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Channel 4: Funding and Governance

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 1 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for the future (1) funding, and (2) governance, of Channel 4.

My Lords, I am tempted to invite the noble Lord, Lord Watson, to respond. As part of their ongoing strategic review of the UK system of public service broadcasting, the Government will be consulting on the future of Channel 4, including its ownership model and remit. A fast-evolving media landscape, increasing competition and changing audience habits pose imminent challenges. Moving Channel 4 into private ownership and changing its remit could help secure its future as a successful and sustainable public service broadcaster.

Does the Minister accept that for the sale of Channel 4 to bring in the amount of money that the Government are talking about, the remit will have to change? At the very least it would have to be watered down, with disastrous consequences for our public service broadcasting sector and the wider creative economy. No change to the remit means no real profit for the Government, so why do it? Could this be ideologically driven rather than economically—something to do with a melting ice sculpture?

I do not think it is anything to do with a melting ice sculpture. The Government are committed to having a thriving PSB sector. I know the noble Baroness understands full well what the trends are in advertising revenues for linear television. We are trying to address that and make sure that Channel 4 has a secure, sustainable and thriving future.

My Lords, in earlier eras, matters of important public policy such as this would have been preceded by Green Papers and White Papers before Parliament considered any primary legislation that it felt necessary. On broadcasting, this Government take a rather different approach, preferring to set up ad hoc advisory committees, such as the one looking at public service broadcasting. So what is it to be this time? Can the Minister spell out what the Government will do here and explain how Parliament is going to be involved?

The noble Lord refers to the expert advice that Ministers will receive from the independent PSB panel but he overlooks the digital radio and audio review that we will be publishing this summer, the Ofcom review of PSBs that will be published in mid-July, and the consultation that we are carrying out on Channel 4 and video on demand, which will result in a White Paper and legislative proposals. I do not think that looks like taking decisions in secret.

My Lords, the Government are on record as praising the unique public service remit that Channel 4 has, especially for serving underrepresented communities and its strong partnership with our diversity of independent production companies. Channel 4 made its debut in 1982, 39 years ago, with an episode of the excellent “Countdown”. Please will the Government not simply “count down” to a rushed sale of Channel 4 to the highest bidder but instead help protect Channel 4 from unfair regulatory competition from the likes of Netflix and Amazon, which operate with less regulation?

We are addressing the noble Lord’s final point through our consultation on regulation for video-on-demand providers. The noble Lord is right that Channel 4 has a strong reputation for its innovative and diverse content, and we think that could mean that it appeals to a number of different purchasers should we decide to pursue a sale.

My Lords, how long do Her Majesty’s Government calculate that Channel 4, in its present public and private independent structure, can survive as a going concern?

There is no doubt that Channel 4 has performed very well recently but, as I mentioned in an earlier answer, all linear broadcasters are facing significant challenges from developments and disruption in the sector, including from international players. The consultation will give us the time and the information to consider how Channel 4’s future is best served.

My Lords, is it not quite clear that the Secretary of State and Mr Whittingdale support public service broadcasting like the rope supports the hanging man? Is it not time that the one-nation Tories stood up for one of the great creations of Willie Whitelaw, an organisation that has fulfilled its remit in spades?

The noble Lord will be aware that I have often quoted both my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Minister for Media and Data, who have both been absolutely clear about wanting to see a thriving PSB sector, which is particularly important in a time of misinformation and disinformation.

My Lords, what means are open to the public and the authorities to encourage Channel 4 to report the news in an accurate and unbiased way and thereby triumph over the present, frequently prejudiced environment of the media?

If my noble friend or any members of the public have concerns about the accuracy of any broadcaster, including Channel 4, they can send those concerns to Ofcom.

The digital streaming television world depends heavily on access to archive. At the moment Channel 4 has no archives since terms of trade agreements with content suppliers mean that IP is kept by independent production companies and is seen as a crucial means by which they can grow their businesses. Do the Government intend to maintain the present terms of trade agreement between any new owner of Channel 4 and its content suppliers?

The noble Viscount raises an important issue. There is a tension between ownership by the independents and the PSBs. We will be setting out more on this in the White Paper.

My Lords, one of the big fears about privatising Channel 4 is that the current statutory requirement for it to invest profits back into independent programming through commissioning —the very thing that makes it unique—will be dropped in order to make the channel sellable. What guarantees can the Minister give that the requirement to reinvest will be assured and that Channel 4’s innovative edginess will not be sacrificed? Will she also list the material restrictions that are allegedly holding Channel 4 back? Does she really believe in this policy?

I think the policy of consulting and getting an understanding of what would create a strong strategic future for a key public service broadcaster is entirely valid. The noble Lord is right that Channel 4 has been hugely successful in supporting our independent production sector. The Government are committed to seeing that continue, and we will take into account any impacts on that sector as we move forward.

My Lords, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford has found that the UK has the lowest average local news topic access of any of the countries measured in its recent survey. If there were any reason for not privatising Channel 4, it would be to use the platform as the basis of a new local and regional television service. Has my noble friend considered that?

I agree with my noble friend that locally relevant television and, in particular, local news is a very important part of the UK’s public service broadcasting, which has been highlighted by the pandemic. These are issues which will form part of our strategic review of PSBs.

Can the Minister inform the House on whether BBC editorial policy trumps the law of the land regarding the legal rights of presenters and contributors? If so, should there not be safeguards in governance against the danger of individual producer prejudices being portrayed as BBC policy?

It is clear that BBC editorial policy does not trump the law of the land. The noble Lord will be aware that the BBC is undertaking a review of its editorial policy, which will report later this year.

In what specific ways does the Minister think Channel 4 might benefit from private ownership? What changes in its remit, if any, might government propose?

We hope through the consultation to discern two particular areas among others. One is access to additional capital; Channel 4 is reliant on advertising for 90% of its revenue. The other is potentially greater agility to respond to market developments as we move forward.