Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)


Ms Dorothy Byrne and Mr Jim Gray

  Q80  Bishop of Manchester: I have been watching it for several years now. You talk about fizz and you have got energy about what you want to do. I think it is probably much the same as it always has been, and I noticed in the recent Ofcom report that there is a point made there that actually Channel 4 News has not changed—the implication being that probably it ought to. Can you comment, first of all, on whether, over the last five to ten years, that is an accurate observation and then what ideas you have, if it is an accurate observation, for changing it in the future?

  Mr Gray: I actually do not think it is accurate. Some of the agenda areas will overlap but there will be new agenda areas that we take on. I would say that if you look at the content now, and do a content analysis, I think you would find that the original journalism content, on which we put a high premium, is higher now than it was before. We strive, even when we are covering news stories which are the major news stories of the day, that are on all the programmes, we absolutely go hell-bent: "What new can we bring to this story? What more can we find out?" I would say that has definitely changed—the urge, the drive to bring revelation and new information to life is higher than it was before.

  Q81  Bishop of Manchester: So the Ofcom analysis, in saying that there has been very little change, is unfair?

  Mr Gray: In terms of content, yes. I am not quite sure if that is a perceptual view—

  Ms Byrne: I think it has continued to be a very serious programme and, perhaps, that was more what they meant—that we have not, in any way, dumbed-down. In fact, I believe that our foreign content has become higher. I have to say, as the person that has contracted the news, I think Channel 4 News has got better every year. I think it is a much more exciting programme than it used to be. Every year I genuinely believe it has got better. I would also say, specifically, that it is more diverse and that that thing which Channel 4 News has always had of seeing the world from the perspective of other people and of people in other countries has become a much more important thing to us. It is a few years ago now that we first did, for example, news from India, where we took the whole news to India for a week—not just to say what is happening in India but to say how does the world seem if you are an Indian? News from Iran, which we made, was an outstanding programme of immense importance in that week of programmes because it enabled you to see what it felt like to be an Iranian; the way that Iranians saw things. I think that in terms of multicultural Britain there is a much greater diversity of voice now on Channel 4 News than there used to be and I think that the work done by the cultural diversity network shows that that is appreciated. That is of incredible importance. All news broadcasters must do more to make people from ethnic minorities in Britain feel that the news is not just for a select group of white, middle-class people who went to Oxford; that their interests and concerns are represented on the news. I have to say that I think, year-on-year, Channel 4 News has got better and better and that you hear a wider variety of people. You sometimes hear people who are quite shocking, but who you have to hear because you have to know what they think.

  Q82  Chairman: Do you think it is impartially put? Where does impartiality come in the values that you put on the news programme?

  Ms Byrne: I would say that due impartiality is probably number one because that is what makes the viewer understand that they can trust the news and that it is true; that it is as true as we can make it on that day. That is what we are aiming to be. As we move from being one nightly news programme, which is what we were five or ten years ago, to lunchtime, More4, news on the web and radio, in each of these new territories what we are taking is the name Channel 4 News and saying to people: "You can switch this on, you can tap into it but you know that it is impartial; you know that you can trust it". I think impartiality is incredibly important.

  Q83  Lord Maxton: Leading from that, Ofcom have suggested in their review that it should only be the public service broadcasters, of which you are one, who should have that impartiality requirement and that, presumably, therefore, although you would have it on your television channel there is not that same requirement, presumably, on your radio or on your online services. But you would choose to do it.

  Ms Byrne: Although it is not required of us we have chosen that our online presence should also be duly impartial because we believe that whatever territory we enter that is what people expect of us. I personally think that all news should be duly impartial and that it would be a retrograde step in a multicultural society, in particular, to say that we would have news programmes or channels which pandered to prejudices of particular groups. I do not think it helps anybody in society to start having news which is not duly impartial. I think that would be going backwards. There are many countries where you turn on the news and you have no idea whether or not it is really true. I would say, for example, that we know that significant percentages of Muslims believe that 9/11 was a conspiracy of the American and Israeli Governments—or 7/7. Channel 4 News did a survey of Muslim opinions about who was to blame for 7/7. Do we want a channel where that view could be stated as being an absolute fact? Jim, what do you think?

