Privatising Channel 4 would be a loss for democracy
4 min read
In August 2009, I was visiting Washington DC when TV channels interrupted their broadcasts with breaking news. Senator Ted Kennedy was dead.
This was big. Not only was he a congressional heavyweight, but arguably part of the most famous political dynasties in the free world. I was glued to the television.
However, flicking through the channels I saw the future of broadcasting, and I didn’t like it. One channel gave me hours of eulogy, another, hours of hate. For NBC, Kennedy was a saint; for Fox, with wall-to-wall Chappaquiddick rubbernecking, he was a sinner. There was no in-between, no balance.
There is little wonder now that the United States is divided down the middle. Ever since public service broadcasters abandoned the requirement to provide “fair and balanced” reporting in 1987, the US has become just like a split family - no longer on speaking terms.
The media has turned into a vehicle for entrenching views, not providing news. As a result, the country has become angry and disunited. Democracy is the loser.
A sale would probably mean the end of that granularly British work that makes Channel 4 so unique
As it is in superficially democratic states, Hungary’s recent election might have been free, but it was far from fair. Viktor Orban’s long premiership owes much to his control of the media. It ensured that his opponent only got five minutes of screentime in the whole campaign, whilst being continually denounced by news anchors. Balance was nowhere to be seen.
And Putin’s total grip on all Russian national media has allowed his invasion of Ukraine to be successfully sold as a patriotic necessity to check NATO’s eastern expansion.
No one is suggesting that the sale of Channel 4 will plunge us into an Orwellian nightmare. But before the government cashes in any privatisation, it is worth reflecting on its current purpose and contribution to public service broadcasting. Bearing in mind the fact that it costs the taxpayer nothing.
Channel 4 provides competition to the BBC for the kinds of programmes that are not commercially viable. It is currently publicly owned but funded by advertising. It then ploughs its revenues back into commissioning all its programmes from independent production companies rather than making them themselves.
We don’t need another Netflix, but we do need a public service broadcaster that fills people’s minds with information and education, as well as entertainment. Yes, some Conservatives think Channel 4 news is far from balanced. But in a pluralistic media landscape that is no reason to sell it off. The first thing that would happen would be that the robust news output would be ditched.
This is why the Conservative government rejected the notion in 2016. Senior Conservatives, including the former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Ruth Davidson, the former leader of the Scottish Tories, both of whom – like me – have enjoyed verbal combat with Jon Snow et al - have publicly condemned the idea.
Given the reasons for the proposals are no more valid today than they were six years ago, we need to know from the Culture Secretary how many submissions from the industry said privatisation would be a bad idea, what the disadvantages are and what are the detailed benefits?
Most of all, how exactly are we going to preserve the channel’s editorial independence, commitment to originality and talent across all the regions?
If this policy is approved, Channel 4 is likely to be bought by a business, most likely foreign, with separate commercial commitments to its shareholders. A sale would probably mean the end of that granularly British work that makes Channel 4 so unique.
But this proposal was not in the Conservative Party manifesto - I hope the Lord's scrutiny will help shine a light on the wisdom of retaining the status quo. Holding Parliament to account forms part of our global reputation as a beacon of democracy. All the more critical at a time of eroding global standards.
Tobias Ellwood is the Conservative MP for Bournemouth East.
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