The privatisation of Channel 4 would carry a “significant risk” of “adversely affecting” the channel’s news output, according to a House of Lords report.
The warning comes from members of the Select Committee on Communications who have today published the findings of their report “A privatised future for Channel 4?”.
It follows an indication from the Government 11 months ago that it was looking at options for the state-owned but commercially funded Channel 4 Corporation (C4C), including privatisation.
The committee heard a range of evidence during its inquiry, launched in March, that principally focused on the sustainability of the channel under public ownership.
In one of its key findings, the peers’ report states Channel 4 News, produced by ITN, is “important because it provides a different reporting style and viewpoint to other public service broadcasters”.
It adds: “The Committee considers that there is a significant risk that this genre could be adversely affected by privatisation.”
The report quotes evidence from ITN that says last year Channel 4 News broadcast 238 hours of news reaching 40m viewers and that year on year it has achieved audience growth of four per cent per year for the past two years.
It is said to have the highest percentage of young viewers (those aged 16 to 34) of any news programme, making up 15 per cent of its audience compared with seven per cent at the BBC.
As such, the report notes that the channel has been “held as an example of a success in terms of traditionally harder to reach audiences for news”.
It goes on to warn that news would be “particularly under threat” under private, profit-making ownership “as it is not as profitable as other genres”.
The report quotes former Chairman of Channel 4 Television Luke Johnson as saying: “Channel 4 broadcasts Channel 4 News between 7pm and 8pm. Effectively, it loses a huge amount of money doing that, quite deliberately, because it sees it as important; if you like, it is public service broadcasting.
“It pays the price directly because it gets less advertising, because the audiences are lower.”
The report quotes Channel 4 bosses as saying that the fear of upsetting commercial interests would influence it to be “more cautious and less robust” in its contribution to news and current affairs plurality.
Written evidence submitted to the inquiry from the International Broadcasting Trust stated: “If C4C were privatised its weekday hour-long news could be maintained but the quality of its journalism and investigations would deteriorate in order to minimise costs.
“There would be fewer reports from international locations, especially those where security is an issue and which are therefore more expensive to produce; time-consuming investigations would be discontinued in favour of studio interviews; and the production team would become increasingly dependent on the wires as their primary source of information.”
The IBT added: “We predict that in order to maximise profits and reduce production costs, a commercially driven company would fulfil the commitment to provide voices from around the world through VT inserts in its main news bulletin and drop the existing current affairs provision such as Unreported World.”
Commenting on the report, Chair of the Committee Lord Best, said: “Channel 4 is an important and much valued part of the nation’s media landscape, and boasts an array of innovative and creative programming as well as a strong commitment to public service broadcasting.
“This is evident from its distinct news and current affairs coverage, its much-lauded contribution to cinema through Film4, and its pioneering approach to on-screen diversity.
“However, we fear that these qualities would be jeopardised were the channel to be sold off. We believe that news output would be especially vulnerable, given its prime time position in the schedules.
“We are calling on the Government not to take forward any ideas to privatise Channel 4, wholly or in part, as it is our view that the risks from selling it off are greater than any benefits that may arise.
“In our report we also conclude that the current business model is in fact working well for the broadcaster, and we do not believe that Channel 4 is too vulnerable to continue as it is.
“We add that if the Secretary of State does pursue a privatisation proposal, we would call on him to ensure safeguards are in place to guarantee that there was no negative impact on the viewer or the UK’s creative industries.”
The government has two months from today to reply to the committee’s findings.