Channel 4 was pathetic, ineffective and derisory. I met Mr. Duncan last week at my request. It was clear that he felt that his response and the general response of Channel 4 was in retrospect unsatisfactory. Mistakes were made, he said. He assured me that Channel 4’s internal investigation would address the areas where improvements could, and I suggest should, be forthcoming. It is a sad fact that during the events of January the channel, which was originally set up with the express intention of catering for minority interests, responded so poorly. It has damaged its own hard-won reputation in the eyes of many who previously looked to it to represent their experiences. What pride it took last year when it chose to front its alternative Queen’s speech with a woman in a niqab. Was that pride before the fall?

I hope that, at the conclusion of the investigation, Channel 4 will take a belated opportunity fully to condemn racism in all forms and fully to apologise to all offended, especially Ms Shetty. The regulator’s inquiry is important—not least for the precedent that it will set in a digital age. “Big Brother” is a unique show and I have concerns about the regulatory framework, which does not have the capacity to cope with reality television programmes of this kind. Unlike a normal programme, which lasts a few hours or less, the 24/7 nature of reality programmes results in masses of footage, filmed by several cameras. In the case of “Big Brother”, there would have been hundreds of hours of footage. Unfortunately, the complaints are not being assessed individually by the regulator. It has been pretty slow in responding to my requests for a meeting, although, oddly enough, it has agreed to meet me next week. The Minister will understand that, as channels proliferate on the digital spectrum, there is no effective mechanism that provides an efficient and effective oversight of the increasing number of reality shows that are broadcast over weeks or months.

It has been reported that, in an age of strong digital competition, the future of Channel 4 is uncertain. Its chief executive has projected a £100 million shortfall for the channel once digital switchover is complete. It is clear that that is expected to be made up in the form of a direct Government subsidy. The sum of £100 million would be only slightly more than the channel receives from the “Big Brother” franchise, which accounts for between 7 and 10 per cent. of its £800 million budget. It is clear that the management at 124 Horseferry road are attempting to avoid having to make a choice. They are trying to square the circle of broadcasting high-profit television franchises while demanding a subsidy on the basis that they are a public service broadcaster serving the public interest. It would have happened eventually, but “Big Brother” has shown that that will not be possible.

Many have misunderstood the debate as being one about editorial censorship. I must clarify that. This is a debate about how a channel that causes massive offence to the public in pursuit of advertising revenue can claim to be serving the public interest and deserving of public subsidy. Channel 4 now faces a clear choice between maintaining its distinctive and original identity and becoming just another outlet for shock television.

I hope that the Minister will join me and clearly state that, as far as he is concerned, racism is not a complex area involving subjective opinions. He has been involved in the great steps taken by the Government to promote the equality agenda and to encourage public institutions to modernise their attitudes. I call on him to ensure that all broadcasters can properly represent today’s Britain. Perhaps he can even get Channel 4 to apologise.

I also ask the Minister to use his good offices so that the public can be assured that all the money raised by premium-rate phone lines and later pledged to charity is accounted for. Many members of the public pursued their involvement in voting for Shilpa Shetty only on the basis that Channel 4 would not directly profit from their votes. In the light of recent scandals affecting other game shows and TV competitions, of which the Minister is very aware, there are questions about how much the concerned charities should expect to receive from Channel 4 and by what deadline, and who will monitor the money earned for the charity and the processing of that amount. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify that position.

Is the Minister satisfied that the powers of the regulator are strong enough to deal with reality television formats? Can he offer the House any assurance about how far a reality-series television station could go before Ofcom could intervene with force?

The issue of accountability is at the heart of this. Mr. Duncan explained the system of accountability in Channel 4. The chairman and non-executive members appear to be appointed by the regulator. Ofcom will be expected to regulate the broadcaster under the management of its chosen appointees. At the same time, the chief executive of Channel 4 is selected by the board of Ofcom-appointed non-executive directors. One can imagine that once the board selects Channel 4’s chief executive, it will be loth to admit collective responsibility for selecting an individual who is not up to the job. Will the Minister clarify that point about accountability?

If this case were simple, one would obviously have expected a ministerial response, but it is complicated, and Ministers cannot intervene because they have appointed a regulator to do so. However, the Minister must accept that there is a duty in such a situation for the regulator to be able to intervene and, quite frankly, press the off button. What assurances can the Minister provide the House that his Department will consider again whether the powers of the regulator are effective enough when it comes to such broadcasts?

What are the Minister’s thoughts about where the future of Channel 4 lies? We await the publication of two reports on that subject. If either investigation reveals that Channel 4, either by act or omission, was in any way responsible for the broadcasting of racist material and failed to act appropriately, will the Minister join me in expecting either the chairman or the chief executive—or both—to offer their immediate resignation?

