Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 66 - 79)


Ms Dorothy Byrne and Mr Jim Gray

  Chairman: Good morning, welcome very much to this session. I am sorry to have kept you waiting a few minutes. Are there any declarations of interest that Members of the Committee want to make?

  Baroness Eccles: I would like to make a declaration for the record, which is that I am an independent national director of Times Newspapers Holdings Limited, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of News International. We have extremely specific and limited responsibilities which do not include any matters concerned with finance or policy regarding the newspapers.

  Q66  Lord King of Bridgwater: I am doing a thing called The Iraq Commission, at the moment, which is being done by Channel 4, for which they are paying me.

  Ms Byrne: Watch it on Saturday night at 7.30!

  Q67  Chairman: Thank you very much. Having got that over, let us start. Welcome. I think you know what we are doing; we are looking at media ownership and the news, but what we are also doing, in coming up to that, is looking at how the agendas of news have changed; the way that people access the news is changing, the process of news gathering—how that has changed—and the impact of ownership, and concentration of media ownership, on the balance and diversity of opinion seen in the news. So it is, at this stage, very wide in its reach. Could I begin, then, as far as Channel 4 is concerned, by asking you this: has the production of news become more or less expensive over the past ten years, as far as Channel 4 is concerned? How do you view that?

  Ms Byrne: I think it would be good if Jim answered about the costs of news production because he is doing it every day and can explain that perhaps better than me. As far as we are concerned, paying a substantial sum of money for our news is something that we are absolutely committed to. So if some costs have gone down because of technological progress then we have aimed to switch that money into paying more for original journalism.

  Q68  Chairman: Let me cut through that. The real point is this: we have been told, both in this Committee and outside, that news channels are inherently unprofitable in this country; there is no way you can actually make a profit out of running a news channel. Is that something you would agree with?

  Ms Byrne: I am proud to say that Channel 4 News loses more money for Channel 4 than any other programme that we make!

  Q69  Chairman: You are proud to say that?

  Ms Byrne: Yes.

  Mr Gray: I do my best!

  Ms Byrne: I am not sure what the current funding gap is but I think it is about £10 million. I always say to the news: "That shows how much we love you".

  Q70  Chairman: Excuse me interrupting, but that is a pretty flip answer, is it not, really? Surely, you would like to have a news programme that was washing its face; that was profitable. People do not normally, in the media industry, like actually running things which are being subsidised by other parts of the business.

  Mr Gray: Good morning, my Lord Chairman. I should explain who I am. I am the editor of Channel 4 News but, also, the head of the department at ITN which makes all of the news services—that is News at Noon, More4 News, the evening programme at 7 and all the online. It is true, as Dorothy says, it is about £20 million we get to make all those programmes, and I think the ad revenue around those slots is about ten-ish. It could be I could offer to give Channel 4 a programme more in line with the revenue—it could be done; a decent little news programme could be done for half the price. However, it would not be able to do what is set out in the remit, and primarily that is the journalistic parts of the remit. The technology has made the cost of news processing and news gathering cheaper over the last ten years, so in the field we can deploy fewer people to do what we used to do years ago: satellite links are coming down, you can take portable satellites where you used to have to book through foreign broadcasters, and back at the newsroom processing of news, the picture, the graphics and the scripts, are all converging; the technology that does that is becoming very much similar so that an individual can actually do more than one role these days. However, if you just went down that route into a highly effective news processing operation it would look quite good; it would look quite sharp on air, but you would very rarely find out new and serious information, because it spends its money on the processing side rather than the journalism side. So that is the remit we are set—it is very strong on original, revelatory journalism—and the cost of that has not come down; that is people; that is not technology.

  Q71  Chairman: How many people do you employ?

  Mr Gray: Overall it has gone up. About five years ago it was about 110 and right now it is coming on 140 because its services have expanded with the More4 News service and online.

  Q72  Chairman: You are really saying, for the foreseeable future and in the past as well, that with a news programme like what you do with your 7 o'clock news programme and all that, there is no way you are ever going to make money out of that.

  Mr Gray: I think it is pretty difficult, actually, to say in terms that you would actually make money. You asked Dorothy that you are hearing the received view there is no future for news channels. I think by that you did actually mean news channels not a news programme. That is true; I do not think you can because of the existence of News 24—they do it for free. ITV used to have a news channel but they got out of the game because I do not think there is the advertising revenue for two news channels, commercial ones, up against the BBC, but when it comes to our form of news, which is a shaped news programme, the premium paid on journalism, talent and expertise—specialists journalists, foreign viewers—it is difficult for me to see that that would make the channel money, frankly..

  Q73  Chairman: What that means as far as policy for Channel 4 is concerned is that the money has got to come from elsewhere, either in the Channel 4 budget or extraneously. I suppose there is an implied subsidy from analogue, and once you go from analogue to digital, that implied subsidy disappears. What happens next?

