A letter from an Ilkley resident to the Yorkshire Post (23 April 2022) raised concerns about the recent government decision to privatise Channel 4. It highlighted the fact that despite a public consultation on the proposal, that opinion was ignored in that the decision to privatise was made before the results of a Government consultation involving 60,000 responders. It went on to point out that the decision to privatise would do huge damage to both national and local creative arts, with Leeds identified as one of the cities to experience negative impacts on its local economy. Channel 4 set up its new HQ in Leeds in three years ago.
This raises the question was the Consultation on sale of Channel 4 merely window dressing? There were doubts about the value of responding to the consultation, as the government document stated unambiguously, “The Government’s preferred option is to facilitate a change of ownership of Channel 4”. At the time Ray Snoddy the media commentator wrote: “You could be forgiven … for thinking this is a done deal and the consultation process mere window dressing”. (https://mediatel.co.uk/news/2021/09/08/deadline-looms-for-channel-4-ownership-consultation/).The government subsequently published the conclusions of the consultation on the proposed sale which showed over 90% against privatisation.
The National Union of Journalists was quick to criticise the government’s announcement (made by Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries on 4 April via twitter – not in a statement to Parliament) saying: “…One has to question the motivation of replacing that model and leaving a public service broadcaster at the mercy of shareholder control. This would be an unforgivable act of cultural barbarism which demands a vigorous response from all who care about public service broadcasting and independent journalism.
“The government seems hell bent on putting Channel 4 on the market, hoping to secure support by promising to invest proceeds of the sale into the creative industry. Make no mistake. This is a wanton assault on a valued British institution disguised as a gift to the creative industry…”
The decision to privatise Channel 4, established by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1982 to provide a culturally challenging alternative to BBC One, BBC Two and ITV seems rather odd given that in 2017, the then culture secretary Karen Bradley formally ruled privatisation out, saying Channel 4 was a “precious public asset” that would “continue to be owned by the country”. Instead, the government pushed for Channel 4 to relocate significant parts of its operations and staff out of London (including Leeds, Bristol and Glasgow) which is what happened.
The government also seems to be in a hurry. It will prioritise the sale to make sure it is all done and dusted before the next general election expected in 2024. This decision reveals a disturbing insight into the government’s priorities as it presides over the highest overall taxation, inflation rates and food and fuel costs for decades. Legislative time (in the next session of Parliament) will be given over to a proposal that will trigger enormous opposition whilst other crucial policy issues will be left off the government legislative agenda.
All of Channel 4’s revenue from advertising goes into running the channel and making programmes. The notion that a private owner would not want a return on their investment is delusional. Also, Channel 4’s well established relationship with the regions like ours would be jeopardised if a push for greater efficiency, and profits meant a cut-back in production outside London. Many believe that privatisation will mean profit coming before programme production and innovation.
Writing in The Guardian on 5 April, Dorothy Byrne former head of news and current affairs at Channel 4 and president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge summed it up: “…The sell-off won’t benefit the independent production sector and won’t benefit public service TV. So, who will it benefit? One man in particular will do well out of it: Boris Johnson. Along with the promise to abolish the BBC licence fee, it’s a nice bit of red meat to throw to his rightwing supporters, who are currently unhappy with him. Those two actions together threaten to undermine one of this country’s most successful industries and reduce the level of democratic debate. And speaking of levels, how will it help the government’s levelling up agenda? Currently two-thirds of Channel 4’s main channel content is commissioned from companies in the nations and regions, and 55% of its spending on new content comes from the nations and regions. Are we to believe the new owners will want to share their profits round the country like that?
But perhaps the last words should be left to the delighted reaction of right-wing commentators associated with GB News. “Woooooooo! Go Nadine,” gloated the former Sun journalist Dan Wootton. “Now let’s see if their left-wing news service survives in the commercial market.” It was “bonkers,” added Tom Harwood, “that any media in a free country is owned by the government.” Enough said!
With additional material from Granville Williams Media North reported at: https://yorkshirebylines.co.uk/lifestyle/culture/privatising-channel-4-political-vandalism-and-revenge/