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What’s the future for Channel 4?

The broadcaster’s privatisation is again on the agenda as politics trumps reason

Photo: Ian West/PA Archive/PA Images/ The New European

Everything is jogging along quietly, but you decide a perceived threat or enemy absolutely must be tamed, no matter what the cost or the devastation that will result. You are determined and have such a firm grip on power that no one can stop you.

Everyone tells you something you have in mind is a bad idea. They spell out to you all the disadvantages. But you are determined and have such a firm grip on power that no one can stop you. 

Putin in Ukraine? Lebedev in the Lords? Yes, but no. Those are issues for other writers, other pages.

This is about Channel 4 – where the same scenarios apply. Sounds trivial in this context, doesn’t it? But the government’s decision to go ahead and privatise the channel is further demonstration of how much damage can be wreaked by a presidential-style prime minister with a huge Commons majority. And we’re a democracy.

We have a government waging a culture war (a phrase invented and parroted by mostly white, mostly rightwing people who fear their centuries-old entrenched privilege is in jeopardy) aimed at giving those mostly white, mostly rightwing people a louder voice. It is not bashful about this: it has said as much in so many words. It has also been explicit about its targets: the judiciary, the civil service, the BBC.

Channel 4 is in the same firing line, but here the “justification” for the assault is more opaque. We know that Boris Johnson is averse to independent scrutiny, that he made a not-so-veiled threat to the channel after it replaced him with an ice sculpture in its pre-election climate debate, that he dislikes Jon Snow and probably didn’t take kindly to its former head of news describing him as a “known liar”, that he and his ministers refuse to be interviewed for its news programmes. But whereas with the BBC, the government has articulated its desire to tackle “bias” and “restore balance”, here the guns are being loaded with assurances that it is all for C4’s own good; that it is its survival, not its demise that the marksmen are seeking to achieve.

Channel 4 needs to be freed from state ownership so that it can borrow more money, to help it to compete more effectively for viewers and advertisers in a changing broadcasting landscape. Never mind that it doesn’t want to borrow more money and that even if it did, the government doesn’t need to sell it to open that door. Never mind, either, that it is progressing down the digital/streaming road more quickly than other old-style broadcasters or that its digital advertising revenue is showing healthy growth – an 11% increase in 2020. This is ideological. State ownership bad, privatisation good.

And so, last year, then culture secretary Oliver Dowden launched a “public consultation”, neatly timed to coincide with the summer holidays when people might have things other than filling in government questionnaires on their mind. For those who did take time off from the beach, Dowden’s foreword and the phrasing of the questions made clear from the start the answers desired:

Q1: Are there challenges in the TV market that present barriers to a sustainable C4 in public ownership?

Q2: Would C4 be better placed to deliver sustainably against the government’s aims for public service broadcasting if it was outside public ownership?

Q4: Should the government revise C4’s remit and obligations to ensure it remains relevant?

Q6: What are the economic, social and cultural costs and benefits of privatising C4?

This was supposed to be a consultation on the future structure of the channel, but only one alternative to the status quo was on the table: privatisation. Respondents were asked to “show their working”, or rather submit evidence to back up their answers. Just like we had to when we were asked whether leaving the EU was a good idea. Not. Here, however, it was to be the supporting evidence rather than sheer numbers that would determine the government’s response.

More than 60,000 people joined in, and it took more than six months for the Government to announce that it was going to ignore the majority and carry on with what it always intended to do. It has yet to publish what those 60,000 people had to say, but interested parties have, of course, released their submissions. Equity, for example, said that privatisation made no economic sense and was a divisive act of cultural vandalism.

The government has not been idle on other fronts in its culture war on the channel, however. Even if some of its generals are unfamiliar with the battleground: Nadine Dorries, who took the baton from Dowden, told the digital, culture, media and sport select committee in November that it was quite right for the government to audit and evaluate the future of Channel 4 as a “public service broadcaster … in receipt of public money”, leaving Damian Green gawping like a fish as he explained that it received no taxpayer funding. 

In December, the government blocked the reappointment of Tom Hooper and Althea Efunshile as directors, having previously vetoed the reappointment of Uzma Hassan and Fru Hazlitt. Former ITN chief executive and C4 board member Stewart Purvis claimed that the objective was to install a board “for whom privatisation is a given”.

Writing for the British Journalism Review, he continued: “The job of these new directors would not be overseeing the running of a publicly owned broadcaster or resisting privatisation, but making the transition to a new private owner as smooth as possible.”

Another, serving, board member told The Times last August: “It’s been done in a very deliberate, strategic manner. It’s part of a larger story of government interference in public appointments.” Those who doubt that agenda and regard such comments as special pleading might care to consider the Paul Dacre Ofcom saga.

Since then, four new non-executive directors have been named: Dawn Airey, previously chair of  Channel 5; David Kogan, a former Reuters television executive; Tess Alps, an advertising and marketing expert; and Sarah Sands, who was once Boris Johnson’s boss at the Telegraph who went on to edit Lebedev’s Evening Standard, from which she backed Johnson’s mayoralty, before moving on to Radio 4’s Today programme. Whether this is the pro-privatisation mix Purvis predicted may be arguable; what is sure is that a channel whose remit specifically calls for diversity now has an all-white board.

