On 17th October 2017 the House of Lords debated a Report from the Lords Communications Committee, A privatised future for Channel 4? (1st Report, Session 2016–17, HL Paper 17). The Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, a member of the Committee, spoke in the debate. He focused on the need for proper diversity in public service broadcasting and for Channel 4 to invest more in programmes for children and young people. He also joined others in resisting calls for privatisation and questioned the logic of relocation from London:
The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I, too, am a member of the House of Lords Communications Committee. We normally meet on a Tuesday afternoon, so it is nice to have our meeting through the medium of this debate, in which members past and present can speak to each other. I thank other noble Lords for joining in as well. I also want to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for the wise and winsome way he chaired the committee for three years and, in particular, for helping us to produce this report, which we dare to think has made a bit of a difference.
To put it simply, there is nothing quite like Channel 4. I realise that some people may think that bishops arrive fully formed, like ships in full sail, from a production line over the river at Lambeth, but all of us have other lives both past and present. In my early 20s I worked for several years in the film industry and saw at first hand the huge boost that was made to British film by Channel 4. I remember going to a meeting in 1979 which was held to discuss the very possibility of Channel 4 as a publicly owned public service broadcaster but funded by advertising, and being inspired and excited by the different perspectives that Channel 4 might offer—and so it has. In many areas, Channel 4 has pioneered a broad diversity of views and voices, most recently, as has been said many times in the debate, the Paralympics.
Unlike some other broadcasters, Channel 4 gets the fact that diversity in the UK today cannot just mean regional accents. Here I think I need to say of the latest things coming from the Government that, while of course we need to support the regions, to understand Britain today we need to move beyond regional accents to the other things that shape us culturally and ethically. I would like to see all public service broadcasters do much more in this area. That is because to understand our own national diversity and at the same time create greater coherence and commitment to each other within that diversity, we need to see what it is that creates community and belonging through the variety of narratives that shape a world view and an ethical framework for inhabiting the world. In the past this may have happened through belonging to a town, a county or a nation. It was underpinned by shared values that often had their roots in a common religious tradition. Today, however, it is just as likely to happen through a multiplicity of faiths or through other cultural and subcultural ways of belonging.
If anyone gets this in British broadcasting, it is Channel 4. Its challenging remit to provide diverse and alternative views is therefore significant enough in itself, but the fact that it is a public service broadcaster funded by advertising means that, unlike every other superficially similar broadcaster one could name, its motive is profit not for the good of its shareholders but for the further development of its ambitious and adventurous programming. Therefore, as has been well put by the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Sherbourne, to privatise the broadcaster would not only be to compromise it but to be in danger of destroying it. Whatever any potential buyer may promise when it signs the cheque, the need to deliver a profit as the end in itself is bound to erode the diversity of its programmes, especially those which attract less in advertising. Many of the people we interviewed during our inquiry pointed out that it will be the adventurous, diverse and alternative programmes that are likely to suffer most. Similarly, as other noble Lords have emphasised, moving out of London seems unnecessary since all the advertisers are in London. Any financial savings would soon be swallowed up by train fares, travelling back to the very place the organisation had just vacated.
The report speaks for itself and, along with others, I am glad that the Government have responded so positively to it. However, let me emphasise that there are two areas where Channel 4 needs to improve its game. The first is programmes for children, where, in recent years, Channel 4 has not really done anything much at all. The second, where it has particular responsibilities, is programmes for children and young people. Both Sharon White, the chief executive of Ofcom, and the Children’s Media Foundation have challenged Channel 4 on this issue. Sadly, the reason there are fewer programmes for those age groups is probably commercial: children’s programmes just do not attract sufficient advertising. However, if Channel 4 wishes to continue to operate in the way it does—rightly, in my view—it really cannot use that argument, since that is the very argument it employs in defence of its status and funding arrangement. It cannot have it both ways. If Channel 4 is to be a public service broadcaster financed by advertising, it needs to use the more profitable programmes to support those that are less so, such as those for children.
Channel 4 is a hugely innovative and successful broadcaster with a unique place in the hugely creative British broadcasting economy. The Government and our nation need to be proud of what we have achieved in broadcasting in this country and ensure that this intricate, fairly fragile—as the whole world of advertising changes in a digital era—but nevertheless effective media ecosystem is not damaged by unnecessary interference. However, Channel 4 must be held to account, particular on programmes for children and young people, so that it continues to produce a range of broadcasting with an ever-greater diversity of views and voices, and so that we are not just better informed and entertained but better able to understand who we are—and see it reflected on the box.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Ashton of Hyde) (Con):… The committee concluded, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford has reminded us today, that the current programming for older children and young adults is “unsatisfactory”, echoing concerns raised by Ofcom over recent years. We have made it clear that we expect a stronger commitment from Channel 4 in this area…
…In conclusion, Channel 4 is a vital public asset, it is one that we support, and it will remain so. In continuing under public ownership, the Government are clear that Channel 4 must play its part in a country that works for everyone. It should strengthen the creative industries that are such a successful part of our economy and provide a platform for new voices and untold stories from across the UK, celebrating the diversity mentioned by the right reverend Prelate.