We will now proceed to the second Opposition day motion. I hope that Members who have just participated will have the courtesy to leave the Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House
supports the UK’s much loved cultural institutions, which are celebrated around the world while creating jobs and growth across the country;
in the Jubilee year supports world-renowned British broadcasting which brings the country together in celebration;
believes that the Government should reverse its decision to sell Channel 4 as it will undermine the UK’s world leading creative industries and the delicate ecosystem of companies that support them;
and calls on the Government to ensure that, if the sale does go ahead, Channel 4’s headquarters continue to be based in Leeds and its remit ensures that it continues as a public service publisher-broadcaster, commissions over 50 per cent of its content outside London, continues its significant investment in new independent British films and funds quality news content which is aired at prime time.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I was a guest of Channel 4 at the recent BAFTA awards and at a recent rugby league match, where I also met the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
We wanted to have this debate today because, despite the Government publishing a White Paper and declaring their intention to sell off Channel 4, there has been little parliamentary scrutiny, and what there has been has exposed quite widespread opposition. Being the generous person that I am, I thought I would give the Secretary of State the chance to lay out her compelling arguments and win over the House today. Perhaps things might go a little worse than that, but we will see.
In all seriousness, the arguments to sell off Channel 4 to what will likely be a large US media company are at best thin, while the case for nurturing and retaining all that is great about this unique British broadcaster is very strong. First, it is ironic that the self-declared party of Brexit is now uprooting, undermining and selling off great British institutions and assets at fast pace. Is that what putting British interests first is all about? Channel 4 is just one of many; the BBC and others will follow.
As the nation came together last week to celebrate the jubilee, we were again reminded of the important role our national broadcasters play in bringing the country together and projecting ourselves around the world. Making great TV and film is one of the things Britain is seen as a world leader in, one of our greatest exports and a reason why English continues to be a world language. From “East Is East” to “Everybody’s Talking about Jamie” to “Trainspotting”, British film is known and loved around the world. Selling off one of our broadcasting jewels in the crown in a jubilee year is not just the wrong thing to do as a patriot or for nostalgic reasons; it is also really bad for our world-renowned creative economy.
The foundations on which our global success is built come from our unique public and private, small and large landscape, which puts Britain at the top of the tree when it comes to TV and film.
I agree with the hon. Lady about Channel 4 and its role in film in particular, but surely she will acknowledge that we need a plural system, and that private investment and engagement is critical to that plurality. Furthermore, will she confirm that, should Channel 4 be sold off, she would renationalise it? Is that Labour’s policy?
We have a very plural system. The argument that I am making is that private and public play different roles in that important ecosystem, but I hope that the House will today agree with my motion to stop the sell-off; I am sure it will.
Channel 4, like the BBC, is fundamental to the foundations of our global success in TV and film. We flog it off at our peril. Its broadcaster-publisher model has given rise to many of our most successful production companies. That was Margaret Thatcher’s original idea. It was a good one—and I do not say that very often. Without its ability to take risks, attract different audiences, and invest in programmes and films that can seem like loss leaders, our creative economy would be all the more bland and mainstream.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that Channel 4 reaches audiences that other outlets struggle to reach, and produces content that attracts a diverse audience, including the takeover day commemorating the anniversary of the killing of George Floyd and the excellent coverage of the Paralympics? Does she worry, as I do, that selling off Channel 4 would hinder that kind of programming?
Does not the hon. Lady see the opportunity that could be provided by a new private owner or owners, who could contribute a lot of new ideas, innovation and extra money to transform the channel for the better? Why is she always so pessimistic about any new idea?
I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman thinks that large American media companies are more innovative than small, British-made institutions such as Channel 4, which has been innovating for the 30 or 40 years since Margaret Thatcher invented it. He might want to rethink his point. We are not known for the blander, more mainstream content that would come from the sell-off. That is not how our success has been built. Creativity means actually being creative.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I have many constituents in Leeds who work at Channel 4, but even more who work for independent production companies. Kay Mellor, the founder of Rollem Productions, recently passed away. Great creative talents such as Kay Mellor would not have been able to come forward without support such as the £221 million that Channel 4 invested in independent production in 2021. We need more Kay Mellors and more Rollems, not fewer as a result of US imports.
My hon. Friend makes a really good point. I will come on to some examples in my speech.
Secondly, Channel 4 unashamedly supports British jobs and the British economy. The UK’s creative industries are one of our biggest and fastest-growing sectors, contributing more to our GDP than aerospace, automotive, life sciences and energy put together. With the UK’s creative industries growing at four times the rate of our economy as a whole, most other countries are looking to create home-grown companies of the kind that our Government are actively undermining. In an era of stagnant growth, when Britain needs to win the global race for jobs of the future, why are we looking to sell off a critical part of our creative ecosystem?
Channel 4’s public service remit is integral to this success. It is a driver of levelling up in the creative industries, which have all too often been focused in London. With more than half its commissions outside London, and with headquarters in Leeds, Channel 4 supports thousands of jobs in Yorkshire and across the nations and regions. Film4 has built on Halifax’s success to make it a world-leading hub in film.
Does the hon. Lady not recall that Channel 4 was dragged kicking and screaming into moving its headquarters outside London? Has she not visited Leeds and has she visited London? Does she seriously think that Leeds can be called the headquarters of Channel 4 when most of the senior management are still firmly anchored in London?
So the hon. Gentleman now thinks that Channel 4 is not important to Leeds. Perhaps he might want to take up the issue with Leeds MPs and Leeds constituents, who take a very different view. They support what Channel 4 is doing in its levelling-up agenda, which is evident for all to see.
Channel 4 supports skills and widens access to the industry. At a time when employers are crying out for talent and people across the country are looking for jobs, Channel 4 is supporting thousands of young people and apprentices each year. The Secretary of State has said that her defining mission is
“ensuring that everybody from every background has access to the arts”, so why is she undermining an important access driver in this way? Thanks to its unique publisher-broadcaster model, Channel 4 invests half a billion pounds a year on average in the independent production sector. That has helped to grow and start many of our most successful production houses.
The hon. Lady refers to spending on original content. In 2006, it was £516 million; by 2020, because of the fall in advertising income, it had fallen to £329 million. Does she accept that the current model of Channel 4 cannot survive and that it needs reform?
No, I do not. This year, it is the most profitable and successful that it has ever been, so I think the right hon. Gentleman’s figures are wrong.
Not only do Labour Members oppose this proposal, but there is a great deal of concern about it among Conservative Members. It seems to have more to do with ideology than with practicality.
Leeds has been really proud to host Channel 4’s presence in our city. We worked very hard to win the competition and bring it to Leeds. If the proposal goes ahead, will there be any guarantee whatever that the new owners, whoever they are, will keep a significant Channel 4 presence in Leeds? I fear that they will shut it down and go somewhere else.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend’s points. She is right that Cardiff is a huge hub for the creative industries; Channel 4, alongside many other media companies, has invested in our industry locally.
Does my hon. Friend agree that through its public sector remit, Channel 4 has been very successful in telling stories from across the United Kingdom about subjects that others have not been willing to address? As a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS, I particularly commend its work on “It’s a Sin”, which told the story of the HIV/AIDS epidemic from a British perspective. It tells stories from all parts of the UK and from communities that have been under-represented.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly powerful point that I fully support.
Film4 is also a global success story that costs the taxpayer nothing. It invests £25 million each year in British independent film. That is around one third of the total UK investment. By intervening particularly in the development stage, Channel 4 supports bold, risky films, and losing Film4 would be devastating for our leading edge in British film.
Perhaps this is why the industry and the public are so opposed to Channel 4’s privatisation. According to the Government’s own consultation, 96% of people are opposed to it. Even when the 38 Degrees responses are taken out, it is still only 5% of people who are in favour. Throughout all the stakeholder engagement I have done since starting this job, I have found exactly what the Government consultation has found, which is that not a single person across the sector thinks this is a good idea. I am sure we will hear from the Government today that all these good things can continue and that they are actually doing Channel 4 a favour by freeing it up, but I think the Government have made promises they cannot keep, whether on funding British-made content, investing in the regions and nations or continuing high-quality news and current affairs.
Whenever Ministers are challenged on how the benefits of Channel 4 will continue, all we hear is, “Don’t worry, we’ll put it in the remit.” What we know from the White Paper so far, however, suggests that the Government will remove the publisher-broadcaster model and instead require Channel 4 simply to meet a 25% quota, which would be significantly lower than the 100% it does today. On levelling up, the Government are promising only 35% of production outside London and 9% outside England. This is a dramatic cut to the current levelling up budget. As my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn has just said, the new remit will not include any commitment to keep the headquarters in Leeds or any obligations to training and skills.
Can I make a point from a West Yorkshire point of view? Is my hon. Friend aware that we in the north are proud that over in Manchester and Salford we have the BBC hub, and that over in Leeds we have Channel 4? They are the anchors and foundations of the creative sector, creative skills and a real culture that will be destroyed if a flagship organisation such as Channel 4 is lost.
I am not going to give way any more. I think the hon. Gentleman is down to speak later anyway.
The Government seem to think that the year-on-year investment Channel 4 makes across the country can be replaced with one-off grants raised from the sale. It is surely the opposite of conservative ideology—whatever that means these days—to replace business investment with Government handouts. I just do not get it.
