Channel 4 has said it is “disappointed” at the Government’s decision to proceed with plans to privatise the broadcaster without “formally recognising the significant public interest concerns which have been raised”.
The Government, which currently owns the channel, has been consulting on whether to privatise the broadcaster following concerns for its survival in the streaming era.
A statement by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said it had made the decision to allow the channel to “thrive in the face of a rapidly-changing media landscape” while a Government source said the move would “remove Channel 4’s straitjacket”.
Channel 4 privatisation plan ‘disappointing’
A statement by Channel 4 said: “With over 60,000 submissions to the Government’s public consultation, it is disappointing that today’s announcement has been made without formally recognising the significant public interest concerns which have been raised.
“Channel 4 has engaged in good faith with the Government throughout the consultation process, demonstrating how it can continue to commission much-loved programmes from the independent sector across the UK that represent and celebrate every aspect of British life as well as increase its contribution to society, while maintaining ownership by the public.”
The channel explained that it presented the Government with an alternative to privatisation that would “safeguard its future financial stability” and allow it to do more for the public, creative industries and the economy.
The channel’s chief executive Alex Mahon (pictured) also said in an internal email to staff on Monday that they had proposed a “vision for the next 40 years” which was rooted in “continued public ownership” and “built upon the huge amount of public value this model has delivered to date and the opportunity to deliver so much more in the future”.
However, she added that ultimately the ownership of the channel was for the “Government to propose and Parliament to decide” and that her priority now was to “look after all of you and the wonderful Channel 4 spirit”.
The broadcaster said that it will continue to engage with the Government during the legislative process and plans to do everything it can to “ensure that Channel 4 continues to play its unique part in Britain’s creative ecology and national life”.
No price tag has been set by the Government yet, but reports suggest the channel could be sold for as much as £1bn in a process that could take several months, with the proposals needing to pass through both the House of Commons and Lords.
Channel 4 was founded in 1982 to deliver to under-served audiences and currently receives its funding from advertising.
In a statement, a DCMS spokesperson said: “Following an extensive consultation on the future ownership of Channel 4, the Culture Secretary has come to a decision and is now consulting with Cabinet colleagues.
“We want Channel 4 to flourish and thrive in the face of a rapidly-changing media landscape. It holds a cherished place in our broadcasting landscape and we want that to remain the case.
“We set out our preferred option for a change of ownership to give the corporation new freedoms to innovate and grow while continuing to make an important economic, social and cultural contribution to the UK. We will announce further details shortly.”
Culture Sec says current model ‘holding Channel 4 back’
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries added in a tweet that she wanted the broadcaster to remain a “cherished place in British life”, but felt that government ownership was “holding Channel 4 back from competing against streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon”.
She added: “I will seek to reinvest the proceeds of the sale into levelling up the creative sector, putting money into independent production and creative skills in priority parts of the country – delivering a creative dividend for all.”
Conservative former chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Damian Collins spoke in favour of the privatisation.
The MP for Folkestone and Hythe told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “If we do nothing in a landscape where traditional broadcasters have got declining incomes, declining amounts of money they can spend making new programmes, will Channel 4 be sustainable?
“For me that’s the test, actually. Private ownership and the injection of money that could come from that could be good for making Channel 4 sustainable long-term.”
Other ministers and MPs have not been as supportive of the announcement, with Tory MP Sir Peter Bottomley saying he opposes the privatisation as he feels it is “bad for the diversity of television, bad for viewers and bad for independent producers”.
Labour’s shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell described the move as “cultural vandalism”.
She said: “Selling off Channel 4, which doesn’t cost the taxpayer a penny anyway, to what is likely to be a foreign company, is cultural vandalism. It will cost jobs and opportunities in the North and Yorkshire, and hit the wider British creative economy.
“This shows that the Conservatives have run out of ideas and run out of road. Of all the issues the public wants action on, the governance of Channel 4 isn’t one.
“The government should have a laser like focus on the cost of living crisis, and help people with their bills, not be fiddling around like this for ideological reasons.”
‘Same agenda as attacking BBC licence fee’
Dorothy Byrne, Channel 4’s former head of news and current affairs, told Times Radio the broadcaster was not left-wing but the Government’s plan was seemingly to “throw a bit of red meat to Tory supporters”.
“I think the political agenda is to show that the Government is doing something radically right-wing to please people. It’s the same agenda as attacking the licence fee,” she said.
Byrne added: “Channel 4 is not there to compete with Netflix and Amazon. It’s there to provide a public service to the people of Britain, which it does brilliantly well with programmes like Channel 4 News and Unreported World.
“It is flourishing and thriving at the moment, it costs the British people absolutely nothing, it is not in debt, it is very successful.”
Séamus Dooley, assistant general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, dubbed it a “dangerous move”, adding: “The proposed sell off of Channel 4 would be bad for employment in the sector, bad for journalism and bad for the United Kingdom.”
Dooley also said: “Informed, authoritative journalism was never more important than today. One has only to look at Channel 4’s coverage of Ukraine in the last 48 hours to appreciate the importance of quality, public interest journalism.
“Broadcasting policy should not be determined by an apparent obsession with competing with subscription models such as Netflix and Amazon on the part of the Culture Secretary.
Philippa Childs, the head of the broadcasting, entertainment, communications and theatre union, described the action as a “short-sighted sale of an incredible UK asset”.
She added: “This cynical move prioritises the interests of shareholders ahead of public service and ignores myriad responses to the Government’s consultation, and vehement opposition from the industry.
“The Government is yet to present any evidence that a change in ownership would benefit both Channel 4 or the public.”