It's a Sin

Source: Ben Blackall

‘It’s a Sin’

A number of senior Conservatives have come out against the government’s plans to privatise UK public service broadcaster Channel 4, with Baroness Ruth Davidson calling it “the opposite of levelling up”.

The former Scottish Conservative leader tweeted that the publicly-owned broadcaster doesn’t cost the taxpayer any money and is “one of the reasons we have such a thriving indie sector in places like Glasgow. This is the opposite of levelling up.”

Jeremy Hunt told Sky News that he never considered privatising Channel 4 during his two years as culture secretary from 2010 and that he is not in favour of selling it off now.

“As it stands Channel 4 provides competition to the BBC on…broadcasting the kinds of programmes that are not commercially viable and I think it would be a shame to lose that,” he stated.

His Conservative colleague Thomas Tugendhat told Times Radio that he “remains to be convinced” that the move will achieve the aim that the government has set out.

“Given the success Channel 4 has been in promoting independent production around the UK, I remain to be convinced this is going to achieve the aim the government has set out. I’ll be listening but I’m pretty doubtful.”

Tugendhat was one of six Tory MPs who earlier this year wrote a letter urging Boris Johnson not to sell off the broadcaster, alongside Damian Green, a former member of the DCMS Select Committee. Yesterday Green dubbed the decision “very unconservative”.

“The sale of Channel 4 is politicians and civil servants thinking they know more about how to run a business than the people who run it. Very unconservative. Mrs Thatcher, who created it, never made that mistake,” he tweeted.

The fellow signatories were Simon Fell, Andy Carter, Karen Bradley and Stephen Hammond.

Meanwhile Labour’s shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell told Sky News that she doesn’t see the case for privatisation and that it shouldn’t be “anybody’s priority right now”.

“There are plenty of other things that the government should be getting on with, such as the cost of living crisis and so on,” she said, adding that C4’s investment in the nations and regions aids the levelling up agenda.

Union backlash

Meanwhile, Bectu’s Philippa Childs has dubbed the government plan to sell Channel 4 as “nothing short of cultural vandalism”, amid a chorus of criticism from the NUJ and TAC.

Childs condemned the decision, unveiled yesterday evening, as a “cynical move that prioritises the interests of shareholders ahead of public service and ignores myriad responses to the government’s consultation, and vehement opposition from the industry”.

She added that the government has not yet presented any evidence that a change in ownership would benefit either C4 or the public.

“With the creative industries amongst the hardest hit by the pandemic, and continuing to face a chronic skills shortage, there is no worse time to introduce such uncertainty, particularly for independent producers,” she added.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) also came out against the decision, with assistant general secretary Séamus Dooley calling it a “wanton assault on a valued British institution”.

The broadcaster’s current funding model enables high quality journalism that is well-regarded nationally and internationally at no expense to the taxpayer, he said.

Dooley also questioned the government’s motive for replacing the model and “leaving a public service broadcaster at the mercy of shareholder control”.

“This would be an unforgivable act of cultural barbarism which demands a vigorous response from all who care about public service broadcasting and independent journalism,” he added.

“The government seems hell bent on putting Channel 4 on the market, hoping to secure support by promising to invest proceeds of the sale into the creative industry. Make no mistake. This is a wanton assault on a valued British institution disguised as a gift to the creative industry.”

Dooley also took aim at Dorries’ “apparent obsession” with competing with subscription model-led broadcasters which he claimed could hand control of C4 to “foreign investors or some shady oligarchy” with no commitment to the broadcaster’s ethos.

“What the culture secretary is proposing is to take away the tools which have allowed C4 to flourish over 40 years, to thrive in the competitive marketplace of ideas. The proposed sell off of Channel 4 would be bad for employment in the sector, bad for journalism and bad for the United Kingdom,” he declared.

Welsh trade body TAC added its voice to Pact’s criticism, raising concerns that selling C4 would negatively impact its investment in Wales.

“Channel 4 has enabled the development of a thriving independent production sector and analysis shows that in 2019 Channel 4 contributed £20m to GVA in Wales and supported 200 jobs,” said Dyfrig Davies, chair of TAC.

“Channel 4’s initial investment in Welsh production companies in North and South Wales has enabled them to grow and develop their businesses. This could be lost if it leaves public ownership and refocuses on redistributing profits to private owners and shareholders.”

Davies added that TAC will support the maintenance of C4’s publisher-broadcaster model as well as seeking to ensure that it doesn’t return to a “London-centric” commissioning structure.

“Continuing the ‘4 All the UK’ strategy would secure efforts to ensure greater UK-wide representation in TV and support levelling up,” he said.

This story first appeared on Screen’s sister site Broadcast