House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee inquiry on the future of Channel 4
“But, but that was long ago
Now my consolation is in the stardust of a song
The melody haunts my reverie
And I am once again with….”
Standing Committee F on the Broadcasting Bill 1990
● I think the issue of privatising Channel 4 is less important than the context: DCMS’ contempt for due process and the enfeeblement of Ofcom.
● Ownership is not the issue - remit and regulation is the key issue.
● I outline what needs to be done to safeguard Channel 4 and ensure it makes a unique contribution to the UK broadcasting ecology.
● I explain the key elements that should be included in any tendering process.
● I demonstrate what history can tell us and why the current debate is déjà vu, all over again.
● I explain what gives me the authority to say this.
The executive branch seems willing to do away with any of the traditional checks and balances to unfettered government. It is deeply disturbing if appointments to Ofcom itself and to Channel Four come under direct political control. Television news, in contrast to newspapers, is massively trusted by the public because it does not follow party political lines.
I was wrong
Ownership is not the issue - Remit and regulation is the issue
Commercial companies and public good
“For almost 40 years, Channel 4 has been a launch pad for new ideas and new talent. It’s been able to do that because of its remit and not-for-profit structure and it would be a real shame if that was destroyed by selling off the channel”.
“Channel 4 now took advantage of the 2003 Act to issue a “statement of media policy” of inordinate length and minimal consequence, which allowed it to abandon virtually all the impressive PSB quotas that had distinguished its first two decades of broadcasting. Tier 2 requirements kept peak-time news and current affairs alive, but the 16 hours a week of formal education, schools, multicultural output and religion all disappeared, along with most serious documentaries and arts output (there was a time when Channel 4 not only broadcast whole operas but commissioned them).
To rub salt in the wound, Channel 4 proceeded to categorise any factual programme as “educational”, claiming to broadcast 50 hours a week of “education”. For this shameful outcome, we can only blame Ofcom, as the 2003 Act specifically requires Channel 4 to make “a significant contribution of programmes of an educational nature and other programmes of educational value”. The pre-Ofcom regulators would have known what that language meant.
The old requirements for first-run UK-originated (FRUKO) programmes (60% of the schedule, 80% in peak time) have been dropped. Repeats regularly constitute 60% of the schedule and could in theory – apart from news and current affairs requirements – fill the entire schedule without breaching Channel 4’s Ofcom licence. The decline in delivery of what Ofcom itself called at-risk genres, combined with the halving of its audience share, meant that consumption of old PSB-style content through watching Channel 4 amounts on average to one minute per day per viewer.
The “statement of media policy” provision in the 2003 Act allows broadcasters like Channel 4 to self-set and self-mark notions of PSB output, which simply have to meet Ofcom’s own baggy definitions of public service “purposes and characteristics”. These tests cannot be failed.”
Not just Statutory
1516. In view of what you have just quoted may I say it only goes to show that one of the pre-requisites for quality is you should be able to live in a fool’s paradise.
(Mr Albury) I have heard the reference to a fool’s paradise.
1517. Yes, I made it slightly earlier.
(Mr Albury) That is right. I am a fool perhaps and I wish to live in a paradise where the four terrestrial channels we have at the moment are sustained until such a point that it is clear that we do not need them. I do not know when that point is going to come. At that point it will be clear that we do not need them. What I hope this Committee will do is seek to sustain those four general services until they are not needed.
Chairman (Gerald Kaufman)
1518. It is not a question of whether they can be sustained while we need them, it is a question of whether they can survive whether we need them or not in the United Kingdom environment.
(Mr Albury) I believe that is very much a matter of political will, at least within the next ten years, that funding can be made available, adjustments can be made.
1519.1 think you are extremely complimentary to our capabilities and I have to say I believe you are over-complimentary to our capabilities.
(Mr Albury) Can l respond to that, Mr Chairman. I was amazed at the changes. As you can tell I am a Committee groupie and I sat through most of Standing Committee F and I was amazed at the changes that were brought about. I believe the people who sat on that Committee saved ITV from becoming a dreadful second rate system. It (the Committee) got obligations in. Mr Howarth is not here, he said there were no statutory obligations for social action programming and that is correct but there were other mechanisms that were put into the Bill that enabled the ITC to expect social action progamming, companies offered social action programming and a whole range of intentions to which they are now bound. I think what that Committee did was very significant.”
Illustrative guidelines enabled the ITC to seek commitments that went beyond statutory requirements. On 8th February 1990. David Mellor told the committee:
“I have accepted an amendment that gives the ITC to publish illustrative guidelines setting out the range of programmes. The ITC as a whole believes it has the right to say it wants to see a proper range of programmes shown. Important categories such as drama, documentaries, arts and social action programmes will be expected to be shown on a diverse service.”
The Exceptional Circumstances clause allowed the ITC to disregard the highest bid if a lower bidder proposed programmes of exceptionally higher quality. The effect was to raise the level of quality offered in the bids. (I have rediscovered that this important qualification was developed by the late David Glencross, David Elstein and myself on a Brighton – London rail journey on 12 January 1990).
