Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Channel 4


  1.  Channel 4 welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to the Committee's inquiry into media ownership and news. We firmly believe that plurality of news provision is vital in a democracy. Not only is plurality of provision of UK and international news necessary in order to provide different sources of information upon which citizens can form their own opinions, but also local and national news, reflecting the structure of government within the UK.

  2.  As a public service broadcaster Channel 4 is required by statute to provide high quality news services throughout the day and in peaktime. Our flagship bulletin is the 7 pm weekday programme. This multi-award winning programme is the only hour long, peaktime national news bulletin available on terrestrial television, which enables it to go into stories in much greater depth (see para 8). It is produced for Channel 4 by ITN. In recent years Channel 4 has added to this service with the introduction of a weekday lunchtime bulletin. In addition Channel 4 provides a 30-minute news bulletin on its digital-only channel More4 at 8 pm each weekday. Channel 4 News is also available on a range of new media platforms. In 2008 Channel 4, as part of the 4 Digital Group, will be launching a new radio multiplex, which will also include news services.

  3.  Of the major ways in which news can be accessed (television, newspapers, radio, internet, magazines and mobile phone), television and radio are the only media which are independently regulated to protect fairness, accuracy and impartiality.[1] Whilst, there has been a significant proliferation in the number of available news sources in recent years (eg the Internet), recent research carried out for Ofcom[2] confirms that the vast majority of consumers (65% in 2006) identify television news as their main source of news (cf 14% for newspapers). We believe, therefore, that there remains a significant public interest in policy makers securing the availability of a range of high quality, trusted television news providers for the long-term.

  4.  Below we answer the specific questions posed by the Committee in its initial Call for Evidence.

How and why have the agendas of news providers changed? How has the content of news programmes and newspapers altered over the years?

  5.  We are not in a position to comment on newspapers but it is not clear that the content (ie the range of topics covered) of the main TV news bulletins has changed significantly in recent years. Analysis of the main TV news bulletins conducted for Ofcom in autumn 2006 for its 2007 report New News, Future News, demonstrated that "bulletins on all channels covered a diverse range of news, eg from party politics to entertainment stories. But there was no evidence that PSB news bulletins are following a `soft' or `dumbed down' news agenda."[3] Indeed one of the features of the analysis was that "a greater proportion of time was devoted to major political stories in 2006 than in 2002."

  6.  Insofar as Channel 4 News is concerned Figure A3.1 in Ofcom's report shows that during the period surveyed c.90% of the Channel 4 News agenda consisted of a mix of "hard" non-political news stories and political stories. It also demonstrates that compared to BBC1, ITV1 and Five a much greater proportion of the Channel 4 News agenda is dedicated to "political stories".

  7.  The same analysis confirmed that Channel4 News "features the highest number of international stories of any of the bulletins surveyed..." We estimate that c.40% of the Channel 4 News agenda is focused on international news stories. We believe that it is Channel 4 News' particular focus on international news, combined with the use of a diverse range of presenters that makes it the preferred bulletin of choice for members of the UK's ethnic minority communities.[4] We believe that meeting the needs of these communities is central to the delivery of our particular public service duty to serve the interests of a culturally diverse society.

  8.  Notwithstanding the fact that ITN is the ultimate provider of news to both ITV and Channel 4, we ensure that the editorial priorities for our news are clear and distinctive. Our editorial remit is set out in the specifications of our contract with ITN to ensure that our news remains distinctive and authoritative, while providing challenge and surprise by covering a range of items not dealt with by other news broadcasters. This distinctiveness extends to our format, which readily adapts to running pieces of 15-20 minutes, as compared to the usual maximum of five minutes on other channels. We believe this provides a real benefit to viewers, providing a more in-depth, considered approach to news items and is just one way in which Channel 4 makes a distinctive contribution to the public service broadcasting landscape.

How is the way that people access the news changing?

  9.  Clearly there are many more sources of news and information available to people today than there were a decade ago. This rise in news availability has been driven in particular by the arrival of the Internet. In light of these changes, the extent to which television news has remained the dominant source of news is remarkable.

  10.  Ofcom's recent report New News, Future News (as referenced elsewhere) contains useful analysis of this issue. We will not rehearse Ofcom's analysis here in full, but we would point out that Ofcom's figures indicate that television news has held its share very successfully. In the Ofcom research 94% of respondents stated that television was a source of news for them, compared to 27% for the Internet (although this figure was up from 15% in 2002). Even amongst 16-24 year olds 86% claimed TV as a source of news.

  11.  Despite an overall decline in viewing of public service channels (18% since 2001; 13.5% since 2002) and increased choice for viewers in multi-channel homes, television news has to some extent defied the trends. Whereas one would expect a drop in news viewing after the peak of 2001 and the events of 9/11, the decline in news viewing measured from 2000 to 2006 was only 3.4%, and from 2002 to 2006 3%. This demonstrates that television news remains a fundamental part of citizens' viewing.

