Channel 4 – written evidence (DAD0055)


  1. Introduction


1.1            Channel 4 welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee’s inquiry into the impact of digital technologies on democracy. The Internet has had a transformational effect on society and has brought with it great advantages. However, it has become increasingly apparent that, in the online world, legislation has failed to keep pace as digital platforms have grown rapidly unchecked despite their increasing importance and influence in our everyday and democratic lives.


1.2            Insufficient regulation and the unchecked dominance of digital platforms have surfaced several important societal (and industry) issues and Channel 4 believes that progress has been slow and inconsistent in protecting citizens from these. This contrasts with public service broadcasting in the UK, which exists to serve society, has best in class regulation and sets a benchmark in terms of trust and standards. Over the last few decades, the UK’s public service broadcasting (PSB) ecology has played a vital role in British public life, supporting British democratic values and culture. It continues to be a beacon for trusted impartial information, but the playing field needs to be more even to ensure that citizens are protected and so that broadcasters can compete on a fair basis.


1.3            Whilst we welcome the proposals to establish a new independent regulator for the digital economy outlined in the Government’s recent Online Harms White Paper, we also believe that these measures could be complemented further by greater support for public service broadcasting. This approach has the benefit of being more expedient than setting up the new regulator, which would likely take several years. 


  1. About Channel 4


2.1            With a mission to innovate, be diverse, present alternative views and stimulate debate, Channel 4 is required to take risks and challenge the status quo. As a publicly-owned, but entirely commercially-funded public service broadcaster (PSB), Channel 4 sits as a unique hybrid alongside the BBC, ITV and Channel 5. This model ensures that Channel 4 operates free from both commercial and political influence, as a broadcaster that is not shareholder-owned but which also operates at no cost to the public purse. Under this model, Channel 4 puts its profits back into programmes, with the ultimate objective of delivering its statutory remit and specific Ofcom licence obligations. Combined with Channel 4’s status as a publisher-broadcaster, which means all of its commissioned programmes are made by external production companies, Channel 4 is an agile and innovative challenger brand in the creative industries.


2.2            It is important to note within the context of this specific inquiry, Channel 4’s detailed statutory public service remit includes requirements to produce high quality news and current affairs; to support and stimulate well-informed debate on a wide range of issues, including by providing access to information and views from around the world; as well as requirements to challenge established views and promote alternative views and new perspectives.


2.3            In addition, whilst there have been significant changes to the UK media in recent years with the rise in digital and online, TV has remained remarkably strong and Channel 4 has had a proud history of innovation in this space. Channel 4 was the first broadcaster in the world to launch a VOD service – 4oD in 2006 – which, 12 years later, evolved into All 4. As well as being the first to launch an on-demand service, Channel 4 was also the first to register viewers online, which was launched alongside our award-winning Viewer Promise and enables us to tailor programme recommendations and deliver relevant advertising to viewers. All 4 now has over 19 million registered users including two-thirds of all 16-34 year olds in the UK, demonstrating Channel 4’s ability to reach audiences across different platforms and compete with other online services. All 4 continues to grow and digital is now a £138m a year business with 11% growth in our digital revenues last year.


  1. Public Service Broadcasting acts an important antidote to the negative impacts digital technologies can pose on democracy


3.1            Whilst the internet has unquestionably transformed how people around the world communicate, gather information and consume educational and entertaining content, the scale and pace of this technological change has also presented many challenges due to the lack of regulation compared to traditional media. Indeed, digital technologies are overwhelmingly a force for good, but it is undeniable that they have also led to a multitude of harms of significant societal concern which have the potential to threaten our way of life in the UK.


3.2            Information from social media networks have driven the creation of filter bubbles, where national discourse is divided and segregated into mutually reinforcing ‘echo chambers’. Political discourse is polarised and uncertain, and there are high levels of mistrust from the public on those they perceive as the elite. People are increasingly concerned about the power of technology over their lives – whether that is concerning the safety of their personal data, the integrity of their democratic elections or the impact of artificial intelligence. All of these issues mean that there is a need more than ever for national broadcasters with specific remits to provide trusted, accurate information, to hold power to account, to reflect Britain as it truly is and to give space to diverging voices and crucially allow them to hear each other.