  Mr Gray: I probably disagree slightly with you here, Dorothy, in that I cannot see a news channel working as a commercial proposition—you are probably talking about foxification of news channels, but as long as it was transparent about it it might work as a commercial proposition. However, at heart, an authentic news service as opposed to an opinion-based news service should be duly impartial.

  Q84  Lord Maxton: In a sense that minor disagreement between you leads me to my next question, which is what is the relationship between Channel 4 and ITN, basically? ITN are the providers of the news. Who decides on the issues like the editorial, who is coming first; what has been the main story and whether or not you are being impartial? Is it ITN or is it Channel 4?

  Mr Gray: It is us, ITN. It is all clearly set out because we have a contractual relationship as a supplier to our customer—our dearly beloved customer—but day-to-day control rests with us at ITN. The running orders are set by us, the agendas are set by us. Obviously, there is close consultation with Channel 4 about things like the look and feel—

  Q85  Lord Maxton: On a daily basis?

  Mr Gray: We are in contact, probably, several times every day but actually not in the sense of Dorothy requesting, encouraging or instructing—that does not happen. We make up our running orders and I will probably tell Dorothy what we are doing that night. There are certain specific instances in which I am required to notify the channel—and it is notification, it is not asking for permission. It would be if there were extremely controversial items. For instance, when we had the leak of the Attorney General's legal advice on the Iraq War the channel were taken into confidence on that some time before when it was getting likely, because of the consequences; the legality, the issues around even broadcasting that. That is the most extreme but there are other areas to do with taste and decency where I would call a pre-transmission referral protocol, where I will just tip the channel off that we are doing it. Frankly, it is a lack of courtesy if Channel 4 gets a lot of calls following a news programme because something has been in that news programme and they did not even know. So their viewers call; the department is besieged by calls and we did not even have the courtesy to tell them. However, it is different from deciding content; that is decided by us.

  Ms Byrne: There is a very detailed editorial specification for each programme which lays down contractually what that programme's aims are. For example, one of the aims of Channel 4 News is that it should have its own independent agenda and should not follow slavishly the agenda of other news programmes. That is its point of difference. The format of the programme is all laid down but on a day-to-day basis the decision on the news running order has to lie with the people who are making the news programme. As Jim says, we obviously talk regularly and the relationship is such that we both know what we are aiming at. We might have a discussion after the programme: do we both now think that was the best lead item of that day, but if you start to have a broadcaster tell the news journalists precisely what to put in the news every day it would be a mess, would it not?

  Q86  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Dorothy, in your role as a Channel 4 person you have to make sure that the news is true Channel 4 news. Jim was suggesting that it was rather a one-way discourse between you two, ie, him telling you. I find that slightly hard to believe.

  Ms Byrne: It is laid down in the contract and we have been doing it for years; in fact, both of us have been doing it for years, so instinctively we both know what our important Channel 4 News stories are and it is rare that I would look at the news and think, "Blimey! What was that about?", because we are having these day-to-day conversations and then we meet once a week at Channel 4 News to discuss the forward strategy for the following weeks.

  Q87  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: You clearly have a very good personal relationship and, as you say, it has evolved over the years.

  Mr Gray: There is also a format. As well as weekly meetings there is a quarterly review of all aspects of the programme from commercial through to editorial and we will agree targets, so we will sit down and think what is important to the programme in the coming year, and it may be something like China or global climate change or the business of reproduction. Whatever we might agree the news team will then go off and look for stories in those areas. They will only do them if they are newsworthy or generally meet our own criteria, not just to do them because we have set a target to do them.

  Ms Byrne: Our targets are really quite precise about which areas of the world we think are insufficiently covered.

  Q88  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Moving on to the question of the funding for the news, due to competing with Sky the ITN budget has been considerably reduced over the last six years for news, has it not?

  Mr Gray: For Channel 4 News?

  Q89  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: For the ITN news contract for ITV.

  Mr Gray: For ITV, the previous one, yes.

  Q90  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: How has that affected your ability to provide the kind of news that you want to provide?