The hon. Lady is very generous. I do not understand the pessimism. She and other Opposition Members have talked about all of this disappearing, but nobody has suggested it will disappear. She said herself that the sector is growing four times faster than the UK economy, but Channel 4 is not. The part of the sector that is growing is the privately owned part of the sector, where the investment is coming in. What evidence does she have that any of this would disappear?
As I am going on to say, many of these things will disappear. Channel 4 occupies a very important part in the ecosystem, and all parts of the ecosystem feed one another. The reason that some foreign investors come here is that we have Channel 4 and the BBC producing the talent pipeline and the kind of risky, edgy content that they themselves would never produce.
Despite Channel 4’s crucial role in British film, which the White Paper recognises, the Government are making no commitment to ensure that a privatised Channel 4 would continue that investment, or even to the future of Film4 itself. The White Paper also says that Channel 4 is and will remain a public service broadcaster. However, that completely unravelled when the Secretary of State told the Select Committee recently that this would expire after only 10 years. To a big foreign media buyer, this 10-year pledge is fairly trivial and worth weathering in order to get beyond it, when it would be a case of anything goes. If the Secretary of State and her colleagues agree that at the very least all that makes Channel 4 great should be permanently enshrined in its new remit, they should support our motion.
As well the claim of pretending we can keep everything that is good about Channel 4, I want to address some of the other claims I have heard Ministers make. The Culture Secretary says she wants to set Channel 4 free so that it can raise investment, because it is not financially sustainable and is a burden to the taxpayer. However, Channel 4 does not cost the taxpayer a penny, yet retains the benefits of public ownership, such as British values, British jobs and British content for British audiences, especially young and diverse audiences. In fact, it is in rude health both creatively and financially, making a profit of £75 million last year, which has all been ploughed back into British content, skills and talent. Channel 4 does not need a taxpayer bail-out, it is not a broken financial model and it does not need privatising to continue to flourish.
Next, we hear that the sell-off of Channel 4 is necessary so that it can escape the straitjacket of being kept in public hands and can compete with Netflix. Channel 4 is free to make commercial and editorial decisions without Government or shareholder pressure. That means taking risks on shows such as “Gogglebox” and “It’s A Sin”, or initiatives that do not in themselves have a financial return, but have a significant public good, such as the Paralympics or Film4. Can the Secretary of State tell us what she wants to free Channel 4 from in order to be able to do what it cannot do already?
If the Secretary of State’s Netflix comparison is about competing for subscribers, then she is wrong on that too.
I will not give way; I am going to make some progress.
Unlike Netflix, which is seeing the number of its subscribers going down, All 4 is a highly successful free streaming service, generating 1.25 billion views in 2021, with eight out of 10 young people in the UK registered to it. Global streamers produce content to appeal to the widest possible global audience, but Channel 4 produces distinctive and diverse British content that reflects this country’s social and cultural landscape. The Secretary of State’s sell-off will mean less British-made content and representation. Finally, if she wants Channel 4 to be free to compete with the likes of Netflix, Amazon or Disney, why is she offering those companies a chance to buy it?
The Secretary of State also says that the age of linear television is dead and linear advertising is going down with it. However, advertisers are against her plans too, as they know it will mean less choice and less competition without the unique audience reach that Channel 4 currently offers. The big winners will yet again be the likes of YouTube that compete for young audiences and will gobble up the advertising opportunities that disappear from Channel 4.
There are basically two options for a buyer if the Government go ahead: either the channel will be bought by a UK broadcaster such as ITV—and the sale may well not be allowed to go through on competition grounds, as it would lead to over-dominance on advertising, driving up prices up and lowering choice—or, which is more likely, Channel 4 will be bought by one of the big US media giants. In that event, rather than investing in British programmes for British audiences, Channel 4 would become a shop window for the buyer’s existing content. This is a policy that sells off a great British asset to the benefit of the big US tech giants in more advertising revenue and to the big US media giants in economies of scale. That is a great policy, is it not? It is really patriotic; I am not sure why I didn’t think of it myself.
Finally, the Secretary of State says there is no alternative, but she and I both know there is. Channel 4 has set out a proposal that maintains public ownership while delivering even greater public benefit and putting Channel 4 in a stronger financial position. However, she has ignored it, because she is hellbent on selling off the channel because she thinks it is a bit left-wing.
Yes, well, it may be, but I do not think it is. [Interruption.] No, I think the hon. Gentleman has let the mask slip on his own side, because Conservative Members do think Channel 4 is a bit left-wing, which is why they are selling it off.
The truth is that the Secretary of State has misunderstood where Channel 4’s true value comes from and the important distinctive role it plays in the wider economy. That is why Margaret Thatcher invented it, and that is why many Conservative MPs and peers oppose this. The Culture Secretary might not want to hear it, but this is what some Conservatives have to say about her proposal: the “opposite of levelling up,” “very unconservative” and
“an unnecessary and provocative attempt to address a political non-issue during a time of crisis, at significant cost to the independent UK film and TV industry.”
I would say they are as brassed off as the rest of us. [Interruption.] Some Members got that cultural reference.
We know the Culture Secretary does not like Channel 4, and she has said that it does not do itself any favours. Her sell-off has no support in the country, no support in the creative industries, no support from other broadcasters, no support from advertisers and very little support in Parliament. The big winners from her policy will be the big US tech and media companies; the losers will be British creative jobs outside London, British independent film, British independent production companies and Britain’s creative economy.
This cultural vandalism does not get modern Britain and does not understand how best to grow the British economy. That is why I urge the House to support our motion today.
I start by paying tribute to all involved in putting on a wonderful platinum jubilee weekend over the bank holiday. My Department and the royal household spent years preparing for this fantastic event. It was a historic moment for Her Majesty, the country and the Commonwealth, and a celebration for all to remember. Once again, I pay tribute to the BBC and other broadcasters for their extended coverage, including the BBC’s coverage of the amazing concert.
It has been a great few months for our culture and heritage. Just a few weeks ago I was in Coventry, where I was delighted to announce that it will be succeeded by Bradford as the UK’s city of culture. The city of culture competition has been made a permanent fixture on the national calendar under this Government and, for the first time ever, we are awarding the runners-up £125,000 in funding. Local MPs will be involved in the decision making on how that money is spent.
The motion asks the House to support our much-loved cultural institutions. That support is in no doubt as far as the Government are concerned, as evidenced by the £2 billion committed to support our theatres, museums, cinemas, performance venues and other venues through one of the worst crises they have ever faced. I know how important this has been to those cultural institutions up and down the country, not least because they have told me. Theatres have said that without our support their doors would still be closed and their stages bare. Museums have said that without our support they would not have been able to protect their collections and put them back on display.
This Conservative Government have put our money where our mouth is by backing culture, and unashamedly so. There was no procrastination; we did it from the off.
I do not disclose private conversations. I am not sure which aspect of any conversation the hon. Lady wants me to mention.
Straight from the off, we provided £2 billion to support our cultural organisations and institutions across the UK, which is why, after the pandemic, our arts and culture are back with a bang.
Labour’s motion asks us to support our world-renowned British broadcasting, which is also not in doubt. Under this Conservative Government, the film and TV industry is absolutely booming: production studios are fully booked, British-made programmes are celebrated all over the world, and this Conservative Government have just delivered the first broadcasting White Paper in 20 years. It takes into account the huge transformation that the broadcasting world has undergone in the past decade or so, and seriously considers how we can protect our British broadcasters in the rapidly evolving streaming era. Unlike the Labour party, we have not buried our head in the sand. We have not ducked important choices and decisions. We are looking ahead and taking the necessary decisions that will allow broadcasters to flourish.
On the consultation, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the Government should not be ducking difficult decisions. I would completely understand if they do not wish to publish the 38 Degrees consultation responses, but will she publish the industry organisation responses and the individual responses, because they will help to dispel a concern that the programme and the process has not been properly run?
We have published a comprehensive response to the consultation, in line with the format used by all Departments in response to consultations—that has already been done.
Our “Up next” White Paper contains a number of key proposals to achieve our goals. First, we want to ensure that in a world of smart TVs and online platforms our public service broadcasters continue to receive the exposure that they deserve. On a traditional TV, BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 are given prominence on every TV set in England and Northern Ireland. Likewise, in Wales, we will always find S4C on channel No. 4, and in northern and central Scotland we will always find STV on No. 3. We plan to update those rules for the digital age by passing legislation that ensures that PSB content is always carried and easy to find on all major platforms.
The hit series “ Derry Girls”, which is of course based in my constituency, has met with rave reviews all around the world, and has been instrumental in educating people on the Good Friday agreement and the principles that underpin it—a few people in the House of Commons could do with watching the last series. Does the Secretary of State agree with me, and with the creator and writer of “Derry Girls”, Lisa McGee, that it would have been impossible for her to get that programme made without Channel 4?
Let’s do a shout-out for Channel 4. “Derry Girls”, “First Dates”, “Gogglebox”—there are so many fantastic programmes that Channel 4 produces. That is not in doubt and not in question. I would, however, suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads the “Up next” broadcasting White Paper, because in it we state clearly that carrying and making that distinctive content is a part of what we want to carry forward with Channel 4—distinctive British content, which is what “Derry Girls” is and what much of what Channel 4 makes is. That is in the White Paper, and I suggest he reads it.
Many fine British businesses have grown, flourished and invested far more once being privatised, and I hope that this one will too. But will the Secretary of State see, during the privatisation, whether there is a way of allowing the people who work for Channel 4 and do so much for it to gain participation, perhaps partly by buying and partly by gift, so that they become shareholders in whatever entity emerges?
