View from City Road: Screen out Channel 5 interference

Ministers and their officials meet today to discuss whether to give Channel 5 the go-ahead. If they want a good reason for sanctioning the new channel, they need only listen to the determined opposition of those with a powerful vested interest in the matter. It's enough to make anyone say yes.

Most of the television establishment is ranged against Channel 5. Given the success of Channel 4, satellite, and cable, the BBC is desperate not to cede any more of the television spectrum to the independent sector. Independent television companies, too - with the exception of those areas where it would be impossible to receive Channel 5 - are aghast at the idea of a powerful new threat to their revenues.

Not that you ever get the BBC or ITV to admit publicly that they are opposed to Channel 5 on competition grounds. Heaven forbid] Channel 5, they say with Reithian superiority, would be a boring old analogue channel that will use up valuable broadcasting frequency space that could otherwise be used (by them) to usher in a brave new high-tech world of digital television, expanding choice and stimulating growth in the industry.

As you might already have guessed, all this is so much self-interested nonsense. Digital television is technologically untried, faces all manner of international regulatory hurdles, will probably not be in widespread use until the next century and will only be open to those punters rich enough to shell out hundreds of pounds on a converter for their television set.

By contrast, Channel 5 would be free and could be on air by the autumn of next year, boosting by a quarter the choice of terrestrial channels for the 67 per cent of the population that could receive it.

Nor is there any truth in the contention that the Government is faced with a simple choice between Channel 5 and digital. As the MAI/Time Warner/Pearson consortium that wants to bid for it has already shown, it is perfectly possible to have both.

Unfortunately, both the BBC and ITV have a powerful friend at court. Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, is dying to poach broadcasting from the Department of National Heritage. Digital television is a perfect cause for him to champion as he seeks to expand the DTI's sphere of influence.

His foot is already in the Channel 5 versus digital door. The DTI is responsible for allocating broadcasting frequencies. If Heritage decides to re-advertise Channel 5, it can only do so if the DTI gives it the frequencies.

Digital television is in any case an ideal subject for Mr Heseltine to practice his interventionist muscles on. He can already validly claim to have the right to speak on behalf of digital equipment manufacturers; before anyone knows what is happening, he will have the entire broadcasting world within the ambit of the Department of Trade and Industry.

So who is going to stand up for Channel 5 (and the interests of the ordinary viewer) in the face of such blatant self- interest? The Independent Television Commission is in favour of Channel 5, but is hardly a match for powerful politicians and Machiavellian television moguls. The Department for National Heritage, then? Perhaps better not; with friends like that, who needs enemies?

Channel 5's promoters are hoping that the Prime Minister will step in and overrule Mr Heseltine. To do so might actually be a populist goal of some proportion. Don't count on John Major spotting the opportunity, however.