Channel 4 fears clash over new rules on bias

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CHANNEL 4 is heading for a clash with the television authorities following the introduction of ambiguous new impartiality restrictions governing the way controversial topics and issues are screened.

While attention has focused on the New Year's franchise changes and upheaval within ITV, the introduction of the new controls on Friday could be one of the most critical effects of the Broadcasting Act.

John Willis, who is in charge of C4's factual programmes, said yesterday: 'Channel 4 is in the front line.'

Half of its output consists of factual programmes - the type of programmes that tend to cause problems - while ITV, governed by the same rules, is more biased towards entertainment.

After last-minute pressure in 1990, just as the broadcasting legislation was about to be finalised, a lobby of right-of-centre peers, led by Lord Wyatt of Weeford, forced through a toughened impartiality clause after receiving backing from the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Last month Lord Wyatt returned to the attack, lambasting the record of Liz Forgan, the director of programmes at C4, during a House of Lords debate on impartiality.

'This fearsome lady denounced the provisions of the 1990 Act,' he said, and added that, since she had said the impartiality provisions were unworkable 'that means she, and many others like her, do not mean to observe them'.

Lord Wyatt continued: 'In my view she is not fit to be in charge of any programmes anywhere which have any bearing on matters of political or industrial controversy.'

It was this that put broadcasters on red alert. It followed the Government's prosecution of C4 under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for broadcasting The Committee. The programme alleged that a highly-placed loyalist hit-squad was operating in Northern Ireland with the active help of influential people

in the Protestant community.

The Broadcasting Act, now in full force, says that the regulator, the Independent Television Commission (ITC), must implement a code of impartiality covering 'major matters' in areas of political and industrial policy, and public policy. It also has to define a series of programmes, to ensure that balance is achieved within a series.

Mr Willis says that the provisions in the Act and the ensuing ITC code are vague. For example, the code says: 'What is a major matter will vary according to the current public and political agenda, whether national or regional.' Historical topics can be extremely controversial but do not appear to be a 'major matter'. The Channel 4 Comment slot after the main evening news programme will also have to be more carefully monitored, to ensure that balancing viewpoints are put.

David Glencross, chief executive of the ITC, said: 'I am sure there are people out there hawk-eyed. There are ambiguities in that section of the Act. It was inserted at short notice. It is not going to be neccessarily easy.' However, he points out that C4 has plenty of airtime and freedom to schedule.

At Channel 4 the debate is still going on about how to ensure that its output complies, but without altering the channel's special remit in any way. It is making the channel think hard about constructing series of programmes on controversial issues.

C4 also has a changed status. Until now the 10-year-old channel has been directly owned by the ITC. From this month it is a non-profit making public corporation, whose surplus, if any, has to be divided between ITV and its reserves.

The ITC signed away its founding pounds 1 share in the channel just before Christmas, but retains the right to appoint its non-executive directors as trustees.