I will go on to talk about the fact that we have many bidders who are looking at purchasing Channel 4, and we are looking at all options before we bring the matter to Parliament to see what is on the table. But for the sale of Channel 4, as it says in the “Up next” White Paper, what we are looking at is to sell Channel 4 as a PSB. Therefore, I do not think the model that my right hon. Friend outlines briefly would be conducive to that sort of purchase. We are going to sell to an organisation that will invest in Channel 4 and keep it able to make those distinctive programmes.
We are not getting into a discussion, and I am going to make some more progress. [Interruption.] I am happy to take interventions when I have made some progress.
Secondly, we are committed to ensuring that all broadcasters are operating on a fair playing field, whether they have been around for a century or only entered the scene in the last few years, so we propose a new video-on-demand code that will hold Disney+, Netflix and other streaming services to similar standards as traditional broadcasters such as the BBC and ITV. These are crucial protections for all our PSBs, and ones that the broadcasters themselves have welcomed. With these changes and others, the Government are giving British broadcasters the support they need to rule the airwaves in times to come. As I said, dealing with the question of Channel 4’s future is a major piece of broadcasting reform, but it is just one part of our wide-ranging reforms.
For the past year, I have been carefully considering the broadcaster’s long-term future, as many of my predecessors have done. Over the last four decades, it has been a Conservative Government who have taken the important decisions to nurture and protect Channel 4, allowing it to grow and to broadcast world-beating content. It was Conservative Margaret Thatcher who established Channel 4 in the early 1980s. It was a Conservative who gave it the remit to deliver original, disruptive programming and to focus on independent production at a time when it was most needed. It was a Conservative Government who strongly encouraged Channel 4 to broaden its horizons beyond London and oversaw the move to Leeds. Now, faced with the transformation of the broadcasting landscape, it is a Conservative Government who are preparing Channel 4 for the future.
I have known the right hon. Lady a long time and I know she is passionate about skills. I am concerned because Channel 4 has been the bedrock of creative skills and innovation, going much wider than the people it actually employs. She knows about skills and she cares about them, so will she try to put my fears to rest?
In selling Channel 4 we are seeking to protect Channel 4 so that it continues to make distinctive British content and to function as a PSB, but when we sell it, the question will be: what do we do with the proceeds of the sale? Investing the proceeds in the skills of those who work in the broadcasting and film sector is part of the objective of the sale.
Like every other broadcaster, Channel 4 now faces huge competition for viewers, for programmes and for talent, and many of its competitors have incredibly deep pockets.
The Secretary of State has outlined the legacy of what successive Conservative Governments have done to assist Channel 4. With that in mind, will she commit, under privatisation, to ringfencing and supporting the 81 essential jobs that Channel 4 has in Northern Ireland; to continuing, and growing, the £8 million contribution that Channel 4 makes to the gross value added of Northern Ireland; and to the production fund that has allowed the production of brilliant films and television series such as “Derry Girls” staying in place? Will that be protected, or will it all have to be negotiated again?
Levelling up is one of this Government’s primary objectives. We will be looking at bidders interested in purchasing Channel 4 to see whether they meet our levelling-up objective, which is about moving some of our major organisations and creating jobs outside London. That will be a consideration.
Further to the last question, it is not just Channel 4; for example, it was Netflix that made “Game of Thrones” in Belfast, throwing in millions of pounds—far more than Channel 4, although I do not underestimate Channel 4’s importance.
My questions are these. First, will my right hon. Friend set out in her speech that the contract for the sale of this public service broadcaster will set out certain minimum criteria—in other words, news content, regional content and British content? Secondly, is she aware that many production companies feel squeezed out by Channel 4 —[Interruption.] Oh yes, they feel that at the moment there is a cosy arrangement with some production companies while others are ignored by Channel 4, and those smaller companies would actually welcome a change at the top.
As someone who has worked in the industry, my hon. Friend is deeply knowledgeable about how Channel 4 and the industry works. As I said in a previous answer, “Up Next”, the broadcasting White Paper, makes it very clear that that distinctive British content that makes Channel 4 so successful is part of the criteria.
The broadcasting White Paper is a fantastic piece of work, and I strongly recommend that everybody in the House reads it, as it makes it very clear what the Government’s objectives are for the broadcasting sector. Furthermore, we are taking the decision as a Government to look at broadcasting in the round—to look at the whole broadcasting landscape in the UK. I know that the conversation and the debate are focusing mainly on Channel 4, but we have to consider broadcasting in the round right now.
In addition, Channel 4 faces a series of unique challenges—challenges that other public service broadcasters with different ownership models do not face. Streamers such as Netflix spent £779 million on UK original content produced in 2020, more than twice as much as Channel 4. While other PSBs, such as the BBC and Channel 5, have the freedom to make and sell their own content, Channel 4 has no inhouse studio. Its ownership model restricts it from borrowing money or raising private sector capital. It is left almost entirely reliant on ad revenues. Those revenues were already shifting rapidly online, and the competition is only set to heat up now that Disney+ and Netflix have confirmed their plans to enter the advertising market. In addition to that, we have, later this year, new, huge streamers coming into our homes, which will also, quite probably, be operating on an advertising model.
Under its current form of ownership, Channel 4 has fewer options to invest, fewer options to innovate and, crucially, fewer tools with which to grow. There are serious challenges that require serious plans to overcome, not the kneejerk reaction or hyperbole of the Opposition.
Will the Secretary of State join me in calling on the Opposition to engage positively in this debate? We all respect the interest in the independent sector and we all want to see it grow, and it will have that opportunity under the new model. Rejecting any form of change will simply undermine the industries that we are seeking to support.
I could not agree more. Labour may not like to hear it, its refusal to even engage with the profound changes in the broadcast landscape is further evidence that it does not have a serious plan for broadcasting. If it really wants to protect Channel 4 and to protect the wider broadcasting ecosystem, it is not enough to consider only Channel 4’s current success.
Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the Opposition think that they know better than the audience what Channel 4 should show every evening? Is it not a good idea that we move to a model where the owners engage with the audience and try to grow the audience, because that way they will attract more revenue?
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I may have inadvertently misled the House. I said that it was Netflix that produced “Game of Thrones”, but it was not. It was HBO and Sky Atlantic that invested a quarter of a billion pounds in Northern Ireland, considerably more than any other broadcasting company.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but that was more of an intervention; it was supposed to be a point of order. None the less, I am grateful to him for correcting the record so swiftly, so I thank him for his point.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point of order. I do not know whether that would have been better, because it is not a matter for me to comment on; it is an additional point of debate.
Our responsibility is to consider the long-term sustainability and future of Channel 4. As a responsible Government, we are prepared to acknowledge those challenges head-on, and to do what is needed to protect one of our most important public service broadcasters not just today, but in the years to come. We therefore believe that it is time to unleash Channel 4’s full potential—Lucy Powell slightly misquoted me on that—and open up the broadcaster to private ownership while, crucially, protecting its public service broadcasting remit. That is a fundamental point: we are protecting its public service broadcasting remit. For those Opposition Members who are complaining and throwing up faux concerns, I repeat that we are protecting it as a PSB.
A sale will allow Channel 4 to grow and access greater investment, meaning that it can create more great programming, made by people who live and work in the UK, without losing what makes it distinctive. Just look at another public service broadcaster, Channel 5. After its sale to Viacom, Channel 5’s overall content budget grew by, on average, 7% a year. It is my genuine belief that this much-needed, long-term investment and the associated risk that comes with it—because investment does not come without risk—should come from private ownership, rather than being borne by the taxpayer.
The Secretary of State keeps on speaking about the broadcasting ecosystem. Of course, crucial to that ecosystem are the independent production companies. Channel 4 has invested in a number of such companies in my area of Cardiff and south Wales, so it is absolutely crucial to our creative economy. Analysis by EY suggests that her model would result in a 40% reduction in investment in that crucial regional supply chain. Does she not accept the very real risks to those crucial independent production companies, which are part of our broadcasting and creative infrastructure?
The impression given is that Channel 4, as a result of being sold, will cease to exist. That is not the case. Those independent production companies are actually overloaded with work. We made more films in the UK in the last quarter of last year than were made in Hollywood. This whole sector of broadcasting and film making is booming. We are selling Channel 4 so that it can have more inward investment, not taxpayers’ money, and so that it can make more content, not less. The work will continue for independent production companies, not least from many of the companies that are coming into the UK to make films and television content, just as in Northern Ireland.
Our vision for Channel 4 is one where it continues to do all the things it does best, while being freed from the shackles that currently restrict it. I repeat: all the things it does best. That means it will continue to make diverse, interesting and edgy content with independent production companies, just as it does now.
The Opposition motion talks about protecting Channel 4’s PSB remit. Anyone who takes the time to look at our proposals will see that they pose no threat whatsoever to that PSB remit—Opposition Members talk as if there is. Under private ownership, Channel 4 will still be required to commission a minimum volume of programming from independent producers—I hope Stephen Doughty heard that—just as all other PSBs are required to do. Under private ownership, we will maintain Channel 4’s existing obligations for regional production outside London and England, just as all other PSBs are required to do. Under private ownership, Channel 4 will still be required to provide original, innovative and educational programming that represents the breadth of society, as well as primetime news and current affairs—again, just as all other PSBs are required to do. Under private ownership—that is the rub here, is it not? The words “private ownership” are the nub of it. Under private ownership, we would also have the freedom to unlock Channel 4’s full potential by removing the publisher-broadcaster restriction, which the Labour party seems to want to protect, but which is the very restriction preventing Channel 4 from achieving long-term financial security. What company pays 100% for content but does not own the content? There is no other company that would regard that as a successful business model. The restriction effectively prohibits the broadcaster from producing and selling its content, denying it a crucial way to make money.
