Debates between Lord McNally and Viscount Colville of Culross during the 2019-2024 Parliament

Wed 8th May 2024
Media Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage part two
Wed 12th Jul 2023

Media Bill

Debate between Lord McNally and Viscount Colville of Culross
Viscount Colville of Culross Portrait Viscount Colville of Culross (CB)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as a freelance television producer who works for small independent production companies making content for public service broadcasters. I am also an officer of the Channel 4 APPG, so I speak as a critical friend to the channel. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for putting his name to this amendment. I also thank the many small independent companies to whom I have spoken, as well as Tom Chivers from the Media Reform Coalition, and Channel 4 itself.

I put down Amendments 14 and 15 to Clause 8 because I want to ensure that Channel 4 focuses its commissioning on future support for the SMEs. I hope the amendments will encourage the channel to expand its present commissioning process, which too often rewards large suppliers with large commissions. There will be much argument about the level of the cap below which companies qualify as SMEs. However, subsections (1B) and (1C) of this amendment give the Secretary of State the power to be flexible and alter the threshold figure if it proves to be too low for small drama producers, for instance, but only after she has consulted Ofcom, Channel 4 and independent companies.

Amendment 15 requires the criteria to be extended to an annual revenue of £25 million a year over five years. This would mean that a single large drama commission would not adversely affect a company’s status as an SME by pushing its annual revenue in a single year over the £25 million mark. The information on the company’s revenue will not be hard to find; it will be readily accessible in Companies House.

Channel 4 was set up in 1982 by Mrs Thatcher’s Government in order to break the duopoly of BBC and ITV. Its purpose was to disrupt the television ecosystem, which it did wonderfully well. Its aim was not just to have content different from the existing public service broadcasters and to reach new audiences, but to allow a thousand flowers to bloom. As Mrs Thatcher’s deputy, Willie Whitelaw, said:

“We must aim for a channel that says something new in new ways”.

He added:

“We must seek to provide an outlet for the talent of independent producers”.

Channel 4 has been very successful in encouraging thousands of people across the television industry to leave their comfortable staff jobs in the other public service broadcasters and take the risk of setting up small, independent television production companies. It created a culture in the media where independent producers became risk takers and small business owners, supplying a channel which aimed to reach minorities and poorly served audiences.

For much of the last few decades, Channel 4 has been at the centre of nurturing Britain’s independent television sector, which is the engine of our world-beating creative economy, the seed corn of the industry. But the media environment has changed dramatically in the last few years, both in content commissioning and in the supply side of the industry. Hundreds of small companies, which make up the lifeblood of the industry, have been bought up by mega television production companies such as Banijay and All3Media, which is owned by the American company Warner Brothers.

It is not surprising that these big companies have been so successful. In 2022, over three-quarters of Channel 4’s UK commissioning spend went to production companies with turnovers in excess of £25 million per year, while just 21% went to producers with annual revenues of under £25 million per year, despite these smaller companies making up more than half of all independent production companies in the UK.

Unfortunately, the latest figures, from 2022, show the percentage of Channel 4’s spend on commissioning from those bigger companies to have increased from 64% in 2020 to over three-quarters two years later, while the figures for the under £25 million companies have gone down from 36% in 2020 to 26% in 2022. This has happened at a time when Channel 5—which is privately owned—commissioned an amazing 81% of those smaller companies, a figure which has gone up even further in 2022.

This is contributing to the crisis in the industry, with commissions to smaller indies, and regions, collapsing. The latest BECTU survey of its members estimates that nearly three-quarters of its members are not working. Some 30% have not worked in the past three months, while 34% have had less than a month’s work since November 2023. As a result, there is a dramatic exodus from the industry, which has been one of the beacons of our economy. In February 2024, 37% of the respondents to the BECTU survey said that they were planning to leave the industry, with 40% of women and half of black respondents saying that they were going to look for work outside the sector within five years.

The money to build these small companies comes from the terms of trade, set up to ensure that they get the majority share of the back-end revenue from further sales of these programmes. This comes only from commissions by British broadcasters. US companies pay a straight production fee and keep all the back-end profit, so the Bill needs to focus on ensuring that British broadcasters support the future of up-and-coming content suppliers across the UK. The BBC is carrying much of the burden, but I and many other colleagues have fought hard to ensure that Channel 4 remains in public ownership. That mission having succeeded, the emphasis must be to encourage the broadcaster to support the next generation—the seed corn of television production.

I fear that Channel 4’s attitude can be summed up in its submission to Ofcom when renewing its 2024 licence, in which it said that

“the UK production sector continues to be significantly smaller outside London”,


“fewer production companies, often smaller in scale, and therefore with less capacity to develop creative ideas and produce them”.