  Mr Gray: Actually, minimally. It is quite a complex relationship because the money that comes to ITN for Channel 4 to meet the general news services funds our independent autonomous activities but part of it also goes to what we may call shared resources. For instance, I collaborate with ITV News on the cost of things which I really would not want to pay for on my own, satellite tracks and things like that. You do not use them all the time but you want them there when you need them, and, frankly, on that news-gathering aspect of it, the shared facilities around the news, I am getting as good a service as I ever did. In fact, in some things I can guarantee it is better under this new contract that we signed last year because I also have access to the facilities of the ITV regional company news teams in a better way than I did before, and that was something that came through, and we discussed it with the channel and with the ITV network around the time of the last contract, so frankly my news-gathering is better. There is a good reason why that should be so, because you were talking about the squeeze on budgets. Actually, the view of Channel 4 and our own view on this is not to squeeze it over our money. I am getting similar-ish money but I have to do more for it; that is true, so we have to become much more effective. What I said at the beginning about those aspects of news which have shrunk has allowed me to do more journalism because, if you look at the budgets, more money goes on the screen than it did before. There is less money now to spend on behind-the-scenes things, like shared infrastructure and computers and so on. That has been squeezed in order to preserve the journalistic content.

  Q91  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Can I pick up on something you said earlier? You were talking about the fact that with modern technology one person can do more things, what I called multi-skilling. Of course, there does come a point where, if you have too few people involved in a project, that does endanger the quality of the journalism. Is there a pressure for you to drive multi-skilling to such a point that you do not have enough people on a story?

  Mr Gray: That is a danger because there is commercial pressure. I cannot stand aside and watch the industry as a whole go a certain way and then become uncompetitive. However, you cannot buy into it so deeply that you cannot provide the right product, so you are right: for me this is an everyday balance between multi-skilling and making sure that what is on the screen is the right stuff. As I said at the beginning, we could give Channel 4 a programme at half the price and it probably would be quite good, but we would not find many things out.

  Ms Byrne: There are longer pieces that we do that I do not think they could be done with that level of multi-skilling because we are a news/current affairs cross-over programme, so we have agreed the limits on multi-skilling in our new newsroom that we are constructing at the moment. I should also say with regard to your last question that our contract with ITN runs to great lengths and one reason for that is to ensure that Channel 4 gets value for money at every moment and that if there are any reductions in ITV's service we are protected.

  Q92  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Would Channel 4 be happy if ITV were to gain complete ownership of ITN?

  Ms Byrne: One of the points in our contract is obviously that we could review the situation were that to happen, and were that to happen that is what we would do. I think it would depend but we have got a number of clauses in the contract. One, obviously, relates to the ownership of ITN but also to the ownership of ITV and to any reduction in ITV's service. We have tried to imagine every potential scenario and to protect our interests should that happen.

  Q93  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Can I go back to a point that you touched on earlier, which was about the audience share for your programmes? I think you said that for the evening programme it was about a million and that that was relatively stable.

  Mr Gray: Yes.

  Q94  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Can you tell us a bit about ratings overall for all your news output and how it compares with the way that ratings for your overall programme have gone over the past decade?

  Ms Byrne: Roughly speaking, the percentage for the news is 5% and the percentage for Channel 4 as a whole is 10%, so roughly speaking it is half. Our lunchtime news programme is about 200,000. That has been pretty stable since we started lunchtime news, which I should say we decided to start; it was not any requirement that we should start it. We come straight off the back of schools programmes and so we are in the slightly strange position that we have no audience inheritance because schoolchildren are not allowed to watch the news. It would be nice if that was a bit higher but I think it is roughly similar to some other programmes at around that time. More 4 News began only last year and, as I say, it has gone up by about 40% within that year and has currently the highest news rating of any news programme at that time. However, that means that it is only about 50,000, but the fact is that it has increased so much in a year, and I think we are really improving the programme as well on a daily basis. I have got quite high hopes for that programme and, again, from the research we have done, the audience really like it. They think it is a bit of a younger version of Channel 4 News and it is a bit more global, they say. They spot it has got a really interesting international agenda. We have just re-launched our news website and it is a very different website from what it was before, so we will not know for a few months what its usage is going to be.

  Q95  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Given that, obviously, there is quite a lot of concern at the moment, and the Ofcom report pointed this out, about the overall take-up of news and that the audience is volatile, to say the least, do you feel content that your particular brand of news is holding its own? I get the sense that you do.