I cannot imagine another company—I look for anyone in this House to reassure me—that would be able to survive by paying100% of the cost of the business while owning none of the product.
In Channel 4’s own response to the Government’s “Up Next” White Paper, it proposed raising £1 billion in private money through a joint venture partner, and that the joint venture partner would retain intellectual property and programming. The idea that the status quo is sustainable is not one that Channel 4 shares, and even it has called for a radical reset of its role.
It is exactly as my hon. Friend has outlined. The hon. Member for Manchester Central asked me what Channel 4 said, and one of its responses was that it wants to raise money. It wants to invest and raise money. The state—[Interruption.] Channel 4 is state-owned. The state cannot own a public service broadcaster that takes on the risk of borrowing money. If that goes wrong, it is the taxpayer who has to pay that debt. We as a Government cannot burden the taxpayer with risk, potential debt and responsibility.
Removing the restriction will allow Channel 4 to do exactly what my hon. Friend Damian Collins says: to raise that revenue stream and improve its long-term sustainability. We can do all those things with a sale, while protecting all that makes Channel 4 unique. We are not looking for any old buyer for this broadcaster. We are looking for the right one—one who shares our ambition for the business and our belief in what makes it special. It is precisely because of what Channel 4 does, and how it does it, be that distinctive programming, news content or film, that we are confident that we will find the right buyer.
Unsurprisingly, though it is early days, there has already been a lot of initial interest from a wide range of potential bidders. When a sale is secured, it will not just benefit Channel 4; we intend to use the proceeds to benefit the entire country. As I said, Channel 4 was originally established to help boost independent production, and it has been successful in that mission—so successful, in fact, that we face a new and very positive challenge. Production studios across the country are booming. They are so in demand that we need more and more people to work in them. We therefore intend to funnel some of the proceeds of the sale into addressing that new challenge and giving people up and down the UK the skills and opportunity to fill those jobs, delivering a creative dividend for all.
As I have to keep reminding those who choose to ignore it, the sale of Channel 4 is just one crucial part of a much larger piece of broadcasting reform, and the question of Channel 4’s long-term sustainability is—[Interruption.] The accusation is being thrown at me from a sedentary position that I am going to get rid of the BBC. It is not good enough to invent accusations from the Front Bench. Commentary has to be based on what the Government are actually proposing and what is actually happening. [Interruption.] Okay, so we did freeze the licence fee—yes. In this environment, that is a cost of living saving. There is absolutely no way, in today’s environment, that we could go to the country and ask individuals to pay for an increase in the BBC’s licence take. I am absolutely amazed that Opposition Front Benchers think that would be an acceptable thing to do, when hard-pressed families are struggling to pay their bills—[Interruption.]
Order. The shadow Secretary of State must stop shouting at the Secretary of State from a sedentary position. If she wants to make a point, she should get up and intervene. I cannot hear what the point is. I can hear the Secretary of State’s answer, because presumably she can hear the hon. Lady, but nobody else can. That is why we debate properly in here by standing up and making a point, not shouting like football supporters—[Interruption.] I withdraw that. I am not criticising any group in society; I am just saying that it is unacceptable.
The question of Channel 4’s long-term sustainability is hardly a new challenge. I am not the first Secretary of State to seriously consider whether private ownership is ultimately the best way to protect one of our best-loved broadcasters, but I am the only one who is prepared and willing to act and do what is right, not just for Channel 4 but for British broadcasting and ultimately the British taxpayer.
It is good to see so many unfamiliar faces on the Tory Back Benches—Members with a new-found interest in broadcasting—and also not just the current Conservative Select Committee Chair but two former Chairs. It is like being in one of those “Doctor Who” episodes with three Doctors all in one episode at the same time.
Here we are again. With a grim familiarity, we are once again debating the future of Channel 4 as Opposition Members try to defend one of the country’s best-loved institutions from the culture warriors on the Conservative Front Bench. I do not believe that everybody in the DCMS Front-Bench team falls into that category: some are simply trying to keep their heads down until the chancer in No. 10 gets toppled, taking his fawning political acolytes with him. Channel 4 probably feels much the same.
Later—let me make some progress.
Until then, we have little choice but to combat the collection of semi-arguments, half-heard bar-room prejudices, factual errors and outright disinformation that forms the basis of the Government’s case for privatising the channel. There is of course the never-ending irony that a Government pretending commitment to levelling up are making decisions that will jeopardise national and regional businesses in the production sector. Channel 4 spends more on nations and regions production than any other commercially funded broadcaster, and in 2021 dedicated 55% of its total content spend to content produced in the nations and regions. As we have heard, with a headquarters in Leeds and hubs in Glasgow, Bristol and Manchester, Channel 4 is a model levelling-up employer.
So why sell this model levelling-up employer? Is it in financial peril? We know that it is not. Channel 4 currently generates £1 billion of gross value added for the UK economy, working with around 300 production companies a year. To be clear, the UK Government want to sell a healthy, successful company that, because of the way it was established, cannot keep its profits. It must and does reinvest all revenue made back into the business—a dream for the consumer. If only the privatised utilities had been set up on that model, how much better off we would all be.
The Government’s excuse to attack Channel 4, this jewel in the broadcasting crown, is that they want to raise money to reinvest in the independent production sector. That is precisely what Channel 4 does with its profits at the moment. It is entirely nonsensical. All that the Government wheeze will do is put investment and jobs in jeopardy. Do they care? Does the absent Secretary of State have some great insight into the sector that lesser mortals, including those who run the company and oppose her, do not?
We all know the Secretary of State’s history of gaffes and confusions, but on Channel 4 she has surely surpassed herself. Millions of views of her faux pas on YouTube do not make her a broadcasting expert. The House will know that she did not know how Channel 4 was funded when she appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on which I sit. She thought it was publicly funded, rather than funded by advertising. Her confusion was excruciatingly laid bare on camera when a Conservative member of the Committee, Damian Green, had to explain Channel 4’s funding model to her.
The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head. Feel free to intervene, rather than groan in agony. Apparently he cannot marshal the words to match his facial expressions.
Millions of Channel 4 viewers will have noticed the adverts on Channel 4, but the Secretary of State apparently has not, yet she presumes to pontificate on Channel 4 while junior Ministers breathlessly wait. It is like watching an unbenevolent Mr Dick from Charles Dickens fly his kite. [Interruption.] It is a literary reference. People may laugh at the clips, but such wilful ignorance debases the policy-making process. When she is misunderstanding the most fundamental part of her brief, but still thinks it appropriate to patronise the Channel 4 management and staff, it is painful to witness. Nor was that a one-off; the Secretary of State thought that Channel 5, as has already been quoted, had been privatised. She told Iain Dale of LBC that it was, citing the privatisation of Channel 5 as a model for Channel 4 privatisation. She said that it was privatised
“three years ago, five years ago maybe” when she did that particular interview. There was only one problem: Channel 5 was never privatised. It was another excruciating on-air exhibition of ignorance.
The Secretary of State may not know much about the sector, but does she at least have the public on her side as the Government lunge at Channel 4? Apparently not, although she does not seem to know it. Let us look at the consultation she set up to assess public opinion on the proposed privatisation. At a November DCMS Committee session, the Secretary of State said:
“what is the point of having a consultation that 60,000 people respond to if I had already made my mind up what I was going to do with Channel 4? That would be an abuse, I think, and a waste of money and effort on behalf of a large number of civil servants. I would really like to see what those 60,000 responses say first.”
The message was clear: she would listen to the public, those who watch and love the channel.
People did respond to the Government when asked for their view. As the Secretary of State said, 60,000 responded in an impressive display of public engagement. What did the figures show after they were analysed? Those figures, which the Secretary of State told us it would be an abuse to ignore, were interesting. Some 96% of the public were against Channel 4 privatisation, although in yet another moment of tragicomedy, the Secretary of State announced to the Select Committee at her latest appearance that 96% of the public were in favour of privatisation.
As other hon. Members have already explained, Channel 4 is making record profits. Since the system seems to be working so well, I do not see the point of breaking it.
It is making plenty of programmes. In fact, the Secretary of State already said that so many production companies are being successful that they cannot keep up with the current demands. Conservative Members need to marshal their arguments and work out which they are advocating.
Once again, so we are all clear: 96% of the public in the Government’s own consultation process, which the Secretary of State said it would be an abuse to ignore, said that they opposed Channel 4 privatisation—so much for respecting the public will. It appears that the public matter as little as industry experts.
Let us turn to one of the main arguments put forward for the privatisation of Channel 4. The Secretary of State often says that she wants it to be able to compete with
“streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon”.
She may have noticed that they do not have war correspondents, or at least that those who do appear are actors in movies, not journalists dealing with breaking news. The comparison is far from ideal, but let us briefly explore it anyway.
Amazon Prime is owned by a trillion-dollar company that uses its video streaming end as a loss leader. Unlike Channel 4, it does not make a profit, so it is far from a role model. What about Netflix, the other role model that the Secretary of State has in mind for a privatised Channel 4? That is not going so well either. It has racked up billions of dollars of debt and its share price has fallen by more than 70% in the last six months, which demonstrates the volatility of the market.
