It’s reasonable to say that there have been a number of twists and turns since the Johnson government first announced it was considering privatising the commercially-funded public service broadcaster. Last July the broadcaster published its delayed Annual Report with commercial revenue breaking £1bn for the first time in its history. In addition to achieving £1bn in revenues, Channel 4 also recorded a pre-tax surplus of £101m. Digital advertising (that is, advertising online) grew 40% in 2021 and now accounts for 19% of total revenue. Channel 4’s share of the digital advertising market was 35%, compared with its 28% share of TV advertising.
It was in May 2021 that the then Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, said that Channel 4 could be sold before 2024 to provide a “sustainable future” for the broadcaster. A public consultation was launched and closed in September 2021. It was stated at the time that ‘a decision could be announced in the late autumn’. Of course much has changed since then including governments! No announcement came in the autumn or any other time. Johnson went and in came Liz Truss who was followed in quick succession by Rishi Sunak, himself a Yorkshire MP, who should be aware of the importance of Channel 4 to the region’s economy. The broadcaster had previously claimed that privatisation would cost the economy £3bn and put many production companies out of business.
These changes at the top have resulted in various reversals in government policies (including most of the last government’s budget) and it seems possible that the proposed privatisation of Channel 4 could be heading for a ‘make-over’ (along with Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 plans to name but two).
Recent media reports indicate that although no final decision has been made, following a review of the policy carried out by the new Culture Secretary, Michelle Donelan, MP for Chippenham, who was appointed by Liz Truss on 6 September, the sale might be dropped. In July The Guardian reported that many Conservative MPs viewed privatisation of the broadcaster as a low-priority issue and therefore not worthy of parliamentary time – but equally their ambivalence meant they might not be willing to rebel in large enough numbers to block the sell-off. More recently it has been rumoured that Sunak’s cabinet is split on the question.
Regional and national opposition was widespread ever since the privatisation was suggested. A major worry in Yorkshire is that if privatised, there was little the government could do to stop any new owner closing down the broadcaster’s operations in Leeds and other parts of the country and rationalise their work in London.
Last word goes to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) whose spokesperson was quoted in the Yorkshire Post on 5 November saying: “The Culture Secretary has been clear that we are looking again at the business case for the sale of Channel Four. We will announce more on our plans in due course.”