According to one key individual involved in the battle for Channel 4’s future, the broadcaster is a “wonderful company doing a fantastic job”, it is performing well financially and plays a crucial role in supporting the British television ecosystem.
Curiously, that individual is Stephen Parkinson, a government minister arguing that the only solution to secure Channel 4’s future is to rapidly privatise it and sell it off to a commercial owner, possibly one based overseas.
One of the more confusing aspects of the decision to push ahead with the privatisation of Channel 4 is trying to understand the motive. Multiple governments have considered and then rejected the idea over the last three decades. The latest attempt was a pet project of the former culture minister John Whittingdale, and was seen as having taken a hit when he lost his job in last autumn’s reshuffle.
A public consultation was launched last summer and its 60,000 responses – still unpublished but assumed to be largely anti-privatisation – led to rumblings among civil servants that ministers would ultimately drop the plans rather than face a bruising parliamentary battle.
Which leaves onlookers asking the question: why does the government care so much about privatising Channel 4?
One explanation – offered by the Conservative MP Julian Knight, the chair of the House of Commons culture select committee – is that the proposal is revenge for supposed anti-Tory and anti-Brexit bias in its output over recent years. “Undoubtedly, across much of the party there is a feeling of payback time and the word privatisation tickles the ivories of many,” Knight said.
Yet while Conservative MPs complain regularly about the BBC, their comments about Channel 4 are less frequent. They may not like its output, but because Channel 4 does not rely on a licence fee enforced by threat of criminal prosecution, it escapes much of the criticism levelled at the BBC. Indeed, large chunks of the public are unaware that Channel 4 is owned by the government, since – like the profit-seeking ITV and Channel 5 – it shows adverts and is run on a commercial basis.
The other stated reason is that ministers and officials have concluded that while Channel 4 is currently a success, its continued reliance on revenue from traditional television broadcasts means it is ultimately doomed without a deep-pocketed backer. That’s despite Channel 4’s bosses, the independent television production companies who make its shows, and a significant number of Tory politicians all insisting that the channel is financially sustainable. Even Sir David Attenborough popped up to express his concerns that the government is undermining public service broadcasting.
The required legislation now faces a rocky journey through parliament with much opposition from the Conservative benches, at a time when there is a general election on the horizon, when governments usually want to focus on their core messages.
One little understood aspect of Channel 4 is that it is barred from making its own programmes and must commission everything from external television companies across the UK. As part of the privatisation process, the government wants to relax these rules and allow Channel 4 to start making programmes in-house, and then use the proceeds of the £1bn sale to fund unspecified skills training projects as part of its levelling up agenda.
This would lead to the odd situation of a Conservative government taking private-sector contracts away from small businesses and then trying to make up the difference with grants.
In a canny piece of political positioning, the television industry trade body Pact has sought to win over Conservative MPs by portraying Channel 4 – founded by a Tory government in 1982 – as a Thatcherite success story. John McVay, the organisation’s chief executive, said: “Selling it off now risks reducing the opportunities for independent producers and reducing the amount of programming commissioned outside London – levelling down, not levelling up.”