Unlike the Secretary of State’s chosen examples, Channel 4 is a commercial success that runs a profit, not a loss. Its real competitors are the current UK public service broadcasters such as the BBC and ITV. We all know that the future is digital and here Channel 4 leads the UK. We all know that linear numbers are down, but it is in a strong position to benefit from that trend as it is the UK’s biggest free streaming service, despite having a considerably smaller budget than the BBC. Also, of course, because it is publicly owned, it can reinvest extra revenue.
What if the nightmare happened and the Secretary of State got her way? Some on the Tory Benches—I suspect not those invited to participate in this debate—may be swithering and wondering what the future of Channel 4 will hold. They might consider that the Secretary of State, however dodgy her grasp of facts and of the issue, has promised that Channel 4 will remain a public service broadcaster. They might think, “We will have sold off another piece of the family silver, but at least we can all muddle through and things might not change that much.”
Well, not so fast: although the Secretary of State did promise that, whatever fate befalls Channel 4, it would always remain a public service broadcaster free at the point of use, that undertaking fell apart somewhat under cross-examination at the Select Committee. We discovered that Channel 4’s buyer need only keep it as a public service broadcaster for 10 years. The Secretary of State has now made it clear that the Government will have no locus over the broadcaster once that period is over. When asked if the owners would have to consult the Department after 10 years, the Secretary of State said:
“No, it will be privately owned. It will be up to owners.”
So I say to Tory Back Benchers who are uncertain about what to do, if the new owners want to make Channel 4 a streaming service, they can. If they would like to ditch the award-winning “Channel 4 News” with its new chief anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy, it is up to them. The Secretary of State may be too scared to go into the studio to face him about Channel 4 privatisation, but do those Tory Back Benchers not want him and the news channel to be around to tackle the next Labour Prime Minister? Short-termism may come back to bite them. Say goodbye to “Unreported World”, which sends intrepid correspondents off to tackle unreported stories in some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots. They are astonishingly brave, but the show is expensive to make. Would a privatised company make it? No one at the channel thinks so.
The new owner could break up the company and sell it off. They could move it out of the UK. It is up to them entirely. The Secretary of State may argue that that is unlikely or would not make commercial sense, but do you really trust her judgment? Do you think she understands the detail? Will she even be around once this Prime Minister is gone? Who knows—it doesn’t really matter. What is important is that, once this 10-year period is over, the Government will have absolutely no power; it will be too late.
Reasoned argument has been tried and tested over Channel 4 privatisation. The arguments for privatisation never stack up. As a previous Secretary of State told me:
“too expensive, too unpopular, and too little in return.”
That Secretary of State had listened to the experts. This one does not seem to want to listen to the experts.
With an 80-plus seat majority, this ultimately, as we all know, will be up to Tory Back Benchers. Those of you not on the Government payroll do not much like your leader—we saw that and we saw how you voted. That we know and you often tell me you do not really believe in the culture wars—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is not really addressing the Chair when he says “You”. He means “They,” not “You.”
I beg your pardon. I try to avoid that, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Now is the chance for Conservative Back Benchers to join us on this side of the House in the mainstream. Please stand up for a national treasure.
It is interesting to follow John Nicolson. I do not think he needed to bring in party politics in the way that he did. I do not think that will help Channel 4, and I do not think it will help him either. What I do think is that, if the arguments put forward for the privatisation of Channel 4 were any good, they would have been put forward by Channel 4. If I were Secretary of State, I would say, “Ask Channel 4 to ask for privatisation as and when they think it will help them as a public service broadcaster.” It has not.
I ask the Government: when was the last time Channel 4 used public money for programmes? When did it last ask to have its borrowing limit lifted? It has not. I ask the Secretary of State whether she could have put in what she said. How much has Channel 4’s income from digital advertising increased in the last year and how much does Channel 4 expect it to rise in the next four years? We know that subscription on demand has grown and that broadcasting on demand has grown, mainly through Channel 4, but others can do the same, and we expect growth in advertising on video on demand. What we do not need to do is to throw away one of our best linear broadcasters which is also good at digital transformation.
Nothing has been said by Government, or even Government supporters, that suggests that Channel 4 would do better in other hands. The only conceivable ownership that would keep it going the way it is now is if it were given to the independent production companies to own as a mutual, and kept the broadcaster role and the rights on secondary broadcasting. That is a zero-sum game. Either the income stays with the producers or it goes to the broadcaster—it cannot go to both. If the Government think it would help the producers to take away that secondary income, they are just saying, “We are going to take it from one pocket and put it in another.” No argument has been put forward for that.
Have the advertisers said that they want this for Channel 4? No. The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers has said very clearly that it does not want that. There is also no evidence from polls or the Government survey and consultation that the viewers want its ownership or remit changed. The Government say that they are going to keep the whole public service remit, but they are not.
Channel 4 has been going—successfully—for 40 years. It has its ups and downs, but generally it is on the way up. The transformation in the way it produces and presents its products has gone on improving choices for people.
We have more than three different types of public service broadcasters. The Government are proposing to abolish one of them. That is not conservative; it is destructive. I do not blame the Secretary of State for thinking up the idea; it was there before she took on her responsibilities. But she could have done what other Secretaries of State have done and stood up to those who want to privatise Channel 4. My wife did. She was in a small minority in the Cabinet. She stood up against it. Her arguments were right. When the Chancellor said, “We want to get some money in, because we are short of money,” she explained that it was not a question of how much; it was just wrong. In the years since the mid-1990s—that is about 27 years—Channel 4 has gone from strength to strength.
I say to the Government: do not go on with this, although not because I do not like privatisation—I do. The privatisation of the National Freight Corporation—incidentally, that was the only bit of privatisation in the 1979 manifesto on which Margaret Thatcher and I got elected—was to hand the National Freight Corporation to its employees and that worked really well, but that is not the proposal here.
Government speakers say that the proposal will give Channel 4 more money to put into training people. We do not need to privatise an organisation to do that. They say that it will provide more money for commissioning programmes. Maybe it would in the short term, but not in the long term. What is the medium-term and long-term gain? The answer has not been put forward.
I do not seriously believe that the Secretary of State or her colleagues mind being criticised by Channel 4 News—by criticism, I mean being asked to answer questions. That is the sort of thing that happens in the House of Commons and they do not try to abolish the House of Commons because we ask awkward questions. But as I have said, it is far better to be in government and to have to answer awkward questions than to be in opposition and cheer when the interviewer puts the awkward questions to the Labour party or whatever else might be the alternative Government.
I ask the Secretary of State and the Government to think again, to leave the proposals for Channel 4 to rest and to say to Channel 4’s viewers, management and board, “If and when you believe that we can do better under a different kind of ownership, come forward and say so.” One of the many groups that have not done that is those involved in Channel 4.
Those who are concerned more for the producers of programmes than for the viewers put the arguments well around the nations of this country. I do so on behalf of the public interest. If the choice is between the state owning Channel 4 and the United States owning Channel 4, it is better to have it as a state corporation, independent of Government. I wish Government would stop messing it around.
I endorse what the Father of the House just said. That is not to say that I do not have sympathy with Ministers. I was a Minister in the last Labour Government and I understand that Ministers face very difficult decisions. It is not always a decision between simply what is right and what is wrong. Sometimes, it is not a decision between good and evil. Sometimes, it is a decision between the unacceptable and the unpalatable. So I have sympathy with Ministers when they are considering policy.
However, I have been trying to imagine the meeting that the Secretary of State and her Ministers must have had to discuss this topic. Presumably, the permanent secretary came along and said, “Secretary of State, I’m afraid that I’ve got some bad news for you: we haven’t got a problem.” The Secretary of State said, “Really? That’s worrying. What haven’t we got a problem with?” The permanent secretary said, “I’m afraid we haven’t got a problem with Channel 4.” The Secretary of State said, “Why? What has it been doing?” The permanent secretary said, “I’m afraid to tell you that it hasn’t been costing the taxpayer a penny while it has been operating as a public service broadcaster. It gets worse. Last year, it brought in £1.2 billion in revenue and a record financial surplus of £100 million. If that is not enough, it does not even need to borrow any money to finance its operations. I’m afraid to tell you, Secretary of State, that there is much more of this. It has also been rapidly growing its digital advertising revenue, moving into the advertising market that is the future in a way that is far outstripping all of its commercial competitors. Worse still, its digital strategy is way ahead of all its commercial competitors. It has been, annoyingly, fulfilling its remit to appeal to young people. It is the most successful broadcaster of any commercial broadcaster in reaching 16 to 34-year-olds and hugely diverse audiences.
On top of that, I’m afraid to tell you, Secretary of State, it has been commissioning content from independent producers all over the country—”
Order. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I had not quite picked up on the context. He is probably allowed to make an imaginary quotation, saying, “You, Secretary of State.” Fine—proceed!
Order. I would just point out to Jesse Norman that he might find he is disappointed at the end of the debate when he himself loses a minute.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his motives. I hope he achieves his objective, but I am not sure whether I will get that extra minute.
In the imaginary conversation, the permanent secretary might have gone on to say, “On top of that, Channel 4 works with 300 production companies a year. It spends more on external production in the nations and regions than any other commercially funded broadcaster, dedicating over half its total content spend to content produced there. I’m afraid to tell you, Secretary of State, that, in addition, Channel 4 has created hundreds of high value jobs in the nations and regions, including by moving a large part of its operations out to Leeds”—I am afraid it was not Cardiff; I wish it had been Cardiff, but it has moved an important HQ out to Leeds—“and announcing plans to significantly increase its investment in skills.”