Negative impact of digital technologies on public discourse

3.3            Of particular relevance to Channel 4 as a trusted media organisation, is the proliferation of disinformation, misinformation and “fake news” which have emerged on digital platforms and the impact it can have on democracy. The Committee will be well aware of the concerns around fake news and the risks to democratic processes such as elections from digital and social media, including – to name just three – the difficulties of identifying trustworthy sources of news, the tendency for services such as YouTube and Facebook to push consumers (through recommendations, etc.) towards more extreme points of view and thereby exacerbate political polarisation, and the inability of social media services to prevent malicious operators from influencing elections or spreading outright lies. It can also damage our trust in our democratic institutions, including Parliament.


3.4            One of the key concerns is the influence this could have on young people, who are increasingly consuming news through online platforms. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has shown that increasingly vast quantities of people are accessing news and information through social messaging software such as WhatsApp alongside the social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter[1]. Millennials are also more likely than previous generations to use digital devices to access news which gives them the freedom to ‘snack’ on small but frequent bits of news throughout the day that are integrated with their daily activities[2]. Despite this, there is currently no regulation in place to ensure that the news they consume is accurate.


3.5            Indeed, spurred on by a consumer appetite for tailored content, social media has become increasingly influential in how people access news. Yet social media platforms are able to use algorithms to tailor this content for what they believe users would like to see.[3] On sites such as Facebook and Twitter, this content can be based on information such as their interests, location and past-click behaviour or what is ‘trending’. This has led to the creation of “filter bubbles” where news feeds use algorithms that direct users to content that echoes and reinforces their own views.


3.6            This contrasts with the UK public service broadcasters which have best in class regulation and sets a benchmark in terms of trust and standards. These broad issues also speak directly to the specific remits of the PSBs and they matter more than ever in addressing concerns about democracy, society and technology. PSBs play a vital role at the heart of British culture – helping to deliver and shape social cohesion, strengthening democracy by creating a public (and transparent) space where national conversations take place and where people are exposed to different views and experiences. There is a need for national broadcasters with specific remits to provide trusted, accurate information, to hold power to account, to reflect Britain as it truly is and to give space to diverging voices and crucially allow them to hear each other.

Importance of trusted PSB news for a well-functioning democracy

3.7            As the Government highlights in their White Paper, maintaining a news environment where accurate content can prevail and high quality news has a sustainable future is vital to healthy democratic engagement[4]. In the current social and political context, many have argued that the need for reliable and trusted news is more important now than it has been for many decades, and this makes the PSBs more important than ever as trusted sources of news. The UK is a case in point for highlighting the benefits of a sophisticated broadcasting ecology that provides trusted news. The UK system is underpinned by a strong public service broadcasting core comprising a variety of organisations with different models, missions and purposes which serve the British public with a wide range of public service programming – from the publicly owned and publicly funded BBC, through to commercial providers such as ITV and Channel 5.


3.8            Two other elements of the UK’s public service broadcasting system underpin its world- renowned status for high-quality and trusted news. Firstly, an independent system of regulation overseen by Ofcom, with strict rules on accuracy and due impartiality and other detailed content standards as set out in Ofcom’s Broadcast Code. As broadcasters are licensed, this means that regulators have real powers to sanction those broadcasters behaving inappropriately – and indeed Ofcom have utilised this power in the past through fines and even the ultimate sanction of removing a licence to broadcast, as was the case with Press TV. Secondly, a clear set of quotas and requirements for the provision of high quality news and current affairs.


3.9            Within this, Channel 4’s distinctive public service remit, outlined above, ensures that Channel 4 News takes a different approach to news coverage than other broadcasters and is known for its risk-taking, high-impact, agenda-setting journalism. The investigative approach of Channel 4 News has an important impact in society, public life and the wider world. In 2019, Channel 4 News was recently awarded one of world's most prestigious journalism awards - a Peabody Award for News - for its undercover investigation into Cambridge Analytica, seven Royal Television Society Awards including programmes of the year and, last year, its third International Emmy for News in five years for its coverage of the Syrian Civil War.


3.10        Reflecting its remit to innovate and challenge established views, Channel 4 News launched the first regular source of political fact-checking in Europe with its online FactCheck blog in 2005. The tool now has a team of three full-time fact checkers focusing on the news stories, personalities and events that shape our time and has become an important resource in providing an independent, impartial and evidence-based assessment of claims made in the course of the news agenda.


