Channel 4 — Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:27 am on 10th December 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Grender Baroness Grender Liberal Democrat 11:27 am, 10th December 2015

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the remarks made by the Prime Minister on 4 November (HC Deb, col 965), what information they are using to estimate the financial gains from privatising Channel 4.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

My Lords, the Prime Minister has said that he wants Channel 4 to have a strong and secure future. No decisions have been made about the channel’s prospects. The Government are looking at a range of information to assess a broad spread of options including those proposed by Channel 4’s own leadership.

Photo of Baroness Grender Baroness Grender Liberal Democrat

Is the Minister aware that while the Prime Minister says that private investment will safeguard Channel 4, leaders in the advertising industry and Campaign magazine say the exact opposite? How is it possible that a great Thatcherite success that supports more than 350 independent production companies annually is now under threat of what looks like the equivalent of a one-off car-boot sale?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

Channel 4 is not under threat. It has an important remit. It must deliver innovative, experimental and distinctive content that appeals to a diverse society. Looking at all the options we shall obviously have full regard to that remit and indeed to the creative industries that depend on it.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Channel 4 was established by Act of Parliament by a Conservative Government. Does the Minister agree that it is highly unlikely that any commercial purchaser could be found for Channel 4 unless the Government change its remit which at present ensures that all profits are reinvested in programmes? Will she confirm that it would require primary legislation to amend the current remit?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

My Lords, we are still at a fairly early stage of the process on Channel 4. The issue of whether legislation would be required for any change that we decide to make will certainly be one of the considerations.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that Channel 4’s coverage of the 2012 Paralympic Games clearly demonstrated the benefit of its public service remit and non-profit ownership model and the old adage,

“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I share the view of my noble friend about the excellence of Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics. Indeed, I am a big fan of “Channel 4 Racing”.

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

What we are doing is looking at the options in an objective way, engaging with Channel 4, and in the fullness of time—in due course, as they say—we will reach conclusions.

Photo of Lord Gordon of Strathblane Lord Gordon of Strathblane Labour

Even if one takes the Minister’s reply at face value and is reassured by it, she surely must recognise that if Channel 4 were to be privatised, that capital would have to be serviced, either by dividends paid to investors or interest paid to those who provided loans. That would represent money that would otherwise have gone to creative programming—surely an undesirable outcome.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I can understand the noble Lord’s comments but we have to look objectively at all the options in the light of the changing media market and the needs of Channel 4 and its viewers.

Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Chair, Communications Committee

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of your Lordships’ Select Committee on Communications. The committee has heard from Channel 4 about its highly acclaimed news coverage. Bearing in mind that news programmes are not profitable because their production costs are relatively high and you cannot export or resell them, does the Minister not agree that the privatisation of Channel 4 would mean a major reduction in this distinctive and impressive news service?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I repeat the point that we are looking at options. I agree that “Channel 4 News” and news provision are an important part of decisions on public sector broadcasting. I think in Parliament we feel that even more strongly than elsewhere in the country.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, with regard to the fourth channel in Wales, S4C, can the Minister give an assurance that whatever consideration the Government are giving to the future of Channel 4 in England, there is no danger to the independence of S4C in Wales, and that it will be given adequate finance to ensure that it is not subject to death by a thousand cuts?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

We have made clear our commitment to funding in Wales. S4C continues to have, as I think the noble Lord will be pleased to hear, a dual funding model and currently receives around £75 million a year from the licence fee.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My Lords, on this occasion I think the House would like to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter.

Photo of Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, the Prime Minister has made it clear that privatisation is under consideration. Will the Minister share with the Chamber what part of this great British and, can I say, Conservative success—an essential part of our creative industries, as the Minister mentioned, and the fastest-growing sector of our economy—is not working?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

My Lords, we are looking at Channel 4 objectively to see whether it is meeting its remit properly and whether there are changes that need to be made to the remit or its distribution. Of course, as the Prime Minister said, we need to ensure that the great channel goes on being great for many years to come. It is perfectly okay to review things.

Photo of Lord Hamilton of Epsom Lord Hamilton of Epsom Conservative

My Lords, is it not possible that if Channel 4 was privatised, it might be run more efficiently and have even more money to spend on quality programmes?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

My noble friend is entirely right that looking at how things can be run efficiently—taking advantage of technological advances, for example—is a key point in the kinds of reviews that we do in the media sector.