The past 10 years have seen a radical time of change and the adaptation of different approaches for those in the media. That will continue in forthcoming decades. The House is familiar with the continuous debate that we have on the role, responsibilities, functions and financing of the BBC. I hope that the Minister will use this opportunity at the Dispatch Box to begin a new national debate on the future of Channel 4.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) on securing the debate. I certainly join him unequivocally in condemning all racism, wherever and whenever it takes place. We rightly should be totally intolerant of racism in this country. Why anyone would want to put themselves up for “Celebrity Big Brother” is somewhat beyond me, and I say that as a former editor of “That’s Life!”, which was a programme that understood the values of entertainment.

The truth is that however awful hon. Members might find this form of programming, the public could watch our own “Celebrity Big Brother” in this Chamber every day, yet, remarkably, few choose to do so. I do not know what our viewing figures are right now, but I suspect that they are in single figures, with hon. Members’ relatives probably being the major players. However, “Big Brother” and its derivatives attract huge audiences and it is clear that the public enjoy them. Equally, “Celebrity Big Brother” enjoyed huge audiences.

I want to put on record, as I am sure that all hon. Members will continue to do, our admiration for Shilpa Shetty. She is a woman who, even if we did not know her as a celebrity before, in the course of enduring those weeks in the house earned huge respect from many people throughout the country, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Her resilience and dignity during what I have referred to as “ghastly” weeks, as my right hon. Friend said, were as remarkable as the apparent bullying and racism were distasteful, grotesque and highly offensive.

My right hon. Friend has a proud track record of ensuring and fighting for equality in this country. As I have already said, I share his feelings about the need to root out racism. However, when it comes to sharing some of his conclusions, I urge caution. I absolutely understand, as he does, why so many people found the programme so distasteful. It led to Ofcom receiving a record 45,000 complaints.

The Government’s position on racism is unequivocal: we find it totally unacceptable. We have legislated to that effect, and Government policy reflects our view. We introduced a specific offence of racially aggravated harassment. In addition, under the Public Order Act 1986, there is an offence of using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent or likelihood of stirring up racial hatred. That offence covers inflammatory comments made in public or in the media, as well as the distribution of printed material. “Celebrity Big Brother” was unquestionably highly offensive, but the question is not whether it was offensive, but whether an offence was committed. I understand that Hertfordshire police have announced that no criminal charges will be brought in connection with “Celebrity Big Brother”, and the Crown Prosecution Service has stated that what occurred was clearly offensive, but not criminal.

On editorial content, and on “Celebrity Big Brother” specifically, responsibility for what is broadcast on television and radio rests with the broadcasters and the organisations that regulate broadcasting, which in Channel 4’s case is Ofcom. Ofcom is, of course, independent of Government. We believe that that is right, and that it should remain independent. It is a fundamental principle that the Government do not and should not intervene in matters of editorial or programme content, particularly when an investigation is in progress. We believe that it is right to let the regulator continue to conduct the inquiry.

Ofcom has been charged with the task of setting and assessing standards for the content of television and radio broadcasting. Its standards code, drawn up under the Communications Act 2003, aims to ensure that generally accepted standards are applied to the content of television and radio services. Its function is to provide the public with adequate protection from the inclusion in such services of harmful and/or offensive material. Of course, the legitimate question in this case is whether the public have been adequately protected. That is why Ofcom’s inquiry is so important. Parliament has charged Ofcom directly with establishing procedures to handle and resolve complaints, so it seems premature to prejudge the inquiry’s outcome, and the procedures by which it will achieve that outcome, while the inquiry is being conducted. After all, its procedures are not a reality TV show, and while we await the outcome, we should be careful about carrying out our own voting on those procedures.

My right hon. Friend raises the question of whether the regulator should have hit the “off” button. It has been suggested that a fundamental design fault must exist, as the big button was not hit when “Celebrity Big Brother” was on air. I suggest that we pause to make sure that what we are asking for is really what we want. We should ask whether the request truly falls in with the responsibility that Members have chosen to give Ofcom, and indeed whether it runs against the principle of providing a fair hearing, which should extend to Channel 4. Ofcom can, if appropriate, take action against a licensee while a series is on air. However, in line with the right to a fair trial and the provisions of the 2003 Act, it must give licensees an opportunity to make representations before any decision is reached on whether material is in breach of the standards code.

There were undoubtedly tens of thousands of complaints, and clearly many people were offended, but the number of complaints about a programme is not, and should not, be a factor to be weighed in a set of scales. The fact that there has been a large number of complaints should not, prima facie, prove that a programme was guilty. We need an inquiry to be conducted.

The question was raised of whether each complaint should have been investigated. The chief executive of Ofcom wrote to my right hon. Friend on 26 February, and a copy of the letter has been placed in the Library. It explained that Ofcom decided not to reply to individual complaints, not because of the high volume of complaints, but because the regulator wanted to pursue a full investigation into them. Having said that, I do not think that Channel 4 or its chief executive, Andy Duncan, are complacent or remotely insensitive to what happened. At no point did Channel 4 condone what was happening, and I know that Andy Duncan has extremely strong views—as strong as those of my right hon. Friend and myself—about racism and the need to root it out from our society.