3.11        Viewers recognise the value of the PSBs’ news services: Channel 4’s long-running audience survey of viewer perceptions of the independence of TV news (reported each year in its Annual Report) shows that, in 2018, the main news programmes on the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky all registered substantial increases in their scores for being independent from the government and from the influence of big businesses. Channel 4 News was the most highly regarded TV news provider across the two metrics, with its highest ever scores: 91% of its regular viewers regarded it as being independent from the government, and 88% of regular viewers agreed that it is independent from the influence of big businesses. Reuters Institute found that of the four most trusted news brands in the UK, three were from the PSBs[5]. Ofcom’s 2018 News Consumption report shows that across four measures – high quality, accurate, trustworthy and impartial – TV scores ahead of radio, newspapers, other internet and social media[6].


3.12        It is therefore not surprising that research conducted by YouGov in 2018[7] showed that half of 16-34s state they would head to traditional TV when they want video content that can widen their world view, and that TV is also the most cited medium for young audiences to go to when they are looking for content that makes them think about subjects differently. Separate research found that the PSBs are selected three times more by 18-34s than Netflix, Facebook or YouTube for providing trustworthy, accurate information about subjects, and that 42% of 18-34s state they would go to a PSB news source first to get their news, versus 13% that would go to a newspaper. For these reasons, the PSBs remain highly relevant, and will continue to do so in the future.

Importance of other PSB content for a well-functioning democracy

3.13        In addition to news, public service broadcasters deliver public value across other formats and genres and play a role in responding creatively to political discourse, wider national debates and public policy trends. From the BBC’s Cathy Comes Home which caused a national debate on homelessness through to Channel 4’s ground-breaking portrayal of gay characters in shows such as Brookside or Queer As Folk at a time when homosexuality was not widely accepted in society. More recently, the BBC’s Blue Planet has led to widespread campaigns to address the issues of plastic pollution in our natural environment and programmes. Programmes such as these show that the PSBs are the places for public conversations on the important political and social issues of the day.


3.14        Channel 4 has sought to host these kinds of discussions ever more prominently over the last 12 months, from the social and political issues examined in dramas such as Hollyoaks and Brexit: The Uncivil War; from the reflection of modern Britain in shows such as Gogglebox and Great British Bake Off to the regional representation in Derry Girls and Ackley Bridge, Film4’s vital investment in British independent feature film such as the Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Favourite through to our pioneering sports coverage of the Paralympics. Clearly, PSBs are as important now as they have ever been in terms of informing our understanding of the world and providing a space for national debates.


How we encourage democratic debate

3.15        When it comes to covering the major political events of our time specifically, Channel 4 has sought to explore new ways to bring elections to life. Particularly for younger audiences with the goal of enabling voters to make informed decisions. Our programming in the run -up to the 2017 General Election combined tough - talking current affairs with comedy and entertainment to engage viewers and stimulate debate on the big issues. The centrepiece of our pre -election coverage was May vs Corbyn Live: The Battle for Number 10, in which Jeremy Paxman interviewed the chief contenders for Prime Minister. The programme succeeded in informing and engaging viewers, particular younger ones amongst whom the propensity to vote proved especially important in this election. It reached a total of 5.3 million viewers over its 90 minutes on Channel 4. Viewing share was a substantial 40% above slot average for 16 -34 -year -olds. Research conducted after the programme aired found that the majority of 18 -24 -year - old viewers felt more engaged with the General Election after watching the programme. 69% of them said that they felt more informed about the Labour and Conservative policies. Furthermore, 20% of 18 -24 -year - olds stated that they were more likely to go out and vote having watched the programme.


3.16        As the UK has moved closer to leaving the European Union, Channel 4 has commissioned a range of Brexit-related programmes that has sought to explain, uncover and challenge. With calls growing louder for a second Brexit referendum, in November 2018 Channel 4 commissioned an exclusive poll to uncover the British public’s views revealed in Brexit: What the Nation Really Thinks. The survey, conducted by Survation among 20,000 people from every constituency in Britain, was the largest independent survey on public opinion on Brexit since the referendum. Pulling in 1.3 million viewers, the debate stimulated important and insightful discussion during a particularly politically-charged period. This programme was followed up by The Real Brexit Debate in December 2018. Just days before MPs were given a ‘meaningful vote’ on Brexit in Parliament, the live, hour-long programme brought together four high-profile politicians to debate the realistic options remaining for the UK. In addition, Channel 4 News has produced a series of in-depth, intellectually-rigorous animated videos – specifically aimed at young people – to break down the most complicated political process of their lifetime. These have performed strongly: one of the explainers is the single most-watched piece of news content about Brexit on YouTube, watched by 1.5 million people under the age of 34.