The permanent secretary might have continued, “On top of that, I am afraid it has been taking decisions with the public interest at heart. I’m afraid to report, Secretary of State, that it has been taking those sorts of decisions, including broadcasting the Paralympics, which otherwise would not have been exposed, and giving a whole hour every night in prime time to news. The news, which counters the misinformation that is such a blight of our age because of the internet, is subcontracted to a production company”—as ever, to ITN—“and subject to Ofcom’s rules of impartiality. And it has been absolutely integral to the success of our film industry.”
“In other words, Secretary of State,” the permanent secretary must have said, “it is a shameful litany of success from Channel 4, and we really ought to do something about it.” Presumably, the Secretary of State would have said in response, “Well, quite clearly, we cannot allow things to go on as they are, because we are going to risk the Government’s reputation for incompetence if this carries on. We have to protect it, and, after all, we were absolutely silent in our manifesto on the issue of privatising Channel 4. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that we should definitely do it. We did not seek a mandate from the electorate to privatise this successful, publicly owned, public service broadcaster, so we absolutely ought to do it.”
I say to the Minister for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure, Julia Lopez—a very thoughtful Minister, who I am sure will make the best fist of this whole thing both here and eventually in Committee, if this lamentable proposal ever gets that far—that that is where we are at the moment: caught up in an episode of “Parliamentary Pointless”, with a policy that nobody promised in search of a problem that nobody perceives.
Lord Parkinson, the Arts Minister, appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee this morning, and told us he has six Bills coming down the track in the House of Lords. I would have thought he had enough on his plate, without a pointless proposal of this kind. If colleagues in this place do not prevent this daft proposal from going any further, and the idea ends up down in the House of Lords, I am telling you—you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House—that it has no chance of making swift progress in the House of Lords, because it was not in the manifesto. As a result, as Lord Parkinson accepted this morning, the Salisbury convention will apply, and their lordships will feel as free as ever to delay the proposal and if necessary, as they are constitutionally entitled to do, invoke the Parliament Act. The proposal is pointless and should be abandoned.
Sylvester McCoy—of course.
I thank my right hon. Friend for pointing that out and for the extra time his intervention allows me.
Despite my pleasure that we are debating a DCMS matter, which thanks to the business managers we were not able to do prior to Prorogation—for example, on online safety—I will not be supporting the Opposition’s rather over-long motion. However, I have mixed emotions regarding the decision to privatise Channel 4.
Intrinsically, as a free market Conservative, I recognise that it is a historic anomaly that Channel 4 should still, after 40 years, be in public ownership. I start from a simple position, which is that all things should be in the private sector unless there is an overwhelming case that they should be in public ownership. Public ownership is so often the dead hand on innovation. It implies stasis and has a wider sclerotic implication for the economy. However, being sclerotic and lacking innovation are two things I could never accuse Channel 4 of during its 40 years. For much of its first 40 years, the broadcaster has navigated its hybrid status between commercial and public ably. Other Members will no doubt list its strengths, which are myriad and cannot melt away like an ice sculpture.
I agree that privatisation will allow Channel 4 to capitalise on its achievements and attempt to keep up with the rampant inflation in the production sphere, which is an aspect of the wider inflation in the economy, but is also due to the success of UK film and TV production. In fact, I think the UK economy would have been in technical recession in 2018 and 2019 had it not been for those industries, such is their importance. However, the idea that privatisation will meant that Channel 4 will compete head-on with Prime or Netflix is an odd one.
Channel 4 is much better using its status—privatised or not—to better collaborate with other public service broadcasters. PSBs need to find a way to offer a combined front to the public: a super-BritBox, if you like. Imagine the entire rich back catalogue of British television streamed in one place and given due prominence through legislation. Does privatisation make such a thing more likely? With the right buyer, probably. It is unlikely that any buyer would look to—how can I put it?—Richard Desmond-ise Channel 4, as we saw with Channel 5.
I am not certain that I take the view of Lucy Powell that a buyer will wait out 10 years and drive down the public service broadcasting. The whole point of Channel 4 is that it has unique selling points. It appeals to a young audience, which is extremely attractive for advertisers and marketeers, particularly in the age of streaming online, as well as for data sharing, which has wider implications.
Does the sale make sense from an Exchequer viewpoint? That is really marginal. It will raise enough to service, not pay off, the national debt for a total of 72 hours. Such is the lack of value to be derived that the Treasury has said that it is happy for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to pledge the money towards the levelling-up agenda. We will see what comes out in the wash in that respect, but I always await the pleasant surprise of the Treasury following through on such a commitment. However, let us be frank: this is not about raising money. It is probably not about the idea that the channel will be a drain on public resources either; it has never been one in the past. However, it is better off being placed in the private sector to ensure that it can grow and develop.
Then we have the elephant in the room—the Jon Snow at Glasto, if you like. Is this in some way a revenge play? I hope not, because such things are deeply unbecoming. As individuals and collectively, we must always rise above such emotions. Personally, I believe that some of Channel 4’s Brexit coverage was shrill in the extreme and that it did not do itself any favours, but as a political class we have to be bigger than that in all respects. Actually, whenever I have gone on Channel 4 programmes, they have been perfectly fine: I have always been treated with respect and asked very thoughtful questions. We do Channel 4 down, but in many instances it offers unrivalled international coverage, and we would be really lacking without it.
In summary, is the privatisation of Channel 4 the right course of action? Probably, but only marginally. Is it being done for the right reasons? I sincerely hope so, but I would be more convinced if it were part of a genuine suite of measures to deregulate our economy and embrace the private sector, rather than being a one-off. Frankly, what we need in the Conservative party is not pieces of red meat to be tossed, but a genuine and coherent plan to offer the public so that they understand exactly what we are and what we are trying to achieve. That would happen if the word “privatisation” were used much more often, not just in our manifestos but in our public utterances.
It is a pleasure to follow Julian Knight.
“Channel 4’s public service model and remit, which are so vital to the continued strength of the UK’s broadcasting ecology, would not be best served by privatisation”.
Those are not my words, but those of the then Conservative Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport only five years ago. They still represent a wide consensus among the public: when the Government’s consultation last year essentially asked respondents whether they thought Channel 4 should be privatised, 91% said no and only 2% said yes.
The case for the continued public ownership of Channel 4 is overwhelming. It does not cost the taxpayer a single penny. It invests 100% of its revenue back into the channel to provide entertainment for the public, good jobs in communities and opportunities for the UK’s fast-growing creative industries. Its unique remit has allowed it to directly invest more than £1 billion into the UK’s independent production sector and work with 300 smaller production companies every year. Channel 4’s commissioning has boosted local economies across the country; it spends more with production companies in the nations and regions than any other public service broadcaster, and more than 50% of its commissioning budget is allocated to production companies outside London.
I remember Channel 4 first coming to our screens in 1982. It was an exciting prospect. It was fitting that its first show was produced by a regional production company, Yorkshire Television—it was none other than teatime favourite “Countdown”. Over nearly 40 years, Channel 4 has pioneered representation and diversity and showcased them to audiences across the UK and the world. Its focus on alternative voices and cutting-edge storytelling has created TV firsts such as the first female same-sex kiss aired before 9 pm, which was on “Brookside” in 1994. Recently, we have seen “It’s a Sin”, “Derry Girls” and a favourite of mine, “The Lateish Show with Mo Gilligan”, all brilliant examples of what a publicly owned Channel 4 can still create.
Maintaining our world-class reputation in TV production and film-making is critical to our global Britain ambitions, but let us be frank about what the Conservative Government’s decision tells us: they are not serious about distributing economic growth, supporting small and medium-sized businesses or backing the UK creative industries on the global stage. As the National Union of Journalists has put it:
“It’s hard to see any justification for privatising Channel Four other than ideology. Channel 4 has achieved what it was asked to do and has proved a hit with viewers.”
The Government’s hollow justification for a change in ownership does not stand up to scrutiny. Channel 4 is thriving. It is the UK’s largest streaming service—nearly a third more than Netflix in 2020—while Netflix’s share prices have plummeted.
The benefits of a publicly owned Channel 4 are clear and obvious for all to see, and selling it off is an ideological act of vandalism. This ideologically driven attack on the future of our creative industries and on the principle of having public service broadcasters will create a Channel 4 that is focused merely on delivering profits to shareholders and not on creating diverse and distinctive content for the public. Privatisation would end the unique rights model that supports independent companies to grow. It would also threaten the future of Film4, which spends more on British film than any other UK broadcaster, investing £25 million annually in feature films that nurture diverse and new talent. This has created films such as “Trainspotting”, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “12 Years a Slave” and has collectively to date won 37 Academy Awards and 84 BAFTAs.
As well as the likelihood of losing the alternative, gritty, brave content we all love, the economic damage across the country would be substantial. As we have heard, EY analysis has found that £2 billion-worth of Channel 4’s contribution to the creative economy in the regions would be lost if the channel were privatised, and there would be a 40% decline in the regional supply chain contribution and a 35% decline in jobs supported in the nations and regions.
