Channel 4

Oral Answers to Questions — Culture, Media and Sport – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 26 March 2001.

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Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Labour, Kilmarnock and Loudoun 2:30, 26 March 2001

If he will make a statement on the contribution of Channel 4 to public service television.

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

Channel 4 provides distinctive and innovative programming, and both provides competition for and complements the other public service broadcasters. We will maintain its current status and ensure that it remains a key element of public service broadcasting in the multichannel future.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Labour, Kilmarnock and Loudoun

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is she aware that last year alone, Channel 4 invested £30 million in British film and that that investment levered in an additional £73 million from overseas and other sources? How important is it to that level of investment in that important industry that Channel 4 remains a public service broadcaster? What would be the consequences if the ill-advised privatisation policy espoused by the Opposition became Government policy?

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising such an important issue. Privatisation would damage the British film industry, for which Channel 4 has been a front-line source of finance for two decades. It would jeopardise the channel's remit to serve minority interests and it would lose its creative edge. Dividends to shareholders would take money directly out of programme budgets. We made it clear in the White Paper that

"We will also maintain Channel 4 as a public service broadcaster . . . we entirely reject proposals to privatise Channel 4 and will maintain Channel 4's present structure of a non-profit making statutory corporation".

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Does the hon. Lady realise that Carlton UK Television and Sky television might be upset by that response, given that they are private organisations and also fund the film industry? Does she not realise that it is possible for Channel 4--which is, after all, funded by advertising--to be privatised provided that there are safeguards to ensure continued investment in the film industry and public service broadcasting? Indeed, Carlton, Granada Television and other private media organisations can rightly be proud of their public service broadcasting.

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

The hon. Gentleman seems to argue for more regulation, which I thought that the Conservatives were against. Do they not recognise that public service broadcasting will be more important than ever in the digital age as a benchmark of quality and diversity? I remind him that a Conservative Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, set up Channel 4 and a Conservative Secretary of State for National Heritage, Mrs. Bottomley, rejected a proposal to privatise it. The latest Opposition policy is a significant U-turn which would do nothing to preserve the quality of public service broadcasting.

Photo of Peter Ainsworth Peter Ainsworth Conservative, East Surrey

The Minister should be more cautious. She knows that we propose to privatise Channel 4 and reinvest the proceeds in the cultural sector. She should also know that our proposals have been well received. No one doubts that Channel 4 at its best makes a significant contribution to public service broadcasting, but can she provide a shred of evidence from outside Channel 4 that the introduction of shareholders would automatically cause it to commit commercial suicide by abandoning its audiences and deserting such a successful formula, which raised £650 million last year? Before she treats the House to another dewy-eyed lecture about the purity of Channel 4 and dumbing down, can she explain the public service contribution of "Ibiza Uncovered", "Get Your Kit Off" and "Eurotrash"?

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not understand that dividends to shareholders would take precedence and take money directly out of programme budgets, after all that is not rocket science, but common sense. I remind him that in 1999, Channel 4 broadcast the work of more than 400 independent production companies, at least eight times as much as any other broadcaster. What opportunities would those producers have under the Conservatives policies? What is more, the hon. Gentleman's figures do not add up. If the Conservatives ever got a chance to implement their policies, they would need a fund of £9.2 billion to generate the £275 million Treasury grant for arts bodies that we have announced. I suggest that he goes back to the drawing board.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

This talk about public ownership just before a general election is wonderful news. Keep taking the tablets.

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, and I thank him very much for his visit to my constituency on Saturday night, when he reminded people of what the Government have done since their election--in stark contrast to what that lot on the Opposition Benches did in 18 years.