  Ms Byrne: Our view would be that whatever happens Channel 4 News as it is must continue, so a means must be found to ensure that we have the funding to continue. Overall, at the moment, Channel 4's average percentage audience is 10% and for the news it is 5%. If we continue, as we must, with our one-hour, serious news programme in which 40-50% of its content is foreign, that programme is not going to make money. But we should not cut back on its seriousness, its quality or its length—I am absolutely sure of that. I am sure that that is right, not just for Channel 4 but, also, for British democracy. I think the existence of Channel 4 News is vital as a very serious competitor to the BBC.

  Q74  Chairman: We will come on to some of the figures, but tell us, generally, how many people watch the 7 o'clock news?

  Ms Byrne: About a million. That, since 2001, has held at a time when other programmes have gone down in other broadcasters. We are pleased with that.

  Mr Gray: What we take from that is—and some people might call it a niche, but a million is still a good number—that there is still a market for serious, in-depth news. Perhaps that is where we should place even more of a premium: the trust, the accuracy and the depth which you do not get in other outlets, even though they are multiplying exponentially. So this is bucking the trend, frankly, for our audience has gone up beyond 6%. It is around about one million and that is stable, whereas other news programmes are running down.

  Q75  Chairman: Basically, what you are saying is that in the foreseeable future, over the next few years, unless there is some public subsidy, public support—however you want to put it—the kind of news programmes that you are running at the moment, it is not going to be possible to run.

  Ms Byrne: Channel 4, as I said, has a funding gap. I would always come back to saying that whatever happens the most important part of Channel 4 is its news and current affairs, and means must be found to maintain them at length in prime time.

  Q76  Lord Maxton: That is exactly the point I wanted to make. Is one of your problems the timing of that hour? That 7 to 8 time is competing almost every day with the two most popular broadcasting events each day, which is Coronation Street and Eastenders—at least part of your programme is. If you were at a different time do you think you would get a better viewing?

  Ms Byrne: I think it is a good time. We are satisfied with that time. It is just at the beginning of prime time. I am not sure that people want to sit down at 8 o'clock at night and watch a one-hour programme, although of course on More4 we have started a half-hour programme, and that is doing very well and has increased its viewers by about 40% in the last year.

  Q77  Lord Maxton: You are moving into radio. Are you using news on that? Are you using the same staff to provide that news? If so, are you getting extra revenue for it?

  Ms Byrne: We will set up a radio team but our proposal is that they work alongside the team that we have got so that we can have economies of scale. I think that we will obviously have to have a proper dedicated news team, particularly that programme in the morning. I think it is an incredibly important programme. Again and again you hear people say that the Today programme sets the political agenda of the day. Now, that may well be true, but in a democracy is it right that one programme sets the agenda of the day? So for that programme we need proper, separate staffing. That is the most important programme because it is in the morning that there really is that democratic deficit, although we will have programmes at lunchtime and in the evening and on the other services. The E4 Channel is one where we will aim particularly to find imaginative ways to reach out to young people, who, obviously, it is very important that we try to engage in the news.

  Q78  Bishop of Manchester: If I am at home at around 7 o'clock I will invariably look at Channel 4 News before switching over later on to see what is happening in my diocese in Coronation Street. I wonder if you could articulate what it is that, for me, is attractive and informative and, really, quite valuable about Channel 4 News? In other words, can you—and you touched on this a little earlier in an answer—define more sharply exactly what it is you are after in the Channel 4 News programme, and then perhaps analyse a bit what you see to be the chief differences between what you are after in Channel 4 News and what the other channels are doing in theirs?

  Mr Gray: Let us start with the obvious point of difference. Lord Maxton was asking about the slot, the 7 to 8 pm, one hour. That is a very obvious difference between Channel 4 News and other news programmes—twice the length. However, it is not just a point of difference, it is the point of difference that makes quite a lot of the other points of difference possible: in depth, the range, the surprise, the forum for debate, taking things further and taking the viewer into places where they had not expected to go. That would be much less possible if it was a half-hour programme. Remember, we are the news supplier to Channel 4; there is no other news programme, so we have to choose venues as well, so it has to be around that main news event. If you had only half-an-hour you would find your flexibility to move into the other revelatory, surprising elements and charging and provocative elements much less possible and much more constrained. So I would say the slot is not just one item amongst many; it is a very important point of difference. When you define the programme what we try to do is have the viewer leave the programme having a sense of the most important and interesting things that have happened that day, but, also, the sense that they have not just heard about them in the same way as they could have somewhere else. So we try to package the news events and take them further with a lot more energy. That is one thing I really stress often to the presenter, Jon Snow; we try to bring energy and fizz to the studio and a real burning sense of curiosity that the programme is absolutely trying to find things out, so that you can feel the programme straining to go further and find out the challenge to uncover. It is that aspect, that the programme is very active; it is not a passive purveyor of stuff that has happened that day; it is out there finding it out.

  Q79  Bishop of Manchester: It is a kind of news magazine programme.

  Mr Gray: Yes, I would think it is a kind of hybrid; it is news/current affairs. I suppose the nearest to it would be Newsnight, although Newsnight is probably more at the current affairs end whereas Channel 4 News is more at the news end of that spectrum.

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