I also want to make the point that the timing of the announcement is curious. As has been mentioned, this proposal was not in the Government’s manifesto. The Government have prioritised selling off a proud British institution over tackling the cost of living crisis that is ravaging communities across the country. I look forward to the Minister telling the House in her wind-up speech why the Government are prioritising selling off Channel 4 over bringing down food, energy and fuel bills. How will selling off Channel 4 help my constituents to pay their bills? Or is this really a petty vendetta against a broadcaster whose news content the Conservatives do not like?
Unlike the Conservative party, Labour is proud of our great British broadcasters. We recognise the power of projecting British culture, values and creative excellence across the world in helping our country to prosper. If it were not for Channel 4, my younger self would not have discovered great new music by watching “The Tube”, discovered brilliant comedy such as “Father Ted” or felt represented by working-class drama such as “This is England”. Now, my middle-aged self would not be enjoying some of the best political commentary from the good people of “Gogglebox” or “The Last Leg”. Pushing forward with privatisation represents a complete disregard for the concerns of the creative industries and the public. Channel 4 ain’t broke.
There is a lot in the Opposition motion with which I agree, particularly its drawing attention to the success of our creative industries and our broadcasting sector and to the benefits that Channel 4 has brought, but it is because I want to see the continuation of Channel 4’s contribution to the creative sector that I believe the Government’s policy is right and will ensure that Channel 4 can continue to thrive.
As has been pointed out, Channel 4 was created by Margaret Thatcher’s Government. There were two principal objectives. The first was to cater for minority audiences that were not being properly provided for at that time. The second was to act as a catalyst to what was then a barely visible independent production sector. Since that time, the landscape has changed dramatically. If we look at the range of choice now available to viewers, we see huge numbers of channels providing a wide and diverse range of content. We also see the spend by those channels. A lot of them are not British, but they are spending money in Britain. Just to give one example, Apple TV recently came to my constituency of Maldon to make “The Essex Serpent”, which I thoroughly recommend to those who have not yet seen it. Minority audiences are now being catered for, but of course Channel 4 should continue with that remit and continue to meet it.
The independent sector has absolutely taken off since Channel 4 was created and is now making programmes that are enjoyed right across the world. However, it is true, as one or two hon. Members have pointed out, that the spend of Channel 4 has declined. I want to cite quickly the latest Oliver & Ohlbaum UK TV production survey for PACT—the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television—which is the independent production sector. In 2020, spending on independent producers was £508 million by the BBC, £356 million by ITV, £210 million by Channel 4 and £223 million by the others, including Sky and some of the streamers.
Just in case people say, “Ah, but Channel 4 continues to support the small indies”, I point out that 40% of the BBC’s spend is on independent production companies with a turnover of less £10 million, compared with 27% of ITV’s, 11% of Channel 5’s and just 10% of Channel 4’s. Yes, Channel 4 does make a contribution, but the independent production sector is actually now so successful that it no longer necessarily needs the support it was previously given. Indeed, I think there is a case for tweaking the remit so that Channel 4 is perhaps returned to its original purpose of focusing on growing companies, not just on commissioning from production companies that are already hugely successful.
The reason why it is right to look at the future of Channel 4 now is that the original model set up, as a commissioner and publisher-broadcaster wholly dependent on advertising, is going to come under increasing strain. Yes, Channel 4 did well last year in that it survived the pandemic. It did so because it cut the programme budget by £140 million and its drop in revenue was not quite as big. As a result, it made a larger profit, but it did so only by slashing the programme budget. That was a sensible thing to do, but it should not be interpreted as Channel 4 thriving and not being under huge pressure.
We know that that pressure is going to increase. Advertising is steadily migrating online. Digital advertising is becoming overwhelmingly the major spend by the advertising industry. As the Secretary of State pointed out, those that want to spend on TV advertising have ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky to go to at the moment, but the streaming services are also going to open up to advertising. Netflix is talking about taking advertising and Disney is talking about taking advertising, so the competition for advertising is going to get ever greater and the diversion of revenue to digital media is also going to continue.
Channel 4’s revenues are going to come under increasing strain at the same time as the cost of production is rising steadily and there is a shortage of skills. As has been pointed out, there are potential benefits from privatisation, and Kevin Brennan referred to the difficulties that might be encountered in the House of Lords. To quote the last House of Lords report on Channel 4:
“The potential benefits of privatisation to C4C’s sustainability are increased access to investment in programming, content partnerships and technology through access to capital. This would enable C4C to diversify its revenues, enhance its sustainability and be more ambitious internationally.”
I could not have put it better myself.
I want to counter those who suggest that this somehow a vendetta against Channel 4 because some people may not like some programmes. I completely reject that. I remain a fan of Channel 4 News, even though it annoys me intensely on occasions. It is important that we have plurality in our news provision, and Channel 4 News is a professional news provider. This is not just about raising money for the Treasury. The reason behind privatisation is that the Conservative Government whose predecessor created Channel 4 want Channel 4 to go on succeeding, but under the present change in the landscape, it needs a different funding model and the access to capital that the private sector can provide.
Order. I remind everybody that the wind-ups will start no later than 6.40 pm, which is in roughly an hour’s time, and that those participating in this debate are expected to be here for the wind-ups.
As the hon. Member for Cardiff West so eloquently conveyed in his imagined conversation between the Secretary of State and the permanent secretary, Channel 4 is in rude financial health and there is a danger that many of its commercial competitors look on with envy at its digital innovation, so I do not think the case has been made for privatisation in the interest of preserving the future of Channel 4.
I have previously raised concerns that privatisation would jeopardise Channel 4’s valuable investment and contribution in communities across the UK as part of its public service remit, and particularly its contribution to production companies and content producers in the nations and regions of the UK thanks to the quotas set by the Government as part of its remit and the voluntary quotas it has decided to exceed.
When I asked the Secretary of State and the Department how the Government would ensure that such a valuable contribution continues following privatisation, I was told to wait for the White Paper for further details. I have waited, but I am afraid the White Paper offers little by way of reassurance.
The Government made a commitment in the White Paper to maintaining Channel 4’s mandatory obligations on regional production and commissioning outside England, which at first glance is very welcome but is by no means an improvement on the status quo. In fact, it risks falling below the current level because Channel 4, as I mentioned, exceeds its mandatory requirements.
Channel 4’s mandatory quota for content produced outside London is currently 35%. That is much lower than its voluntary quota, which exceeds 50%. If a private owner aligned spending in the nations and regions with the mandatory quota alone, Channel 4’s contribution to gross value added through its supply chains in the nations and regions would reduce by some 43%, or £1.2 billion, over 10 years.
The independent report by Ernst and Young suggests that the creative industries in Wales will be disproportionately hit, noting that a private owner would likely choose to shift commissioning spend to London’s more concentrated production market. Perhaps in response to the inflationary pressures in the sector, a private owner might want to consolidate and concentrate its operations to save on costs, which would have a very serious impact on jobs in Wales and in the other nations and regions of the UK.
The jobs supported by Channel 4 in the nations and regions each year, both directly and through its supply chain, would reduce by some 60%. Channel 4’s investment in Wales has amounted to more than £77 million in the past 10 years, supporting more than 200 jobs in 2019 alone. The White Paper, I am afraid to say, fails to offer the reassurance I was hoping for that such a contribution would continue under privatisation, let alone explain how it might increase due to the supposed benefits of privatisation.
In evidence to the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, Teledwyr Annibynnol Cymru, the Welsh independent producers group, said it
“cannot see any benefits of privatising Channel 4.”
Indeed, TAC expressed a fear that privatisation will have a negative impact on the Welsh production sector, and it detailed concerns about the future of Channel 4’s training programmes, including its flagship production training scheme, which is completely focused on the nations and regions and has already placed trainees with Welsh companies such as Bad Wolf, Yeti and Chwarel, and with the Welsh factual fast-track scheme that addresses skills gaps in developing executive producers in the factual sector.
Reduced spending on such schemes will not only affect current jobs but undermine the long-term development of the creative producers and journalists of the future. It is patently obvious that the Government’s proposals to remove Channel 4’s publisher-broadcaster model, which ensures that the vast majority of its content spend goes on original UK programming, will only damage the sector in Wales. Rather than delivering a public service remit, Channel 4 would instead have to act solely with a direct profit motive. That would mean that future investment will be ever more driven by market forces. Let us consider for a moment that the Netflix production hub is in Surrey’s Shepperton studios and that Disney has a long-term lease for Pinewood studios. If the Government wish Channel 4 to follow in the footsteps of those companies, we will almost certainly see production concentrate and consolidate in the south-east of England, contrary to the Government’s levelling-up agenda. The White Paper and the proposals for Channel 4 have failed to reassure me that the privatisation will deliver any other outcome. They are then failing not only the future of the cultural sector in Wales and other parts of the UK, but the Government’s own levelling-up objectives.
Before I start, I would like to do as the shadow Secretary of State did and declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I, too, was a guest of Channel 4 at the BAFTA ceremony. I would also declare, as other Members from across the House have done, that I am a fan of “Derry Girls”, as, I am sure, as part of his cross-community work, is Ian Paisley. This is a channel that makes great programmes that are part of our national psyche and it is an important part of our broadcasting landscape.
However, I say to Opposition Members and some on our side that I have an honest disagreement with Channel 4 and with people who are opposing privatisation; the company, although well run, is running into such strong industry headwinds that this cannot be taken off the table and it has to considered seriously. As Channel 4 said in its own “The Next Episode” response to the Government’s White Paper, all options have to be considered. That has to include the option of privatisation.