3.17        So far for 2019, Brexit and political debate programming and Channel 4 News specials have reached 5.7m people, equating to 9.4% of the TV population. In July, as the race to be the UK's next Prime Minister was heating up, Krishnan Guru-Murthy hosted a live debate between the main challengers, who faced a studio audience drawn from across the country in Live: Britain's Next PM - The C4 Debate. This was met with widespread press coverage the following day and pulled in the largest audience of all Brexit and Political debates this year, with 1.4m people watching. This was up a notable +60% for share compared to its slot average – with BAME share up a significant 233%. Most recently, in September, Brexit Debate: A Very British Coup?, which once again saw Krishnan Guru-Murthy present a live studio debate this time on the Brexit crisis and the prorogation of Parliament reached over 2m viewers. In terms of performance, all Brexit programming have exceeded their slot averages for both volume and share – across almost all demographics.



PSB universality in reach vs Digital Platforms’ privacy and anonymity

3.18        Importantly, it is the universal reach of the PSBs that acts as one of essential component of their ability to deliver public value and encourage democratic debate. The PSBs together had a reach of over 90% at the start of 2019. This reach factor is very important: being able to reach the whole population, in the way that the PSBs do, is intrinsic to the positive externalities that result from connecting people and providing communal experiences.


3.19        This universality is key to the PSBs’ vital and unique role as a public space. PSBs are important institutions that play a vital role in the 21st century as a modern version of the public square. Over the centuries, there has always been an important place in society for the public square: a space when issues can be debated, and different viewpoints expressed by informed participants in a respectful environment. At different times in the past, the main homes of these public spheres have included coffee houses, newspapers and magazines and, most recently, television.


3.20        When the internet age dawned, many people expected that this would become the new public square, with more people able to share their views more widely than ever before. The reality, however, has turned out very different: while the internet, and in particular the social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, have brought many positive benefits to modern life, their tendency towards the enabling of polarisation and online harassment suggests that the internet has not proved to be the most effective forum for rational and open public debate. As well as creating platforms that privilege angry or extreme views, as previously mentioned the rise of ‘filter bubbles’ has led to a situation where people tend to retreat into groups defined by their friends, tastes and personal views or prejudices. Here, other perspectives are excluded, and in the worst-case scenario encourage people to create their own facts and reinforce (rather than challenge) their beliefs.


3.21        Crucially, these debates on the social media platforms typically take place in ‘secret’ - as each person’s individual feed is targeted and personalised according to the algorithms of platforms, and therefore only targeted people will see certain information. These personalised feeds cannot be viewed or accessed by others. (This has been an issue in terms of regulating political advertising for example, as regulators have not been able to get an overview of what adverts have been served to whom, with the Electoral Commission stating that “only the voter, the campaigner and the platform know who has been targeted with which messages”. We would urge the committee to look at the work of The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising on the need for greater transparency here. On the other hand political advertising on television is prohibited under the rules of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.) Despite the stated ambitions of social platforms to connect people, they are not shared forums, common to all, which means they are in effect creating the opposite of public discourse – a series of personalised individual feeds and views that do not intersect. This is in contrast to broadcasting – where all of our programmes can be seen by the whole of the public and therefore can shape and contribute to public debate.


3.22        So while there is a need – now more than ever – for us as a society to process what is happening and to attempt to work through the challenges of the day, the internet has not proved to be an effective space for this, and it is television, and in particular the UK television ecology overseen by policy-makers, that continues to be the medium best-placed to stage debates and reach mass audiences with informed perspectives presented within a trusted and non-partisan environment.


3.23        Therefore, given the important role PSBs can play as a counterweight to the issues outlined above and the unique qualities PSBs have in contrast to the digital giants, we believe that there is an important role for policy-makers in ensuring that PSBs can continue to thrive and offer public value far greater than the sum of its parts. This means taking active steps to articulate and champion the value of public service broadcasting, and advocating policy measures that support and protect public service broadcasting such as urgently strengthening the PSB prominence regime (see section 6.3).


