MPs grill Channel 4 over Sean Langan ransom claim

Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan refused to say today whether or not the broadcaster paid a £150,000 ransom for the release of a kidnapped documentary maker.

Freelance reporter Sean Langan was working for the Channel 4 programme Dispatches when he was kidnapped on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He spent three months in captivity before being freed in June.

Duncan was questioned at a Channel 4 oral evidence session into its 2007 annual report before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in Westminster.

He was asked by Conservative MP Nigel Evans whether or not the channel had paid a £150,000 ransom.

Suggestions were made at the time of Langan’s release that money was paid to a Taliban-linked group.

Duncan responded that conversations with Langan’s family and others involved were very sensitive and “we have made commitments not to talk about it.”

He said: “Our main role was that we’re supporting the family.”

Evans told the committee that the matter was of “great public interest” as paying ransom money endangered the lives of other journalists operating in Afghanistan, Iraq and other troubled areas.

Duncan said that the channel was in regular contact with the Foreign Office throughout, but said he was not in a position to confirm details about what happened.

He said: “This is a highly, highly complex area… One of the things that we were advised at the time is that there aren’t any blanket rules.”

Asked if the Foreign Office was aware of everything Channel 4 was doing, Duncan said that “… as much as anything, it was a sharing of information”.

He said that at times the Foreign Office gave Channel 4 information.

Evans said: “If the ransom is paid as well, Channel 4 ends up funding terrorists. That money would have gone into buying more guns, and actually promoting terrorism… that’s why we’re concerned about it.”

Duncan said he understood the concern – and he emphasised that Langan was “kidnapped by a criminal gang and it was in no way political.”

The session was held to scrutinise Channel 4’s performance as a publicly-owned organisation, including its strategy.

Ofcom is holding a review into public service broadcasting, with a final statement next year. The Government has said it will step up the pace of its response to the review.

The regulator’s analysis has suggested that by 2012 Channel 4 could need extra funding of between £60m to £100m to deliver its existing remit and the broadcaster recently announced 150 job cuts.

The channel’s chairman Luke Johnson described channel to the committee as “an alternative voice – we are not the BBC… There are people who don’t watch the BBC and never will.”

Asked what he would think about the privatisation of Channel 4, Mr Johnson said it was an option, but there was a “grave danger” that the terms would lead to “tearing the heart out of Channel 4”.

He warned it could lead to a schedule of acquisitions and imports, quiz shows and reality TV.

On the subject of whether executives would sacrifice their bonuses given the recent job losses, Johnson said it was too early to determine what would happen.

He said it was partly up to the executives, adding: “There are contracts in place but I’m sure they will demonstrate leadership.”

Duncan also responded to questions about whether Channel 4 would like some of the BBC licence fee, saying it was one of many options laid down.

He continued: “Our focus is on getting a decision and getting a decision early.”

Duncan stipulated that the channel should be allowed to remain editorially independent and commercially entrepreneurial.

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