Yes, but my right hon. Friend should remember that I have only five minutes left to answer all his questions.

Briefly, has the regulator asked the Department for any additional resources to deal with the issue?

As far as I am aware, the regulator has not asked us for additional resources, but I do not believe that that will be a problem. If it is, I invite the regulator to tell us. We cannot allow a lack of resources to prevent us from dealing with the issue, but I genuinely do not believe that that is the case. If it is, however, we would want to help.

In evidence heard by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport in March 2007, Mr. Duncan acknowledged that there were lessons to be learned from the episode by Channel 4. Channel 4 has indicated that its own internal review of “Celebrity Big Brother” will include an examination of the channel’s complaint handling, response times and communications. I share my right hon. Friend’s interest in the review’s conclusions, but I truly believe—and I honestly believe that this is part of the principle of natural justice—that it is only right that we should allow the channel to conduct that inquiry before we condemn it.

I therefore urge caution before we turn our attack on Channel 4. I put on record my belief that Channel 4 is an exemplary public broadcasting channel. In its work on equality issues, for example, it tackled gay issues head-on at a time when other programmes and channels found them a difficult area to tackle. In religion, its high-quality programming has looked at different religions and cultures at a time in the past few years when some found that too difficult to handle. “What Muslims Want” was a major study in multiculturalism. “Undercover Mosque” aired during the “Celebrity Big Brother” run, and it looked at the impact of hate-style preaching in this country. My right hon. Friend will accept that to caricature Channel 4 as a channel that deliberately chose to offer only shock television is a little unfair. Channel 4 has done a great deal to further understanding and tolerance in this country, and I believe that its chief executive believes firmly in that.

That does not mean that the result of the review by Channel 4 and of Ofcom’s work will stop the House from wanting to debate the subject again. However, I urge my right hon. Friend to be cautious lest he hastily decide that Channel 4’s chief executive is not up to the job or, indeed, that he has led the channel into the kind of broadcasting that does not reflect its inception in any shape or form. The review is extremely important, as, indeed, is Ofcom’s investigation into “Celebrity Big Brother”. The Government believe that Channel 4 has a role to play alongside the BBC, both now and in future, in the provision of public service broadcasting. It has a distinctive public service remit, a great tradition of innovative, quality programme making, as well as a wide remit to appeal to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society.

Channel 4 has made an important contribution to broadcasting in the United Kingdom in the past 25 years, and I am confident that it will continue to do so under its existing leadership in future. It is worth reminding ourselves that only last year, a cultural diversity network survey confirmed “Channel 4 News” as the news service that Britain’s ethnic minorities thought covered their issues best. That news service, of course, is broadcast under the present Channel 4 leadership.

Although the debate has focused on allegations of racism and how they were handled, it also offers an insight into how bullying operates in our society. As a former deputy chairman of ChildLine, I saw the harm that bullying can do. It rears its revolting head by using the vehicles of racism, homophobia, religion and many others. In my own household we found that the “Celebrity Big Brother” to which my right hon. Friend referred indeed provoked a discussion about racism, and also about bullying.

The good thing is that so many people in this country complained about the programme. That demonstrates progress. I doubt that there would have been so many complaints a decade ago. We look to our broadcasters to ensure that such behaviour is not exploited as entertainment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, albeit in a private capacity, described the programme at the time as “racism masquerading as entertainment”, and I think that many in the House knew exactly what she meant.

The programme was a reality TV show, but because it allowed us to see through the window we, the public, were educated about some of the attitudes of some people in our country, and we were all ashamed of what we saw. So now we look to the broadcaster for its review to ensure that such television does not become an entertainment practice by prosecuting values which most of us hoped had long since gone. Ofcom undoubtedly has a role to play in that, and we look to its inquiry to see how we can improve the handling of complaints about such programmes.

We should all look carefully at the lessons to be drawn. We should be cautious about expressing our own anger and focusing it, perhaps, on the leadership of Channel 4. The programme may have reflected something deeply distasteful, although regrettably not everybody finds it distasteful. The problem with bullying is that it can find any vehicle. Sometimes it is racism, sometimes it is homophobia, sometimes it is focused on women, sometimes it is focused on someone’s size, but bullying is a part of our society and all of us have a duty to tackle it. I hope that that is a subject to which Channel 4 will direct its attention in the months to come.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the debate, which has raised some important issues. I promise him that I will meet him and discuss with him the outcome of the reviews, both by Channel 4 and by Ofcom. I commend him for having brought the debate to the House tonight. If in future he or other hon. Members want to raise the subject, I will be more than happy to discuss it.

The motion having been made after Six o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-three minutes to Seven o'clock.