Campaigners including media unions have welcomed the Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan announcement that the government has scrapped plans to privatise Channel 4. Instead it proposes to introduce measures to allow for its “long-term sustainability” and help it “better compete in the age of streaming giants”.
Having spent and estimated £2millon on privatisation plans the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said the Government will legislate through the forthcoming Media Bill to relax the restriction on Channel 4 so it is more able to produce its own content rather than having to outsource everything to external production companies and help “put it on a more stable financial footing by growing its commercial income”.
According to reports the Bill will also contain a statutory obligation for Channel 4’s board to focus on the “long-term financial sustainability” of the channel.
The decision was welcomed by Channel 4, whose chief executive Alex Mahon said: “The principle of public ownership for Channel 4 is now set for the foreseeable future, a decision which allows us to be even more of a power in the digital world.”
From the very beginning proposals to privatise the station attracted widespread opposition from the British media industry, the broadcaster’s current management, media unions, the public and a large number of Conservative MPs. A formal consultation on whether to privatise Channel 4 launched in 2021 attracted more than 60,000 submissions, with independent television production companies putting up a particularly fierce opposition.
The National Union of Journalists had called the proposed sell-off “bad for journalism and bad for the United Kingdom” https://www.nuj.org.uk/resource/nuj-will-fight-to-oppose-privatisation-of-channel-4.html. The media union welcomed initial reports of the change of plan, saying: “Privatisation of Channel 4 threatens quality journalism, jobs and creativity. Government should never have proposed the sell-off.” https://pressgazette.co.uk/news/channel-4-privatisation-dropped-confirmed/
In May 2022 it was reported (https://www.leeds-live.co.uk/news/celebs-tv/channel-4s-bold-plans-leeds-23868804 ) that Channel 4 proposed to create around 250 jobs in Leeds, and there were plans in the pipeline to push that number even higher in subsequent years. With new hubs also springing up in Glasgow and Bristol, Channel 4 employs more than 400 members of staff outside London and that number was set to increase further still. Channel 4 bosses believed that many of these jobs would be have been threatened by privatisation.
The decision has not been welcomed by Donelan’s predecessor Nadine Dorries a strong advocate of privatisation, accusing the channel of not ‘doing itself any favours’ and had slamming it for being ‘edgy’. It was pretty clear however that the attacks on the channel were politically motivated as part of a series of “culture war” policies targeting the media under Boris Johnson’s leadership.
She also found herself ridiculed for making a number of gaffes about the channel, including thinking Channel 4 receives public funding!
The Channel was created in 1982 by the Conservative government of Baroness Thatcher and is entirely funded by advertising with no public funding.
The decision not to privatise is very welcome and does present us with the chance to open (or even reopen) a debate about the purpose of Channel 4, how it has lived up to the original expectations of innovation and experimentation and how viewers can influenece its content. Maybe also time to revist the book ‘What’s this Channel Fo(u)r? An alternative report published (1982) by Comedia?