  1. How technology can facilitate democracy


4.1            Despite the many challenges that digital technologies have brought on our democratic processes outlined above, it must be recognised that the growth of digital platforms can offer new ways to engage audiences with trusted content beyond the TV screen or printed press. A strong presence of trusted brands on social media and online platforms is important in counteracting some of the issues that have evolved in this space.


4.2            Channel 4 has been an innovator on social media and experienced strong growth online – we were ranked the 36th biggest social brand in the world at the end of 2018. Since 2015, Channel 4 News has also been focussing its online strategy on producing and curating video content on social media and has grown to be one of the UK’s biggest video news brands on social platforms. More than 1.5 billion minutes of Channel 4 News, Dispatches and Unreported World was viewed on YouTube and social media in 2018. Last year, Channel 4 News also announced a partnership with Facebook to produce a news show, Uncovered, exclusively for Facebook Watch. The ten-minute show will focus on a single international issue each week, going beyond the headlines to tackle stories that often go unreported. Our expansion onto these tech platforms signals our strategy to engage young people with serious, credible, trusted content on the platforms they are increasingly using.

Risks to this

4.3            The risk for UK PSBs is that, as controllers of the devices on which audiences are choosing and consuming content, the global giants use their position as gatekeepers to prioritise their own content above that of the public service broadcasters, there are four dimensions to this issue:


4.3.1     Firstly, our ability to continue to deliver this kind of impact is entirely at the whim of the platforms who can drastically reduce our reach with just a change of their algorithm. For example, they could seek to sell prominence – in the way that Amazon sells sponsored listings on their retail service, or Google sells prioritisation in their search results. UK PSBs would be beholden to ‘black box’ algorithms to surface their content to audiences, in the way that the algorithms of the social networks such as Facebook also act as gatekeepers for media brands to reach their audiences – as evidenced by the dramatic falls in traffic to news sites as a result of Facebook changing their algorithm in 2018 to prioritise friends and family posts over news content.


4.3.2     Secondly, while legitimate news providers are bringing ground-breaking content to these platforms, their ability to monetise this content is limited. For example, in April 2017, Facebook ended a monetization trial with Channel 4 News that left a substantial funding gap, harming our ability to innovate. PSBs may be faced with the necessity of having to divert funds from creating content to paying for the prominence of that content to reach audiences on their TV sets.


4.3.3     Thirdly, this is then compounded by social media platforms not acting swiftly and decisively to protect the intellectual property of news providers, with no action taken when content is misappropriated by third parties on their platforms.


4.3.4     Lastly, social media platforms do not differentiate between the trusted – and regulated – content of broadcasters, who are subject to strict rules on accuracy and go through stringent fact-checking processes, and the misleading content peddled by fake news providers.


4.4            The result is that the disseminators of fake news are able to appropriate news providers’ content and present it in misleading ways. The misleading content then receives prominence on news feeds as it is not differentiated from the legitimate content, generating revenues for the fake news disseminators and undermining the intellectual property and business models of legitimate news providers online. As a public service broadcaster, Channel 4 is committed to ensuring its content is as widely available as possible, because it is driven by its remit and model which put public interest ahead of revenue maximisation. However, the wider changes in news consumption mean that careful consideration must be given to the incentives in place to support the provision of high quality news content online. Ultimately, legitimate news providers need to be able to generate revenues from their content online to maintain their businesses and to be able to invest in training and retention of high quality investigative journalists.


4.5            We are therefore supportive of the Government’s proposal in their Online Harms White Paper to establish a new independent regulator for digital technologies with a code of practice which will outlines specific requirements platforms must take. This includes; the steps companies should take in their terms of service to make clear what constitutes disinformation; the promotion of authoritative news sources; the use of fact-checking services and improving reporting processes to ensure users can easily flag suspicious content. We also advocate Dame Frances Cairncross’ recommendation of a ‘news quality obligation’ which would require these companies to improve how their users understand the origin of a news article and the trustworthiness of its source under regulatory supervision[8].