“An IBA Paper (153989) prepared in October (1989) by Michael Redley, an economist who had been seconded from the Treasury to be (then Acting IBA Director General) Shirley Littler’s Chief Assistant, argued that the quality threshold should be set as high as the Act and the economic prospects would allow and that the ITC should test for ‘high quality’ as an aspect of diversity”.
The Committee added a range of measures including the award of licences only to ‘fit and proper persons’, range and diversity in terms of ‘cost of acquisition and range of programmes’, and statutory requirements for children’s and religious programmes.
Who is Connie?
“the government has deliberately created a situation where nearly half of the non-executive directorships on the Channel 4 board, including the Chairmanship, will be vacant by the end of the year. Since those directors will appointed by Ofcom “in agreement with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport” the chance will be there for the government to begin to install a board for whom privatisation is a given. The job of these new directors would not be overseeing the running of a publicly-owned broadcaster or to resist privatisation, it would be to make the transition to a new private owner as smooth as possible.”
“The Sunday Times reported (and others have confirmed privately) that No. 10 had “urged the regulator Ofcom to drop Dame Melanie Dawes as its next chief executive in favour of someone who would challenge the BBC”. I’m very keen to see Ofcom continue to challenge the BBC but it was quite wrong for government to seek to block the CEO chosen by the Ofcom board on that basis.
In 2017, when Ofcom proposed to do an inadequate job on regulating the BBC on diversity, there was a political argy-bargy. Government ministers Matt Hancock and Karen Bradley gave Ofcom a good kicking and Ofcom produced better plans. A proper tension between government and regulator played out in public. That’s how it is supposed to work. Ofcom is working on the latest public service broadcasting review. It could be important. The appointment of a different CEO, with the government’s agenda, would devalue anything Ofcom says in its public service broadcasting Review.
Eventually, after months of government procrastination, Dame Melanie Dawes was appointed on 12 February 2020. It was also announced that the Ofcom chair, Lord Burns, would step down early.
A former Government advisor told me: “Terry has had to fall on his own sword to get Dawes appointed. From the government’s point of view, better to choose the chairman rather than influence the choice of CEO. The Government have achieved what they wanted, in fact they’ve done better.” 
“Dougie has (DCMS Secretary of State Oliver) Dowden on a string,” said a senior political source. “Dougie is always calling up cabinet ministers and saying: ‘This is what Boris wants.’ Hardly anyone questions it. He has his own agenda.”
“The first attempt to appoint Dacre, an arch-critic of the BBC, unexpectedly failed at the final round of interview process. Even though the government appointed the four-strong advisory committee, it concluded Dacre’s strong opinions on the British media meant he did not meet the stated criteria to become chair of the Ofcom board.
Rather than accept the verdict and appoint another one of the candidates who did pass the vetting process, ministers instead decided to scrap the competition altogether and rerun it from scratch to enable Dacre to have another try.
An issue now facing the government is how to find people with a credible record in business or public life who are willing to sit on the new interview panel. One individual who has been informally tapped up as a potential interviewer told the Guardian they refused to take part in the recruitment process.
They feared their public reputation would be damaged if they were perceived to be taking part in a vetting process that only exists because the government wants Dacre’s appointment to be rubber-stamped.” 
Never Abandon Hope
1 September 2021
 Stardust lyric, Songwriters: Carmichael Hoagy / Parish Mitchell
 Pareto, Vilfredo (1935). The Mind and Society. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company
 “Major players back Broadcast’s Not 4 Sale campaign” Broadcast, 20 July 2021
 “A (not so) brief history of PSB Time” in “What's The Point Of Ofcom” ed John Mair, April 2021
 This committee may have seen and heard enough from me on the BBC and diversity in 2015 and 2019. If not, I should be told.
 Op cit
 “Fitting The Bill – Jane Thynne talks to the MP (David Mellor) with a talent for compromise” Sunday Telegraph - 7 Days, June 10 – 18 1990.
 “In view of what you have just quoted may I say it only goes to show that one of the pre-requisites of quality is you should be able to live in a fool’s paradise”1516 HOUSE OF COMMONS Session 1992-93, NATIONAL HERITAGE COMMITTEE, THE FUTURE OF THE BBC, MINUTES OF EVIDENCE Wednesday 27 October 1993
 “Under The Hammer” by Andrew Davidson, Mandarin Paperback 1993. (This edition corrects an inaccuracy in the hardback edition of 1992)
 “Independent Television in Britain Volume 5” by Paul Bonner with Lesley Ashton, Macmillan Press 1998.
 Op cit
 “Channel 4:Blocking of Althea Efunshile from C4 board 'beggars belief', says MP”, Mark Brown, Charlotte Higgins and Mark Sweney, Guardian 7 December 2016.
 Channel 4:the 30 years war. An insider’s account by Stewart Purvis British Journalism Review Volume 32 Number 3
 “Is the BBC in Peril?”Edited by John Mair and Tom Bradshaw, A Bite-Sized Public Affairs Book
 “How the Tories weaponised woke”by Tim Shipman, Sunday Times, June 13 2021
 “Ministers struggle to find people to interview Paul Dacre for Ofcom job” by Jim Waterson, Guardian, 31 August 2021