Channel 4 warns of news cutbacks unless funding gap plugged

Channel 4 chiefs have warned Parliament they may be forced to cut back on news coverage if the Government does not help them plug a £150m funding gap.

Chairman Luke Johnson and chief executive Andy Duncan told a cross-party watchdog of peers that news and current affairs coverage would only be axed as a last resort.

‘It would be the very last thing we would chop,’Johnson told the House of Lords Communications Committee.

But he told peers that cutbacks could not be ruled out unless there was some solution to the looming cash crisis facing the broadcaster.

Labour peer Lord Corbett, a former journalist, asked him whether he was saying there ‘may come a time when news and current affairs programmes are under threat’and ‘if you are going to survive’they may have to be reduced.

‘Ultimately it may come to that,’Johnson conceded.

Duncan said the broadcaster was committed to retaining the one-hour news slot in the evening, which Johnson said cost ‘more than £10m”.

He said: “The quality of Channel 4 news is rated by the audience and by politicians.”

Johnson said the broadcaster was working with Ofcom to come up with an alternative option to replace the subsidy which is effectively provided by Channel 4 having a licence to broacast on one of the five terrestrial channels which will be lost when digital switch over is completed in 2012. He said they hoped to have a preferred option within six months.

One option he conceded was for the BBC to give up some of the £600m it had been allocated to pay for digital switchover which it may no longer need.

Last week Channel 4 launched its appeal for public service funding. Its “Next on 4” mission statement included plans for increased commitment to news and current affairs and the creation of a fund for producing public service digital content. The broadcaster also pledged to target a youth audience and broadcast more new programmes than any of its competitors.

The executives told the House of Lord committee they would also be concerned if ITN, which provides Channel 4 news, lost the ITV news contract.

‘While the current ITV news contract with ITN is due to run until 2012, in theory if a consortium involving Sky were to win the ITV news contract Channel 4 would be concerned that it would reduce plurality of news supply,’Johnson said.

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