The rationale for this re-evaluation of Channel 4, its remit and its future, was, according to Dowden’s foreword to the consultation, the need to take account of changes in the media landscape in the 40 years since it launched. What wasn’t mentioned was the fact that just such an exercise was conducted only five years ago – so presumably changes over the previous 35 years were taken into account then. As the London Business School’s Professor Patrick Barwise remarked: “By the same logic, one could argue that we should privatise the monarchy, parliament and the army, since the world has changed even more since their foundation.”

Barwise and Gillian Brooks were commissioned by Channel 4 to examine the case for privatisation last time around. Their report, published in May 2016, concluded that the proceeds would be small, the claimed benefits largely illusory and that, to attract serious bidders, the channel’s remit would have to be relaxed. An inquiry by the Lords communications and digital select committee reached pretty much the same conclusions. The channel was successful and the committee saw no evidence that the current model was unsustainable. Barring an economic cataclysm, it was well placed to withstand market volatility until at least 2024. Privatisation would create a “considerable risk” to the diversity part of its remit, render vulnerable its important role in the UK film industry, and adversely affect the amount of programming made outside London.

And so the idea was put to bed – but not to sleep. After Dowden roused it, the same arguments were put forward to resist the sale. Plus an extra one: levelling up. That predicted weakening of the role of the regions – which accounts for at least 35% of its output – hardly chimes with that key government policy.

An EY report prepared for Channel 4 last autumn suggested that privatisation and a switch from the “publisher-broadcaster model” (which means it commissions and airs programmes, but has no content rights or programme library) would transfer around £2bn from the creative economy to a new private owner over 10 years, with about £1bn of that hitting independent producers in the nations and regions.

That estimated regional hit is almost double what Barwise thought a sale might raise in 2016. Now, with even more streaming competition, he thinks the value might have fallen to £350m. Unless the remit were weakened to allow it to own programme rights, making it more attractive to (probably American) buyers. Then it might be worth £1bn. Which might be appealing to a chancellor desperate for every penny – if only it weren’t for that regional hit wiping out the entire gain.

Barwise is clearly not a fan of the Johnson government’s broadcasting policies – last year, he co-authored a book entitled The War on the BBC – but people far closer to home are also against the idea. Last month a handful of Tory MPs, including former culture secretary Karen Bradley and the aforementioned Damian Green, wrote to the prime minister telling him to leave Channel 4 alone. 

“It is self-sufficient and successful, making no drain on the public purse,” they wrote. “It plays a vital role … not least in commissioning programmes from more independent production companies … than any other public service broadcaster.” It gave a platform to regional businesses and ensured that more regional voices were heard. “In doing this, it plays a crucial role in supporting British businesses in one of the UK’s most internationally successful and iconic industries. To put it simply: Channel 4 isn’t broke and doesn’t need fixing.”

Sir David Attenborough also piped up. Probably the most respected voice in the land – and one with as solid a solid background in running television channels as in talking to baboons in the wild – called last year for the Government to stop “short-sighted political and financial attacks” on public service broadcasters.

So does anyone think it’s a good idea? Well, Lord Grade, who ran the channel from 1988 to 1997, told the Lords in October that it was caught in a regulatory straitjacket and that the time to change its nature was now, “before it falls over, before it succumbs to inevitable decline.” The following week, Grade was widely reported to be “mulling over” a bid. He has presumably stopped mulling now, since he has just been handed the chairmanship of Ofcom that the previous non-compliant recruitment panel declined to give to Dacre. Even this government and this culture secretary must recognise the conflict of interest were he to take over a network he was supposed to be regulating.

John Whittingdale does, too. He was the culture secretary last time privatisation was on the table in 2015-16. Sacked by Theresa May when she became prime minister, he was brought back into government by Boris Johnson and resumed his beating of the privatisation drum.

Then there is Carrie. The then Ms Symonds was Whittingdale’s special media adviser in 2015. Now, as the present Mrs Johnson, she has an even more powerful ear. As the veteran media commentator Raymond Snoddy said last year: “It’s not too crazy to suggest that the Whittingdale/Carrie nexus could ease the path to sale.”

Finally, there is Nadine. Ms Dorries’ one unquestionable political credential is her undying devotion to the prime minister. He is always right. If Boris and Carrie decide they want Channel 4 privatised, she will do her damndest to deliver. Remember, she’s already thrown the hardliners the “red meat” of a TV licence fee freeze and new threats to its future role in funding the BBC.

Had the Johnsons decided they didn’t need a dead cat this week or this month, that they were bored with the whole idea, she could have pulled the plug and denied all responsibility – it was those “posh boys” Whittingdale and Dowden who did it and ran away. But Partygate reared its head again and so she did her master’s bidding. On such whims do our great institutions stand or fall.

And so we have a government willing to go against the wisdom of people who know – including the most treasured of our national treasures; a government willing to ignore the economics, willing to kill thousands of jobs, willing to damage one of our most successful industries in an act of wilful destruction. Because it didn’t like an ice statue and a retired news anchor. And because it can.

Ain’t democracy grand?

Liz Gerard spent 40 years in newspapers, most of them at The Times, where she was latterly night editor. She now writes about journalism and politics

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