For over four decades, Channel 4 has been a publicly owned but commercially funded public service broadcaster. As laid out on the website, the channel’s remit has evolved and been refined in legislation since 1982 and combines a number of elements. It requires Channel 4 to be innovative, to inspire change, to nurture talent and to offer a platform for alternative views.
Channel 4’s unique model and remit allows them to offer independent content, champion unheard voices and new talent whilst also reflecting the different interests and diverse communities of the UK.
Since its launch, Channel 4’s structure, ownership and remit have been reviewed on a regular basis by Parliament. There have been calls for its privatisation from other directions as early as 2 months after the channel started. In fact, John Whittingdale first proposed such a move 25 years ago.
In 2015 - the then Cameron Government revealed it was ‘considering’ privatising Channel 4, but dropped the idea the following year when it became clear that the likely proceeds would be small and that privatisation would almost certainly damage UK independent producers.
Just six years on, the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has launched a new consultation on the privatisation of Channel 4.
It has been suggested that the Government may have more political motives this time. According to the Royal Television Society, “Tory MP Craig Mackinlay told the MailOnline website that Channel 4 had “sealed its own fate” with years of “one-sided” news coverage. Tom Harrington of Enders Analysis said the proposal was “potentially spiteful”. The Guardian cited two possible factors: a MacTaggart lecture by former Channel 4 head of news Dorothy Byrne, in which she publicly called Boris Johnson a liar, and the channel’s decision, in a TV debate on climate change, to replace the Prime Minister with a melting ice sculpture.”
This isn’t a new conversation, but some fear this time it will result in a new conclusion - kicking independent producers who have already been hit by Covid and, potentially, Brexit by pulling investment away from productions seeking to create content of cultural value to the UK public and redistributing it to the production or licensing of content deemed more likely to serve the bottom line of a private organisation. Not only would privatisation kick an industry when it’s already down, but there is also a concern that the channel’s remit to provide diverse, innovative programmes wouldn’t survive under the ownership of shareholders not beholden to Channel 4's mission and values over and above profit.
The British Broadcasting Challenge Group have said, “We believe that this is the moment – in an era of misinformation and the ‘weaponised’ politicisation of news and opinion – to build up our Great British public service broadcasters rather than diminish them; to stop short-sighted political and financial attacks; to provide a vision for the future that allows our PSB system to grow as a trusted, independent, network that is worthy of the UK, its citizens and the world.”
Figures across the media, from It’s A Sin writer Russell T Davies, and The Thick Of It creator Armando Iannucci, to Sir David Attenborough and Kirstie Allsopp, have also expressed concern amid this latest speculation.
The question is, would private ownership really derail Channel 4’s commitment to experimental film and programming and how would this fundamental change in UK programming and film development affect the public?
Perhaps the public need to demand an arrangement that would see a continued dedication to UK film and content that champions untold stories as part of the terms of any sale.
Should the public have their say regarding the terms of sale of Channel 4? Will it adversely impact the service of fair and varied broadcasting to the British public? We would love to hear your thoughts on this matter and invite you to leave your ideas and opinions in the comments below.