  12.  Notwithstanding the above observations it is clear that particularly for the younger audience, more and more media consumption will take place on platforms other than terrestrial TV (broadband, mobile etc). It is our view, therefore, that if public service providers are to remain relevant for these audiences we will have to supply news content across a whole range of platforms and in a variety of different forms.

How has the process of news gathering changed?

  13.  The newsgathering service that underpins Channel 4 News is provided by ITN. We have discussed this issue with ITN and understand that they will be providing the Committee with a response on this point. As such, we do not propose to repeat these points here.

What is the impact of the concentration of media ownership on the balance and diversity of opinion in the news? Does ownership have an impact on editorial priorities and on news values such as fairness, accuracy and impartiality?

  14.  Insofar as television news is concerned the current concentration of media ownership has no discernible impact on the balance and diversity of opinion seen in the news. For example, in spite of the fact that both Channel 4 and ITV are supplied by the same news organisation (ITN), which is itself 40% owned by ITV, the news bulletins that appear on both channels are clearly distinctive and editorially independent. In fact, the use of the same supplier enables both ITV and Channel 4 to achieve significant efficiencies through shared costs, and the access that ITN's relationship with ITV's regional news services gives us to resources around the UK certainly enhances the quality and range of voices that Channel 4 News is able to feature. The importance of this interrelationship is the reason that we have expressed concern to Ofcom about ITV's recently announced desire to reduce the number of regional programmes it provides in England and Wales from 17 to 10.

  15.  The news values of fairness, accuracy and impartiality are protected to a large extent by the regulatory requirements placed on licensed television services under the Communications Act. We believe that the maintenance of these requirements is central to maintaining the quality of broadcast journalism in the UK. We do not, therefore, support the proposal floated by Ofcom in New News, Future News to remove impartiality requirements for non-PSB licensed TV services. In the current circumstances the removal of these provisions would largely affect just one major news provider—Sky—which is itself controlled by a company that owns 40% of the UK's newspaper market.

  16.  It is clear from Ofcom's research that impartiality is a quality that is highly prized by the audience and we believe it is one of the bedrocks upon which licensed TV services in the UK should continue to be built.

  17.  Notwithstanding the regulatory protection provided under the Communications Act for the maintenance of editorial standards (fairness, impartiality etc), the quality of news in the UK is, in our view, also contingent on the maintenance of a competitive market in the supply of news and newsgathering services. Clearly, given the relatively small number of suppliers in the TV news market, further consolidation of media ownership could potentially undermine the values that have underpinned TV news (fairness, impartiality etc) and the diversity of opinions expressed. It is for this reason that we have made representations to the Competition Commission as part of its investigation into Sky's purchase of a major stake in ITV (which in turn owns 40% of ITN). We do not propose to go into this point in detail here as we understand the Committee will be issuing a further call for evidence on media ownership matters later in the year.

How should the public interest be protected and defined in terms of news provision Are the public interest considerations set down for Ofcom in the Communications Act 2003 enough to ensure a plurality of debating voices in the UK media?

  18.  With regard to terrestrial television news the core objectives established for Ofcom under section 3(2)(c) of the Communications Act (namely to ensure there will be a wide range of broadcasting which (taken as a whole) is both of high quality and calculated to appeal to a wide variety of tastes and interests) coupled with the specific requirements on news contained in section 279 (News and current affairs programmes) are clear. However, Ofcom's ability to guarantee the delivery of these outcomes will come under significant pressure as we head towards digital switchover as the funding model that has historically underpinned such programming on the commercially-funded PSB services comes under threat.

  19.  Ofcom has clearly recognised that the changes taking place in the market will pose a threat to future news provision (both regional and national), a fact reflected in its New News, Future News discussion document. In addition, in the terms of reference of its forthcoming public service broadcasting review, which were published in September, Ofcom states that "the future of news content, notably in the nations and regions", will be a "specific issue to address".

  20.  We believe that ensuring on-going provision of a range of television news providers should be a regulatory and—if necessary—a parliamentary priority. Section 3(2)(d) of the Act obliges Ofcom to maintain `a sufficient plurality of providers' of different television and radio services, but does not provide any guidance as to what `sufficient plurality' may be. We would hope that the Committee's inquiry will focus attention on the issue of what constitutes sufficient plurality and the policy steps that might be necessary to secure it for the long-term.

4 September 2007

1   Newspapers and magazines are self-regulated by the PCC for privacy and accuracy. The internet (other than newspaper/magazine sites) and mobile phones are unregulated. Back

2   New News, Future News, published by Ofcom in June 2007. Back

3   A3.7 of Annex to Ofcom report, Back

4   A YouGov survey for the Cultural Diversity Network in September 2006 identified Channel 4 News as the bulletin that best covers ethnic minority issues in the view of the ethnic minority audience. Back

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