To ask Her Majesty’s Government when the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will announce its conclusions on the future status of Channel 4.
My Lords, moving seamlessly from the BBC to Channel 4, I congratulate the noble Baroness on the timing of her Question. The Government want Channel 4 to have a strong and secure future. As a result, the Secretary of State has announced this afternoon that Channel 4 will remain in public ownership and that the Government will launch a consultation to look at how the channel can increase its impact in the regions outside London. This consultation will seek the broadest range of views so that we can open a new chapter of success for Channel 4 as a publicly owned public service broadcaster making a greater contribution to the country as a whole.
I thank the Minister and the Secretary of State for responding to my Question. I congratulate the Government on rejecting privatisation. As the Minister said, the Government are now launching a consultation on how Channel 4 can increase its regional impact, which we also welcome. In looking at the suggestion that the channel’s headquarters should be moved outside London, does the Minister not agree that Channel 4 is a publisher, not a programme maker, that what is important is that production takes place outside London by companies from outside London and that the expense of moving those who commission programmes would potentially take money away from what is most important: namely, the making of programmes in the regions by the regions?
My Lords, I do not accept that. We are having a consultation to look at exactly these questions. At the moment, Channel 4 is required to commission 35% of new programmes on its main channel from outside London. It spends about twice as much on programmes made in London as on those made in the rest of the UK combined—so there is something well worth consulting on there.
My Lords, we welcome very much the announcement that Channel 4 is not to be privatised. Can the Minister confirm that this matter is now resolved beyond peradventure? However, the decision to carry out a further review of Channel 4’s regional focus and, I gather, its funding models casts a long shadow. How precisely does this second review—carried out by Ministers, I understand—square with the statutory independence of the Channel 4 board, guaranteed by an Act of Parliament originally passed by a Conservative Government?
My Lords, the statutory requirements do not mention where, for example, the headquarters is. We want to make sure that Channel 4, as a public service broadcaster with the taxpayer as lender of last resort, is able to contribute around the country. At the moment, we think that there is a case to answer there. Of course, having a consultation means that we will be able to take all views, and no doubt the noble Lord will be able to contribute to it.
My Lords, I declare an interest, having just made two Channel 4 programmes. I welcome the announcement that Channel 4 will not be privatised. Are the Government looking at other options, such as the sale of a minority stake in Channel 4 to a strategic partner?
No. At the moment the Government are not looking at that. They have made their decision clear; the current ownership will stay the same. There is a prospect of looking at a potential increase in the share of any independent production company that Channel 4 can own. It is currently limited to 25%.
My Lords, would not the independence of Channel 4 have been much more guaranteed if it had been privatised?
My Lords, I do not agree with that.
Does the Minister agree that the United Kingdom has benefited enormously from publicly owned broadcasting and that this benefit is too little acknowledged in public discourse?
My Lords, I agree that public service broadcasting has benefited this country. When we see that Channel 4’s remit states that it is required to produce:
“High-quality and distinctive programming … innovation, experimentation and creativity”,
“alternative views and new perspectives”.
in order to:
“Appeal to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society”,
we can see why that is the case.
My Lords, taking the Minister back to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, does he not take the point that Channel 4’s headquarters is a publishing house—it does the commissioning, not the producing—and that to move that particular unit out of town would be very expensive and have no particular benefit to the region to which it went? The important thing, if there is gain to be made, is to concentrate on the production facilities being spread more evenly around the country and programmes being produced there.
I absolutely take that point. In terms of expense, of course, having a big headquarters in London has a value all of its own—although that is not the point. That is why we are consulting on exactly these issues.
My Lords, the Minister has already talked about the public sector broadcasting role of Channel 4, with its high-quality and distinctive output. He also mentioned diversity. Last year, in its year of the disabled, in addition to the Paralympics and “The Last Leg”, Channel 4 doubled the number of disabled people appearing on screen and ring-fenced more than 50% of its apprenticeships for young disabled people. Can the Minister assure the House that any future steps to move or relocate any of the business will not get in the way of its very important role in highlighting the role of disabled people and in ensuring that they get access to work in the media?
Of course, I completely agree with the importance of that—and when we have the consultation, it will be one of the things that can be taken into account. Channel 4, along with other public service broadcasters, has a responsibility to look at diversity and take it very seriously.
My Lords, will my noble friend agree that, in essence, the mission of Channel 4 is pretty clear: optimisation of revenue to deliver on a very clear remit? To this end, anything which seeks to maximise that should be considered; anything which would detract from it should not be considered. Perhaps the best example of the channel doing something which probably no other channel in the United Kingdom could do was the 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games coverage. In asking this question, I declare my interests as set out in the register.
My Lords, I do not completely agree that its object is to maximise revenue. As a public service broadcaster that is commercially funded, mainly at the moment by advertising, of course it has to stand on its own two feet, with the Government as the lender of last resort. However, I absolutely endorse my noble friend’s words on its excellent job as far as the Paralympic Games are concerned.