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Privatising Channel 4

05 April 2022

By Laura Griffiths

The battle for public ownership of Channel 4 has been contentious ever since it was first touted, and the Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ announcement that the government would push ahead with plans to sell the channel is no less controversial.

The Government intends to raise around £1bn from the sell-off, which would make the size of privatisation similar to that of the Royal Mail a decade ago. The Government’s position is that the proceeds from Channel 4’s sale will help to fund creative industries and accelerate their flagship levelling up agenda. It is also of the view that public ownership limits what the channel can achieve, with Dorries tweeting: “I have come to the conclusion that government ownership is holding Channel 4 back from competing against streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon”. However, Channel 4 is actually self-funded through its current, and often innovative advertising. This means programmes such as Derry Girls, IT Crowd and heavily BAFTA nominated It’s a Sin would not have been made if it wasn’t for this self-financing option.

Likewise, the representation often found on Channel 4 over the last 40 years is one of the most diverse set of presenters – The Last Leg for example portrays disability and ableness in a positive light which has resulted in their show running for its tenth year, despite it being created to celebrate the 2012 Paralympic Games held in London.  

The plans have faced staunch criticism, including from the Government’s own benches. Former Cabinet Minister Jeremy Hunt said the move “risks public service broadcasting” whereas former Scottish Conservative Leader and current peer Ruth Davidson has been vocal in her opposition to the move. She stated that it was the opposite of “levelling up” and described Channel 4 as “a cultural jewel and we shouldn't be flogging it off to some foreign corporation to take money out of the UK supply chain”.

Labour’s Shadow Culture and Media Secretary Lucy Powell MP described the sell-off as “cultural vandalism” while long term broadcaster and national treasure Sir David Attenborough suggested British public service broadcasters were on the receiving end of “short sighted political and financial attacks” from the government. However, Julian Knight MP, Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Select Committee went one step further on Twitter and questioned whether this was “being done for revenge for Channel 4’s biased coverage of the likes of Brexit and personal attacks on the PM”.

The Chief Executive of Channel 4 Alex Mahon expressed disappointment with the decision presented to the channel last night and explained how public ownership a key aspect within their broadcasting vision was for the next 40 years. Mahon said that “ultimately the ownership of Channel 4 is for government to propose and parliament to decide”.

The White Paper is due to be published later this month with a corresponding Bill anticipated to be part of the Queen’s Speech in May. The ownership of Channel 4 has long been a divisive topic, and today’s decision has served less to quash the debate and beings to draw the battle lines in the so-called ‘culture war’ ahead of the next General Election.