Public Service Broadcasting (Communications and Digital Committee Report) – Motion to Take Note | Lords debates

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this take-note debate. In doing so, I declare my interest as a board member at Channel 4 Television. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, for his excellent, coherent and extraordinarily timely report. I also thank him, and other colleagues, for doing so much of the heavy lifting with the statistics and the strategy —which, happily, leaves me with much of the content. Ultimately, that is what so much of this is about. Be it linear, VOD, SVOD or streaming on platforms, quality content should be at the heart of any offer.

Here is a personal story. I grew up in a grey, post-industrial West Midlands, and when I was an 11 year-old, a fabulous light was switched on, in the form of a multicoloured figure 4. Even before the broadcasts started on 2 November 1982, that was exciting enough for us to know that something new was coming to our town. Channel 4 changed my viewing habits, and through that, changed my view—with “Brookside”, “Cutting Edge”, “Dispatches”, “The Tube”, the monstrous Max Headroom, and so much more. Through the intervening 38 years, Channel 4 has been right there alongside me.

Perhaps the greatest test of any public service broadcaster—indeed, of any institution—is how it coped through the Covid crisis. Channel 4 not only informed, entertained and educated us but cheered us up. We all got our artistic streak going with “Grayson’s Art Club”, and 9.2 million of us crowded into the cake tent for the final of “The Great British Bake Off” for some sugary comfort against the Covid pandemic.

To bring us right up to speed, and already rightly mentioned by other noble Lords, we have “It’s a Sin” —three words that define what public service broadcasting is all about. Covering the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and played out in the midst of the Covid crisis of our time, it told us so much of what it is to be human—and indeed to be humane. I said at the time that the head-hurting, gut-wrenching moment on the seafront in the finale was the most powerful moment on UK television in 2021. We can come back to that point on New Year’s Eve, and it will still be so.

Then there is the cricket—the first time test cricket has been on terrestrial telly in 16 years. Some unkind tweeter said that it looked as if the same studio was used from 16 years earlier, when it was previously shown, but that aside, think of the Chennai sunshine cutting through our Covid-laden wintery skies. That is how, as other noble Lords have said, sport can cut through.

I was lucky enough to be involved in the Paralympics in 2012, and indeed to do the deal with Channel 4 for the Paralympic broadcasting rights. I knew that the channel could do something different—not just sensational sports production but something beyond that: an attitude-altering opportunity for broadcasting to create. Yes, there were fabulous sporting heats and events, but, more than that, there were programmes such as “The Last Leg”, with its “Is it ok to?” section, challenging, pushing and changing—as with “It’s a Sin”. Does PSB change stuff? Well, our recently retired Lord Speaker was moved by that programme to go back to his HIV/AIDS campaigning. That is change; that is dynamic; that is fluidity. That is what we are here for.

As for levelling up, Channel 4 levelled me up. I believe all PSBs have a role in levelling up and the build-back agenda. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that PSB is an economic, social and psychological good, and a happily heady cocktail of soft power and hard coin? With a national headquarters in Leeds, and offices in Glasgow, Manchester, Bristol and London, Channel 4, located throughout the UK and commissioning across the UK, is a channel for all the UK.

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