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September 16, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:36am

Channel 4 News producer ITN backs model similar to Comcast Sky News ownership if channel taken private

By Charlotte Tobitt

Channel 4 News producer ITN has said guarantees for the broadcaster’s news provision, similar to those put in place by Comcast for Sky News, would be needed if it is put into private ownership.

ITN, which also produces ITV News and 5 News, has told the Government that a guarantee Channel 4 News will remain an hour-long programme during a fixed primetime slot (currently 7pm) should be a pre-requisite of any sale.

When Comcast bought Sky from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox in 2018 it pledged to maintain annual expenditure for Sky News to at least the level incurred in the 2016/17 financial year for a period of ten years, with inflation built in.

ITN said in its submission to the Government consultation on the potential privatisation of Channel 4 that this “provides a template” for Channel 4 News.

[Read more: Channel 4 sale should see news provision ‘broadly retained’ says Govt]

It said the model “has proved to be effective and provides a precedent and a basis upon which to build”.

Comcast also established an editorial Sky News board with the responsibility to safeguard the channel’s editorial independence for the ten-year period.

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ITN said guarantees would be needed as “news production is widely
recognised as a loss-making enterprise for broadcasters and is unlikely
to be supported by a commercial player dependent solely on advertising
and ratings-generating programmes”.

It added: “A commercial model for Channel 4 could challenge the appetite to take risks on the news, with ratings and profits prioritised instead.

“Sensationalist, celebrity, and entertainment news are more likely to generate higher viewing figures than the serious, discursive, in-depth topics (such as foreign news) that are a feature of Channel 4 News, along with its unique attitude and sensibility.”

Channel 4 is required to broadcast at least 208 hours per year at peak times of news and 208 hours per year of current affairs, of which 80 hours must be at peak times.

The Government has already said it would want Channel 4’s minimum news and current affairs programming requirements to broadly remain the same in the event of its sale.

ITN argued its remit should, if anything, be strengthened through ring-fencing of budgets, further guarantees on quantity of output and a “continued focus on traditionally marginalised communities”.

It also said that, if the channel is put under new ownership, Channel 4 News should build on three areas in particular: the production of major international investigations that extend its global reach, reaching younger and more diverse audiences online, and its work combating misinformation through its FactCheck content.

ITN said protecting the strength of a highly respected newsbrand is “a matter of important public media policy at a time of increasing mis/disinformation”.

Channel 4 is the UK’s only public service broadcaster to have a publisher-broadcaster model which means everything it broadcasts is commissioned from an external production company.

For Channel 4 News, ITN said this means it can act as an independent news provider ensuring editorial integrity and impartiality.

“If the channel was to be privatised by an owner with its own
in-house facilities, safeguards and checks would need to be put in place to
ensure that the programme retained full editorial independence,” it said.

Media Minister John Whittingdale, in a speech originally due to be delivered by Oliver Dowden before he was replaced as Culture Secretary by Nadine Dorries in the hours before, told the RTS Conference in Cambridge on Wednesday that Channel 4 would remain subject to “proper public service obligations” in the event of its sale.

This would include a “continued commitment to independent news and current affairs”, he said.

“Let me be clear: the government does not subscribe to the false binary choice between public service content and privatisation,” Whittingdale added. “We can have both.”

Picture: Channel 4 News

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