This statement also relates to Amendments 16 and 17 in the next group, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, which will support quotas for commissioning in the regions and nations.

I have been talking to small indies across the country and have been told horrendous stories of the Channel 4 commissioning process—or lack of it. One told me of a series being cancelled just three weeks before filming was due to start. Others had the extreme difficulty of getting programme ideas through the channel’s commissioning process.

I want to balance my statements by pointing out that Channel 4 is capable of commissioning astonishing programmes from small production companies, such as “The Push”, from a small Leeds-based company, Candour, which had good ratings, and told an important story from a diverse community, but there are not nearly enough of these. The channel did point out to me that its emerging indie fund has invested £17 million over the last four years, to identify and nurture emerging talent and to help them grow their businesses. The fund also provides guidance to selected indies about the Channel 4 commissioning process, to provide them with the skill set to pitch for further work. This help must, of course, be welcome, but it is not revenue from commissions.

This great channel, which is still one of the jewels of public service broadcasting, is battling against the headwinds of a fiercely competitive television economy. As it is a publicly owned company, I call on the Government to push it further in supporting SMEs and to help to bolster the future of our creative industries. Channel 4’s slogan is “4 All the UK”, and I ask the Minister at least to look at Amendments 14 and 15, to ensure that this publicly owned channel does just that.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, I point out that I did not speak at Second Reading. I was here until 6 pm and then went off to speak at a long-standing engagement at Queen Mary University of London.

It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Colville. I put my name to Amendment 14 because I strongly support his campaign, as he has explained it, to make sure that we do not get stampeded or bamboozled into policies because the world is changing, globalising and internationalising and we therefore think that certain things are inevitable. One of the things that we enjoy in the British broadcasting environment is that, for 100 years, we have been bucking the market. It was a Conservative Government that created the BBC as a public corporation safeguarded by a royal charter. It was a Conservative Government that introduced ITV as a confederation of regional television companies. Even today, ITV retains some of the DNA of that regional network; I still consider myself as coming from “Granada land”, and you can still find some of that company’s ethos in ITV today. As was pointed out, it was a Conservative Government, under Mrs Thatcher, that created Channel 4. Let us not be bullied; we have a good record of making television that is national—in the broadest sense—and distinctly British and that sets standards for others around the world.

Unfortunately, I cannot stay for the debate on the next group, but I crept into the meeting that was held on it. I felt like a Sassenach in the gathering of Scots and Welsh and Northern Irish people, putting the point, which has been proved time and again with a little nudging by government, that there is talent out there in the regions. But if you leave it just to the market, you have to make some effort to get results, because London is such a massive black hole of energy.

I am sometimes teased by my colleagues when I refer to the fact that I was on the Puttnam committee that gave pre-legislative scrutiny to the 2003 Act. One of the great advantages of the House of Lords is having that kind of perspective. When I look at that, I see that it was amazing that we got so many things right when we were not just looking through a glass darkly at what was happening. There was no internet and none of the technologies that have been developed in the last 20 years. In that Act, there were still various safeguards for making sure that our broadcasting ecology retained a British stamp to it—a British DNA—and that is why I support this amendment now.

I do not think that the idea for Channel 4 was to create a whole new industry of successful British indies, but that is what it did. It was perhaps too successful, in that many of those indies, as was referred to, were then swallowed up by other companies or themselves became big—not little—minnows.

However, that is the great effort: if we can keep this diversification of commissioning in Channel 4, and in the other countries and the regions, we are distorting the market to a certain extent but beneficially, by forcing it to find the talent in the regions and in the smaller companies. The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, in his intervention earlier referred to the crude market forces “squeezing out” those opportunities. I therefore hope that Channel 4 will think again.

Online Safety Bill

Debate between Lord McNally and Viscount Colville of Culross
Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, my name is also to this amendment. I am moved by a phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, on Monday; he said the passage of this Bill has been a “series of conversations”. So it has been. The way the Minister has engaged with the House on many of the concerns that the Bill tries to cover has been greatly to his credit.

It is somewhat unknown how much the new technologies will impact on our democracy, our privacy and the safety of our children, although they have all been discussed with great thoroughness. That is why the opt-out for recognised news publishers is something of a puzzle, unless you assume that the Government have caved in to pressure from that sector. Why should it be given this opt-out? It is partly because if you ask the press to take responsibility in any way, it becomes like Violet Elizabeth Bott in the Just William stories; it “thkweems and thkweems”—usually led by the noble Lord, Lord Black, whom I am glad to see in his place —and talks about press freedom.