  1. Importance of a digitally literate democracy


5.1            Channel 4 believes it is vital that users are empowered to understand and manage risks so that they can stay safe online. Indeed, improving people’s understanding and awareness of online issues can help them to protect themselves from harmful content. As the Government point out in their white paper[9], this is necessary for the functioning of democracy as digitally literate users are enabled to distinguish between facts and opinions online and able to make informed choices. Policymakers need to amplify the support for digital literacy and education in order to set new norms for online behaviour and safety.


5.2            For tackling disinformation in particular, Channel 4 believes there is a role for the new regulator, Ofcom, education institutions and internet content platforms, supported by the PSBs, who already contribute in this area to provide advice and guidance on how to verify and distinguish between verified and fake news sources. It is worth noting that YouGov research for Channel 4 found that almost half of adults (46%) think we need more fact checking sites – with significantly higher agreement among 18-24s (69%) and those that use Facebook as their primary source of news (60%)[10]. There is therefore also a role for news providers to build on existing work in providing fact-checking and verification services such as Channel 4’s Fact Check.


5.3            Channel 4 also believes that industry has a role in thinking creatively about how they can influence this agenda. Indeed, Channel 4 has achieved this through both programming and advertising initiatives. Channel 4’s commission of reality format The Circle was an example of how broadcasters can innovatively explore associated issues in a way that resonate with young audiences rather than through formal education. This proved to be successful and as a direct result of the programme, seven in ten viewers stated the series made them think differently about who to trust on social media, and one in five claimed to have changed their privacy settings on a social media account since watching the show, while the same proportion agreed that the show made them think about the extent to which social media really reflects reality. In addition, in September 2018 Channel 4 teamed up with Nationwide Building Society, Maltesers and McCain to broadcast a primetime ad break takeover ‘#TogetherAgainstHate’ which took a stand against online abuse. The break featured a selection of genuine cruel social media posts aimed at the real people cast in the brands' adverts in an effort to encourage viewers to consider the impact of divisive and hateful comments online.


5.4            What is most crucial is policymakers encourage the coordination of all existing media literacy and digital skills activities into a cohesive strategy to have the greatest impact. Whilst there are myriad of industry-funded civil society programmes, there is a need for greater emphasis and support on the organisations and educational materials that have a proven impact e.g. the work of Media Smart and Internet Matters.


  1. Unpacking areas of regulation

6.1            Television is one of the most regulated mediums in the world, and this regulation has been put in place precisely because of the influential role TV plays in shaping opinions. Channel 4 believes that this regulation is entirely appropriate, has been carefully considered and is evidence based. It ensures that British Television offers a gold standard and a safe environment for families to view content. However, the same cannot be said for the online world where legislation has failed to keep pace as digital online platforms have grown rapidly, unchecked, despite their increasing importance and influence in our everyday lives. This is coupled with platforms’ failing to take responsibility even where there is clear societal harm.


6.2            Channel 4 believes that policy makers should take a multi-pronged approach to addressing these issues:


6.2.1     Policymakers should consider what options it has available to strengthen areas of the UK’s creative industries which can serve to strengthen democratic engagement and counteract issues like misinformation. For example, in relation to public service broadcasting, Channel 4 believes the Government should urgently strengthen the PSB prominence regime.


6.2.2     We are supportive of the Government’s ambitions to establish a new independent regulator for internet platforms aimed at providing greater protection for citizens. We believe independent statutory regulation of this kind is vital in seeking to address some of the harmful content that has proliferated on these platforms in recent years.


6.2.3     We also believe it is vital that there are clear and strong sanctions for internet companies that breach the rules, akin with the sanctions faced by broadcasters, which could ultimately lose their licence to broadcast if Ofcom finds them to be in consistent breach of the Broadcasting Code.  Regulatory fines cannot just be an easily-absorbed “cost of doing business”, as they are often treated by the largest new tech companies.


6.2.4     We welcome the current review into digital advertising from Competition Markets Authority[11] which we believe will play a crucial role in identifying the impact global players have on competition. This dominance of Facebook and Google is stifling competition. It inhibits the ability of smaller online platforms to grow and the ability of content providers to suitably monetise their content when it is carried by the digital giants. Television advertisers are competing at an inherent disadvantage to online advertisers due to the regulatory imbalance between the two sectors. This is allowing bad practice and unscrupulous behaviour to take place and is putting consumers and advertisers at risk. We also welcome the forthcoming DCMS review of online advertising which will explore similar issues, including this regulatory discrepancy. We consider that fundamental regulatory reform of the digital advertising market is needed to facilitate competition and adequately protect consumers.


