One of the most ludicrous claims made by outright opponents of the privatisation of Channel 4 is that it would threaten Channel 4 News in the short term. It is not privatisation itself which is a threat – it is lack of regulation.
Channel 4 News has been produced since the channel’s inception in 1982 by ITN under contract. At its best, it provides sharp interviews and analysis and covers stories which don’t feature on BBC and ITV bulletins.
At its worst, it is accused of having a “left wing social worker” agenda – a charge its supporters would deny.
Privatisation of Channel 4 in itself would not be a threat to Channel 4 News. What would be needed would be a number of regulatory measures to make sure the new owner maintains a proper commitment to it.
First and foremost, Ofcom could be expected to maintain the volume of news on Channel 4. It should also be possible to maintain an undertaking that the programme will remain at 7pm and retain its current duration – a simple regulation about the volume of news could be met by two half-hour programmes.
Maintaining the level of investment in Channel 4 News and ensuring its character does not change could be more complex but is possible. Might it be possible for Ofcom to agree a baseline budget?
Lastly it is important to ensure that the new owner does not exercise any commercial influence over the content of the bulletin. But again, regulations make this possible and ITN’s status as a production company with a contract makes this easier to achieve.
For instance it might be possible to ensure a guaranteed structure for Channel 4 which explicitly keeps editorial and commercial decisions entirely separate.
But surely the last thing any responsible new owner would want to do is change a successful programme with a loyal audience? It would still be produced by the same people at ITN.
The difficulty would come when ITN’s contract with Channel 4 comes up for renewal. In the late-1990s this was under threat too. A publicly owned Channel 4 could conceivably decide to give its News contract to someone else too.
Ofcom will need proper powers to enforce Channel 4’s public service obligations.
A new owner could be asked to make medium-term commitments to certain programmes and projects. And of course the new owner should really care about Channel 4’s role in society and not simply see it as a financial investment.
But the idea that a mere change of ownership – possibly even ownership by ITV – spells the end of Channel 4 News in the medium term is ridiculous. You would almost need to be an anti-capitalist to believe that one.
But proper regulations should be placed on Channel 4 – and commitments should be made by the new owner – to ensure Channel 4 News as we know it has a healthy future.