My skin in this game is that I was the Minister in the Lords when the Leveson inquiry was under way and when we took action to try to implement its findings. It is interesting that at that point there was cross-party agreement in both Houses on how to implement them. I advise anybody intending to go into coalitions in future not to take the Conservative Party’s assurances on such matters totally at face value, as that cross-party agreement to implement Leveson was reneged on by the Conservative Party under pressure from the main newspaper publishers.

It was a tragedy, because the “series of conversations” that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referred to will be ongoing. We will not let the press off the hook, no matter how much it wields its power. It is just over 90 years since Stanley Baldwin’s famous accusation of

“power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.

It is just over 30 years since David Mellor warned the press that it was in the “last chance saloon” and just over 10 years since Rupert Murdoch said that appearing before the Leveson inquiry, with a curious choice of language, was

“the most humble day of my life”.

Of course, like water off a duck’s back, once the pressure was off and the deal had been done with the Conservative Party, we could carry on on our own merry way.

It was a tragedy too because the Leveson settlement—as I think the PRP and Impress have proved—works perfectly well. It is neither state controlled nor an imposition on a free press. Like the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, I greatly resent the idea that this is somehow an attempt to impose on a free press. It is an attempt to get the press to help the whole of our democracy and make things work properly, just as this Bill attempts to do.

Someone mentioned Rupert Murdoch’s recent summer party. The Prime Minister was not the only one who went—so did the leader of the Opposition. I like to think that Mr Attlee would not have gone. I am not sure that my old boss, Jim Callaghan, would have gone. I do not think that either would have flown half way around the world, as Tony Blair did, to treat with him. The truth is that, over the last decade or so, in some ways the situation has got worse. Politicians are more cowed by the press. When I was a Minister and we proposed some reasonably modest piece of radical change, I was told by my Conservative colleague, “We’ll not get that through; the Daily Mail won’t tolerate it”. That pressure on politics means we need politicians with the guts to resist it.

Those who want a genuinely free press would not leave this festering wound. I will not join in the attack on the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, because we worked together very well in coalition. I would prefer to see IPSO reform itself to become Leveson-compliant. That would not bring any of the dangers that we will hear about from the noble Lord, Lord Black, but it would give us a system of press regulation that we could all agree with.

On Section 40, I remember well the discussions about how we would give some incentive to join. A number of my colleagues feel uncomfortable about Section 40 making even the winners pay, but the winner pays only if they are not within a Leveson-compliant system. That was, perhaps innocently, thought of as a carrot to bring the press in, though, of course, it does not read easily. Frankly, if Section 40 were to go but IPSO became Leveson-compliant, that would be a fair deal.

This Bill leaves us with some very dangerous loopholes. Some of the comments underneath in the press and, as the Minister referred to, the newsclips that can be added can be extremely dangerous if children are exposed to them.

There are many other loopholes that this genuflection to press power is going to leave in the Bill and which will lead to problems in the future. Rather than launch another attack—because you can be sure another case will come along or another outrage will happen, and perhaps this time, Parliament will have the guts to deal with it—it would be far better if the media itself saw Leveson for what it was: a masterful, genuine attempt to put a free press within the context of a free society and protect the individuals and institutions in that society in a way that is in all our interests. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, we are not pushing this tonight, but we are not going to go away.

Viscount Colville of Culross Portrait Viscount Colville of Culross (CB)
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My Lords, I have been a journalist my whole career and I have great respect for the noble Lords who put their names to Amendments 159 and 160. However, I cannot support another attempt to lever Section 42 of the Crime and Courts Act into the Bill. In Committee I put my name to Amendment 51, which aims to protect journalism in the public interest. It is crucial to support our news outlets, in the interests of democracy and openness. We are in a world where only a few newspapers, such as the New York Times, manage to make a profit from their digital subscribers. I welcome the protection provided by Clause 50; it is much needed.

In the past decade, the declining state of local journalism has meant there is little coverage of magistrates’ courts and council proceedings, the result being that local public servants are no longer held to account. At a national level, newspapers are more and more reluctant to put money into investigations unless they are certain of an outcome, which is rarely the case. Meanwhile, the tech platforms are using newspapers’ contents for free or paying them little money, while disaggregating news content on their websites so the readers do not even know its provenance. I fear that the digital era is putting our legacy media, which has long been a proud centrepiece of our democracy, in great danger. The inclusion of these amendments would mean that all national newspapers and most local media would be excluded from the protections of the clause. The Bill, which is about regulating the digital world, should not be about trying to limit the number of newspapers and news websites covered by the protections of Clause 50; it would threaten democracy at a local and national level.