Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 574 - 579)



  Chairman: I apologise for the delay but I cannot pretend that it was unexpected. We will start the questions with Paul Farrelly.

Paul Farrelly

  574. The draft Bill sets out a public service remit for Channel 4, as you are well aware, which you have welcomed but some people have expressed concern that there is no reference this time to "tastes and interests are not generally catered for by other channels" and to educational programmes for an adult audience. When you say it sets out an ambitious remit for Channel 4, how do you respond to those people who express certain concerns that the remit seems to reduce your remit compared with the existing legislation?

  (Mr Thompson) I think our view would be that the remit we have is a positive remit, it says where Channel 4 can make a positive difference rather than defining Channel 4 by what others did specifically catering for that which is not catered for by Channel 3. This is now a positive statement of where Channel 4 can make a difference. The wording about innovation, experiment creativity, a particular responsibility to serve a culturally diverse society with programming with a distinctive character, that absolutely goes to the spirit of what Channel 4 is there for. There is no suggestion or question in my view of Channel 4 moving away from its commitment to do educational programming, or other kinds of, as it were, explicit public service programming. In my view the remit is extremely clear and also in our view rather clearer than the remit given specifically to Channel 3 in the passage of the Bill which we think should be clearer than it is.

  575. It take it you think that as defined the definition now takes in the culture and spirit of Channel 4 as it has developed but would you object to an explicit reference to education in the remit?
  (Mr Thompson) No. As I say, we believe that the remit has the advantage of clarity and brevity and goes to the heart of why Channel 4 is there. The idea of including something about the educational mission of Channel 4 we would not object to.

  576. There has been concern in respect of other channels, namely ITV, with the media ownership rules about how television in this country will develop towards regionality. How do you see your commitment to regionality developing over the coming years? Do you see it being extended or reduced over time?
  (Mr Thompson) I think we see it strengthening. Even before it became a requirement, Channel 4 had voluntarily moved to increase its commitment to regional programming. We have some very substantial productions for Channel 4 which are made outside London and we see that pattern growing over time as well.
  (Mr Gardam) What has become clear in recent years is that Channel 4 can make its best contribution by focusing on growing the independent production sector in particular areas where we can see potential strengths and you have to bring them together to grow them more effectively, what we call our Creative Cities Initiative. You have seen that particularly in the North West and in the Manchester corridor. One of the things we say is that the strength of independent production outside London, which is clearly essential for a healthy, creative economy in the country is essentially a relationship not just with the independent production sector but also with the ITV regional companies. It is no coincidence that independent production is at its strongest where ITV companies have been their strongest in terms of regional production. That relationship I think will continue. The danger of consolidation is the sucking of talent and investment towards London. The important thing about this year under the current licences is the requirement for 30 per cent of spend to be spent outside London. This is now a licence requirement and it has grown from 26 to 30 per cent over the past four years. In order to maintain that and, indeed, if possible, to grow it, I think it must be matched by co-ordinated investment in talent and training outside London as well. Our regional production scheme where we part fund the putting of new talent into emerging companies outside London is just a small part of that. This is one area where I think all the public service broadcasters, public sector and private sector, need to work together. Channel 4 alone will not be able to maintain the whole of the future independent production sector.
  (Mr Thompson) Specifically what we try and do is to put strategically important programming, whether it is Brookside, whether it is our new drama Teachers, whether it is making a very, very big documentary series about the First World War being made in Scotland by Wark Clements, major network programmes being made by independents outside London. There is a danger under consolidation, and arguably even under the present circumstances, that ITV or a future ITV may seek to meet its requirement in terms of independents outside London by commissioning not for the network but local programming with low cost per hours and low ambition. If we want to build strong production centres, specifically strong independent production centres, in cities outside London it is quite important that they get opportunities for UK-wide network production. It is a concern for us that neither the draft Bill nor indeed the ITC/ITV agreement that Clive Jones has just talked about actually guarantee that a suitable proportion of independent productions for ITV should be networked as opposed to local programming.


  577. I realise this is hypothetical but not unreasonable: in a real world scenario with a different owner, let us say, of ITV3, if we find that OFCOM, no matter how rigorous, is not prepared to go head to head with the new owner over its reluctance, let us say, to pick up one of the regional obligations, how would you feel about some of those obligations migrating to you? Do you think it would damage or do you think it would strengthen Channel 4?
  (Mr Thompson) I think it is extremely difficult to see how that would work. We think that having a kind of critical mass of production in a city so that it attracts talent, both on-screen and off-screen talent, is important, but the idea that you could simply take—To take a practical historical example of what happened to ITV production in the West Midlands after the takeover by Carlton and Central and the dramatic reduction in network production there, people who believe in consolidation should look quite carefully at what happens in UK television after consolidation, particularly in terms of production jobs. I think the idea that Channel 4 could readily have picked up the slack in the West Midlands of all that programming talent by translating, as it were, ITV daytime programmes into Channel 4 independent documentaries at peak time would be very difficult. I think Channel 4 can play a bigger part, is already playing a bigger part than it did, in terms of promoting regional network production in the independent sector but, again, it is one of these points which keep coming up about the ecology of the entire system. What we cannot do is solve the problem on our own. We can solve it alongside ITV, alongside Channel 5 and the BBC. There are some parts of the country where we have close collaboration with the BBC to try and strengthen and promote the independent sector, in Scotland for example.

  578. I am urging you really to get it on the record. I can see you placed in a rather invidious situation with intense competition, you legitimately seeking some form of additional underpinning and pressure being put on you in exchange for the fiscal underpinning to become, as it were, the broadcaster of last resort in terms of regional obligations. I would just say that you will have to be very tough about that.
  (Mr Thompson) I would take you back to the remit. It seems to me that we should go so far in terms of supporting production across the UK to absolutely support cultural diversity, and regional diversity is an important part of cultural diversity. What we cannot do is take on a burden which is dismissed or lost by another of the public service broadcasters.

  579. I am not hogging it, it is just that I am asking a question on behalf of Anne Picking who has had to leave. Opinion seems to differ among broadcasters as to the role of the Content Board. Do you see it as a lead regulator for the public service remit or a body advising the main Board?
  (Mr Thompson) The general point first is it seems to me at the heart of OFCOM is the idea of attempting to reconcile the complex cultural and economic issues which emerge in this sector of the economy. OFCOM and the Content Board need to work together to reconcile those issues. For example, the idea of a Content Board who can independently and separately report to Parliament raises at least the possibility of a clash at the very heart of what it seems to me OFCOM is there to do. It seems to us that the Content Board has to strike a balance. It has got to take on the bulk of content regulatory tasks, executive tasks one assumes, but ultimately being in some sense a sub-committee of the main Board. One suggestion we would make, I think, is to ensure that the content issues remain at the heart of what OFCOM does there should be a guarantee that at least two members of the main OFCOM Board should serve on the Content Board and this will be achieved by a simple amendment to clause 17, sections 2 and 3. There is no escaping the fact that the Content Board is going to have to strike a balance.

  Chairman: I think we would be very grateful for any help and support you can give us in trying to underpin that balance, and any suggestions on clauses, sub-clauses or amendments would be more than welcome.

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