6.3            One of the biggest challenges for Channel 4 and for public service broadcasting in the years ahead will be ensuring that viewers can continue to find our content. As argued above, public service broadcasting is vital to our culture, our democracy and the continued global success of our creative industries. It is also a crucial mechanism in facilitating the wider public’s engagement with and participation in political discourse. But it is a system that needs to be supported and nurtured to ensure it can continue to compete with the dominance of global players. Prominence is the cornerstone of the public service broadcasting compact ensuring audiences can easily find the public service content that Parliament has asked us to produce and commercial public service broadcasters like Channel 4 can continue to fund that content by attracting large enough audiences is essential. It is important that policymakers consider the discoverability of the content PSBs are being asked to produce, particularly as viewing habits change.


6.4            PSB prominence is one of the key interventions which supports PSBs’ ability to sustain investment in content and the delivery of their public service missions. Prominence serves a dual purpose: first, by ensuring viewers can easily find the content Parliament has asked PSBs to provide, it both increases the impact and effectiveness of socially important content; second it maximises the commercial viability for commercially funded PSBs – thereby incentivising continued investment.


6.5            The current prominence regime was introduced as part of the Communications Act 2003 and calls for PSBs to be given such degree of prominence as Ofcom consider appropriate” and gives Ofcom a duty “to draw up, and from time to time to review and revise, a code giving guidance as to the practices to be followed in the provision of electronic programme guides.”


6.6            Channel 4 believes that the existing prominence rules have failed to keep pace with technological and market developments and are constantly being undermined by online and pay platforms. The rules are strictly limited to the linear EPG and take no account of how viewers are increasingly accessing content in different ways. For example, while All 4 contains all of the content aired on Channel 4, it receives no guarantee of prominence. The linear EPG itself is increasingly difficult to find with smart TV manufacturers and pay TV platforms in particular pushing users towards unregulated areas of their platforms where they disaggregate content and can promote their own content or the content of organisations that pay for the privilege. Platforms now push users towards their own algorithmically generated recommendations and top picks and developing proprietary technologies to determine audience viewing choices via voice control. These changes have fundamentally changed how content is discovered and current prominence rules don’t apply to any of these new ways of finding content – therefore the current prominence rules are no longer fit for purpose, and risk public service broadcasting being undermined and hidden away from viewers.


6.7            If PSBs are to be able to continue to compete effectively with the tech platforms it is essential that the rules are updated.


6.8            Channel 4 welcomes Ofcom’s statement on prominence[12] which recognises the importance of PSB and calls for legislative and regulatory reform. Their recommendations include:


6.8.1     A new framework to ensure that viewers can “find PSB content easily on the homepage of connected TVs. This would include both the PSBs’ traditional channels and their on-demand services (e.g. ‘players’)”


6.8.2     Regulation to be focussed on services that “a significant number of viewers use as one of their main ways of watching TV content”. The initial focus is therefore on connected TVs (“smart TVs, and those connected by a set-top box or streaming sticks”), with flexibility for Ofcom to extend this in future as technology and viewing habits change.


6.8.3     Disaggregated PSB content should also be given protected prominence within TV platforms’ recommendations and search results (e.g. within a selection of trending or recommended drama programmes on a home page, we would expect to see a variety of programmes from the PSBs included).


6.8.4     On-demand services should only be given prominence if the service is clearly delivering PSB content. This should be based on the service meeting new requirements “for a suitable range and amount of high-quality content made for UK viewers, as well as content in particular genres such as childrens, current affairs and factual.


6.9            Channel 4 therefore urges the Committee to call on Government to push forward this agenda to ensure that public service content can continue to play a vital democratic role by ensuring it is discoverable as digital technology changes.


A regulatory framework for the internet

6.10        Channel 4 welcomes the Government’s proposals in their White Paper to establish a new regulator and regulatory framework for internet platforms aimed at providing greater protection for citizens[13]. We believe that independent statutory regulation is vital in seeking to address some of the harmful content that has proliferated on these platforms in recent years. This regulator must be independent, sufficiently resourced and have the digital expertise to be able to fully understand and oversee the technology platforms, as well as a clear understanding of all forms of content. The regulator also needs to be equipped with information gathering powers with statutory penalties in place for instances of false reporting.