  Ms Byrne: Yes. We are really pleased that it is holding its own, but our next step is to go out there and find audiences in other ways. The take-up of news by young people is, obviously, a great concern when you look at those Ofcom figures and that is one reason why we have put more money into the website, because if you look at some of the information there it looks like some young people are just getting their news on the internet and the BBC has got this enormous website. We cannot compete with it, it is so huge and they have got so much money. What we have got going for us is that young people really like Channel 4.

  Q96  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Can I stop you there because it would be very helpful if you could just tell us as briefly as you can how you know that, in other words, what mechanisms do you have for surveying audiences, who does it, does Channel 4 do it, does ITN do it, do you do it together, and what does it show?

  Ms Byrne: We have got a whole department which does research into our audiences and I know that they will be giving you at some point really detailed information. What we do know is that our main Channel 4 News is the youngest news on TV and I think 21% of the audience is 16-34, but more particularly we know that Channel 4 has a higher percentage of that 16-34 audience in general for its programmes. We feel that we have this good reputation among young people. They like us, they do not think we are patronising, so how can we take that reputation to where they are, and if they are on the internet or they are listening they want to listen to our new E4 radio station, so how can we take the brand, so to speak, and create with the same ethos a different version of Channel 4 News that would be right for the internet or right for the E4 radio station?

  Q97  Baroness Thornton: It is quite clear that you have a younger audience than the other public service broadcasters and you have said that you have got quite a large proportion of young people watching the news. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you fulfil a special role in providing news to engage that younger audience? What are you going to do, or are you going to do that, and how? You were starting to say that.

  Ms Byrne: I think Jim described it, because we have agreed that this is really important to us and he can describe the strategy.

  Mr Gray: As Dorothy said, that is the right figure. Currently the evening news programme has about a fifth or a quarter, sometimes 21%, sometimes 23% of 16-34-year olds. That compares with about 8% for other providers, so that is happening itself but you cannot sit back and be complacent. One temptation, of course, would be to stuff the programme full of youth-orientated things, but then you would degrade it. What we have done under the new contract which has released the funds is that we have employed some further specialists who will look for stories and pitch stories to me to get on the air which still satisfy all the journalistic credentials that we want but take our journalism in other areas, so we have technology correspondents looking at that field of new technology from broadband through to mobiles with a business slant, a consumer slant, a political slant, and finding out good stories there. We are doing more work in popular culture, so again that will have to satisfy our criteria of what makes a story on Channel 4 News. That is not "it". What I said at the very beginning is also "it"—the feel of the programme. It does not feel like an old man's programme. It feels very vital. There is a lot of vitality and a lot of energy, so the way we construct the programmes and the running orders and the shooting style are all part of what it is that goes to make Channel 4 News feel right for the audience as well as the content.

  Ms Byrne: It feels independent and it feels that it challenges the set agenda that a lot of other people have and I think that that may be what young people like about it.

  Q98  Lord Maxton: Given that young people use the net perhaps more than older people—and I am what is called a silver surfer but there are not many of us—whatever do you do, particularly with your new website, to get yourself on the front page, so to speak? When I go into Yahoo there are people there who are beaming their programmes straight in and basically showing me that this is where I should go. How do you do that?

  Mr Gray: That is part of the strategy currently being put through now in order to get linkages through to the Channel 4 website from key other drivers. There are ways you can go round that, but there are also journalistic ways you can go round that, by making sure that the top stories crop up, so this is how it feeds back into the programme. In order to keep your head above the noise on the net you have to have something different to say. One way of doing it is to just shout louder but if you have something different to say it means that you will be a more attractive proposition.

  Q99  Lord Maxton: Do you think you will get the younger viewers by that strategy to your news?

  Mr Gray: Yes. We are out there. As Dorothy said, the biggest challenge, frankly, is to come up with something that people can see because it is news driven. If people just want the news then BBC is the option, it is so vast, it is so comprehensive and it is high quality, but if you want to find out what it is that Channel 4 has got to say about that news story or if they have got anything extra to say, you need to get that message forward and that is why we are trying to find means of drawing in younger viewers and net users from other sources.

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