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Privatising Channel 4 will damage independent producers, harm the wider broadcasting industry, and increase the partiality of our news

Graham Jones

3 min read

Chair of the PLP’s DCMS Committee Graham Jones warns about the negative consequences of privatising Channel 4.

Politics post Brexit is in turmoil. The Government isn’t functioning properly and its failures are being drowned out by the drama of internal Tory Party politicking. It is therefore unsurprising that the House of Lord’s Communications Committee’s new report on Channel 4 received little attention over the last few days.

The privatisation of this broadcaster, however, is a Tory ambition that we must stop. Channel 4 is one the most successful public broadcasters in the business, and with over 11m viewers, it has a glittering record of airing fantastic programmes; Father Ted, Peep Show, and Big Brother are just a few examples of the Channel’s pedigree. 

What’s more is that it continues to broadcast such innovative content in a sustainable manner. Funded by advertising, it offers the public a service with no cost to the taxpayer. It is difficult to see how the British public will benefit or how the Government can privatise a not-for-profit (no shareholder dividends) company other than allowing it to make profits. Given that ITV profit margins stand at 28% and Channel 4 had a £1billion turnover last year, a privatisation would involve pro-rata a £280million cut in broadcast output.

Some of C4’s benefits go beyond a financial cost-benefit analysis. According to Trevor Phillips, a former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Channel 4 has been at the forefront of promoting minorities within our national media. Audience data reveals that C4 was the most popular TV channel among minority audiences – an achievement born out of its promotion of diversity on screen. And as the Lords’ recent report reveals, the Channel has the highest percentage of young viewers of any news programme, comprising a commendable 15% of its audience.

Despite this, the Government has revealed its intention to sell off the broadcaster. John Whittingdale, the previous Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sports, acquired a taste for messy privatisation plans. Having transformed the BBC’s remit in the face of overwhelming opposition, and U-turned on his plans to scrap BBC online recipes after widespread ridicule, he intended to subject Channel 4 to an even more brutal overhaul. 

The former Culture Secretary’s repeated refusal to rule out privatisation has introduced a period of uncertainty. Since the idea was first floated in September 2015, Whittingdale has flip flopped in Select Committee meetings, knowing full well that his plans were unpopular among both the broadcaster itself and the general public. It is for this reason that the Lords’ Communications Committee decided to seize the initiative and undertake a report on the merits of privatisation. 

Its findings are unequivocal. The Committee not only holds that the broadcaster is sufficiently sustainable to weather market volatility following the EU Referendum; it also believes that privatisation would be disastrous. The need to operate in a more commercially oriented environment would impede Channel 4’s ability to provide original and impartial content and ‘a private owner may seek to dilute C4’s public service remit’ to maximise profit. This could have a particularly dire effect on its current affairs output since profit-driven, overseas ownership would cut high quality investigative journalism to reduce costs.

Channel 4’s own report warns of the consequences if its public service remit is forfeited by the need to gain more ‘bang for the buck’. It will damage independent producers, harm the wider broadcasting industry, and increase the partiality of our news. We must work together to ensure that in the coming weeks, amidst the drama of a new Prime Minister and Brexit, the new Cabinet cannot pursue this plan any further. 

Graham Jones MP, Chair of the PLP’s DCMS Committee 

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