6.11        Currently, there is limited public information about the tech platforms’ approaches to dealing with harmful content, and the information that is available is inconsistent. This contrasts with broadcasting as transparency is greatly facilitated by the fact that, as a matter of law, broadcasters and on-demand providers must respond to requests for information from Ofcom and it is a breach of their licence if they fail to do so. 


6.12        It is important that the regulator develops an adaptable guidance policy for companies to comply with the new legal duties. This flexibility will allow the regulator to evolve and evaluate in a quickly changing technological landscape and allow for changing consumer behaviour and expectations. As Ofcom notes, this has worked in a broadcasting context by having a set of objectives laid down by Parliament in statute, which are then underpinned by detailed regulatory guidance designed to evolve over time. Changes to the regulatory requirements are then informed by public consultation.[[1]] Channel 4 considers this approach to be useful in the online context, as innovation is fast-paced and where any regulation would have to be durable in a rapidly changing market.


6.13        The regulator will need to forge relationships with industry, academics and civil society so it is able to evaluate and evolve compliance processes over time. Channel 4 believes this guidance, must be developed independently from government to ensure credibility and support public trust in how online harms are being addressed.


6.14        The regulator should be funded in the same way that Ofcom is, through contributions from both government and the industries that it regulates and backed up with a clear legal obligation.


6.15        Channel 4 believes it is vital that the regulator has a range of tools to support enforcement of a Duty of Care for online harms including robust and effective sanctions. This should include significant and potentially damaging penalties and the capacity to block sites that consistently breach regulations, as the White Paper has proposed. However, we would be cautious about proposing a regime for senior management liability. For television, in terms of sanctions under the broadcast code, Ofcom has the power to issue a direction to broadcast a summary of its adjudication on air or impose a fine (which could be significant) - Channel 4 considers this to be an appropriate and proportionate response. We believe senior management liability must only be linked to specific individual executive sections in very specific and grave circumstances.

Merit in Ofcom and dangers of regulatory overlap

6.16        Given these requirements above, Channel 4 sees important benefits of this regulation sitting within the existing structures i.e. Ofcom. Ofcom are experienced and credible as a proportionate content regulator, evidenced-based in their approach to policy making, are internationally respected, and have significant expertise in related issues. Channel 4 believes that there is already effective and robust regulation of the existing content regime in the UK through Ofcom and any new regulator would benefit from this institutional and expert knowledge.


6.17        Further, in setting up a new regulatory regime, it is critical that the Government seeks to avoid regulatory overlap and duplication between regulators, to ensure regulation is proportionate and targeted. This is a particular concern for organisations such as Channel 4 and other broadcasters which are already subject to extensive existing regulatory standards, including sector-specific and issue-specific regulatory regimes.  We have already seen some evidence of the problem of regulatory overlap in instances where the Government are currently seeking to tackle specific areas of online harms - for example in the recent consultation by the ICO on age-appropriate design which sets out to capture a broad range of online services already effectively regulated by Ofcom such as Channel 4’s VoD service All 4. As currently drafted, Channel 4 believes the proposed ICO Code would lead to a regulatory overlap - resulting in technological and financial burdens for PSB VoD services without leading to greater protection for children. The draft ICO Code will disproportionately impact free ad funded services such as All 4, despite the service targeting those who are sixteen years old and over.  The draft Code does not consider the likely editorial or commercial impact on public service broadcasters. Channel 4 therefore proposes that PSBs are excluded from the scope of the ICO Code.




[1] Source: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018

[2] Source: Newsworks, 2015:

[3] Source: John Nicolson Report for Channel 4, 2017

[4] Source: Online Harms White Paper, April 2019

[5] Source: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019

[6] Source: Ofcom News Consumption in the UK: 2018

[7] Source: Research commissioned by Channel 4 from YouGov in August 2018. Sample of 2,065 adults, of which 589 were aged 16-34

[8] Source: The Cairncross Review A Sustainable Future for Journalism

[9]Source:  Online Harms White Paper, April 2019 

[10] Source: YouGov survey of 1684 British adults aged over 18 commissioned by Channel 4, January 2017

[11] Source:

[12] Source: Ofcom, 2019

[13] Source:  Online Harms White Paper, April 2019 

[[1]] 2018, Ofcom Addressing harmful online content