The challenges to the sector are very real. A lot has been made of the fact that the last financial year was a successful one for Channel 4 and for the UK advertising industry. There was a major spike in advertising revenues. That is partly to do with a major surge in advertising spend coming out of the pandemic, which saw a big increase in revenues for all broadcasters. The pandemic also meant the delay to the European championships and the Olympics, and such major international tournaments traditionally have a considerable inflationary impact on the advertising market. So we have to look at this in a wider context: the increases in ad revenues seen in 2021 may not be repeated; and the diversion away from linear television advertising—traditional spot advertising—to digital media is a continuing trend. Channel 4 may be the leading UK broadcaster in that respect, but currently only 16% of its revenues come from digital advertising. Although it wants to move that target to 30% by 2025, that may still be a significant challenge.
If there is a major challenge to the TV industry, to the advertising industry, and if there were a recession—TV advertising is traditionally one of the earliest and worst-hit sectors—Channel 4 would be much more vulnerable to the economic shocks that would come, because it does not have other revenue sources. These trends may be familiar across PSBs, which have seen long-term declines in revenue if they are commercial, and in audience numbers, including at peak time. However, the BBC can make money from making programmes. ITV can make money from making programmes, for itself and for other people. Channel 4 does not have that option.
Let us look at the period before the pandemic. In trying to observe a trend, that is probably the fairest thing to do, because we do not yet quite know what impact the pandemic has had, in terms of lockdown in 2020 and recovery in 2021. What does the picture look like? I think everyone here would agree that when Channel 4 was set up its purpose was to invest its money in UK original productions made by independent production companies. It was set up at a time when the BBC and the ITV companies largely made most of their stuff in house, so it was a necessary vehicle to get financial investment into the independent production sector. This was a sector where Sky, Amazon and Netflix did not exist, and it was far more reliant on that funding.
If we look at what has happened to Channel 4, and this is true for other PSBs as well, we see that in 2006 it spent £516 million in first-run original content. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, the figure was £436 million, so we have seen a 15% decline. That declining revenue also bought a lot less as well, because inflation in the TV production market is making it more and more expensive to make programmes. So in 2006 Channel 4 broadcast 3,388 hours of first-run original content, whereas in 2019 it broadcast 2,473 hours, which represents a decline of 27%. This trend away from traditional broadcasters towards digital markets, with the pressure that has on their budgets and the declining amount of money they can afford to spend on new programming, has been a trend for a number of years now. The concern we must have is that if there was a shock in the digital ad market and if Channel 4 cannot hit its targets of allowing digital revenues to grow as broadcast revenues decline, it is much more vulnerable. It does not have the reserves and it does not have the ability to make money elsewhere. That is why even Channel 4 is proposing significant changes to its remit.
As I pointed out earlier in the debate, in that document Channel 4 itself says that it requires a radical reset of its role. If it is to take the opportunity of the changing digital landscape in the future, it needs to be in a position to invest more money. That extra investment will not come from advertising revenues. Channel 4 has been the most successful traditional UK broadcaster in switching to digital, but even there the best one can say about the last few years is that the increase in digital revenues has just about kept pace with the decline in broadcasting revenues. Digital is not raising more money incrementally for Channel 4 to invest in programming at a time when new entrants to the market are increasing their spend significantly—by hundreds of millions of pounds. The danger is that Channel 4, with its unique voice, will be less able to compete, less able to commission, and will run less new programming than it could in the past and that other broadcasters will do. That has to be addressed.
Channel 4 has said that its role needs to be radically reset. It is calling for its digital streaming service, All 4, to be global—to reach a global audience—to increase ad revenues. That is a sensible idea, but the independent production companies that make programmes for Channel 4 would have to give their consent to being unable to sell their programming internationally on their own, as they would in other territories. It calls for the creation of a joint venture in which Channel 4 holds a minority stake that would raise £1 billion to invest in new programming over the next five years. That would be a sensible measure to bring in a significant extra boost in revenue, although it would only bring Channel 4 back to where it was in 2006. As part of that joint venture, Channel 4 would have the intellectual property rights for programming and make money from selling those programmes. Channel 4 believes that may be within its current remit, although it would significantly change the spirit of the remit. The independent production companies might have concerns about that extension, but it is probably necessary.
The idea that the status quo can continue is wrong. It would be wrong of us to assume that it can continue and to say that we will deal with this problem, if it comes, in the future, and in the meantime see Channel 4 gradually wither on the vine, with declining revenues, declining investment in programming, unable to compete, until the point where it cannot go on and requires a bail-out from the Government or the other PSBs. That is the risk we are taking.
The Government’s “Up Next” White Paper is not an ideological tract; it is a sensible and serious at look at real issues in the TV sector. We may have different views on what the right format would be; Channel 4 has put forward its ideas and other bidders will do the same. I think the bidders will be more than the traditional players; others will bid as well and we should look at those options, but they will all be options for change, suggesting a way that Channel 4 can raise more money to invest in what we want it to do—making great programmes.
When the Secretary of State opened her comments by saying how wonderful the live coverage of the jubilee was, I think I uttered a hearty, “Hear, hear.” The live production was very good and the BBC, Channel 4 and others played a key part, but at times the experience soured a bit for people in Northern Ireland. John Nicolson was happy to talk about incompetence, but someone grossly incompetent at the BBC decided to flag up the symbols of the nations, and while of course they got the saltire for Scotland, the dragon for Wales and St George’s cross for England correct, they decided to put up the tricolour of the Irish Republic for Northern Ireland. Grossly offensive. How pathetic. What senior executive took that decision? How was it made? Now, if we go to iPlayer, we see it has been removed—no doubt to spare the blushes and the embarrassment of the BBC.
We see that sort of thing quite a bit from the BBC. We recently celebrated 100 years of the state of Northern Ireland. The BBC deigned to give that three minutes of coverage on television, despite the fact that we had a massive series of celebrations over some months. The BBC provided just three minutes of television coverage of a major parade and display. Just this week, the BBC has announced it will no longer do live coverage and broadcast of the biggest carnival in Northern Ireland—the Twelfth of July. So my beef is actually with the BBC, not Channel 4. I have very few complaints about Channel 4. In the 12 years that I have been in this House, my mailbag has not received one complaint about Channel 4, but there have been thousands upon thousands of them about the BBC. That tells me that Channel 4 is probably getting things right. I must say that whenever I go on Channel 4, yes, I am faced with robust questions, but I am also faced with fair questions. That is what we expect from our media. The discussion and the debate to privatise Channel 4 should definitely take place, as Damian Collins said. It is important that we justify whether a sale should take place, but I also think that it can be an unnecessary distraction when there are other things that the Secretary of State and the Department should be dealing with—I think that I identified a few of them in my opening comments.
Channel 4 is an enabler of television and film production in Northern Ireland. That is the key point. People can say that other companies could come in and do the same, but Channel 4 has actually been there on the ground and enabled small companies to grow into excellent film-making and film production companies—companies such as Waddell, Stellify, Strident and Fired Up. Those little companies that started off with one or two creative individuals are now the mainstay of a lot of the film and TV production in Northern Ireland. I would like some reassurances that that sort of support will continue to be in place under privatisation. If it is not, Northern Ireland stands to lose enabling companies that generate £250 million in the economy of Northern Ireland. For a country of 1.7 million people, that is massive. That is significant. It is a major employer. Instead of our thinking that Northern Ireland is a country that just does agrifood production and heavy engineering, we can see that we actually have a high-tech film-making sector, which has given us very great opportunities for employment. Channel 4 directly employs 81 people in Northern Ireland. Under privatisation, will those jobs be protected? Channel 4 also puts £8 million directly annually into the gross value added of Northern Ireland. Would that be protected? When I asked the Secretary of State those questions during her speech, she was not able to give me a direct assurance that that was the case. I understand that those points will be taken away and could be looked at again.
The enabling work that Channel 4 has done meant that, last year, nine major TV dramas and six major film productions were made in Northern Ireland. The little film and production companies that Channel 4 supported from their very inception are now there to make those key roles and play that key part in the future of film-making and television dramatisations in Northern Ireland.
Finally, the White Paper calls for broadcasting to be fit for the new era. We have heard from a number of Members that All 4, the Channel 4 online streaming service, is the largest free streaming service in the United Kingdom. If that is the case, Channel 4 is doing something right, and it is for others to catch up.
As so many on these Benches have said, Channel 4 has marked the landscape of our lives. Loved or loathed, the landmarks are all there to see across the broadcasting landscape. For me as a youngster, it was the NFL coverage of Super Bowl on Sunday nights that sticks in my memory. More recently, as an engineer, I enjoyed the prominence and accomplishments of the characters on “The Big Bang Theory”, and there are others that have taken our attention as a nation. Who could forget the cultural contributions of the likes of Homer Simpson, particularly his contribution to the English language of “Doh”? Perhaps I am the first Member in this House to mention that in this place. For the benefit of John Nicolson, that was a cultural reference.
The motion moved by the Labour party opens with the words:
“That this House
supports the UK’s much loved cultural institutions, which are celebrated around the world while creating jobs and growth across the country”.
I am sure that those words are unanimously supported by Members across the House. I am proud of this Government’s support for, and recognition of, the immense value of our cultural institutions. After all, it was this Government who opened the £1.6 billion cultural recovery fund, which protected museums, galleries and other cultural treasures from the existential threat that the pandemic presented to much of the UK’s cultural landscape. It was a Conservative Government who saved it.
Let me be clear that I believe the right sale of Channel 4 will help it to thrive in the modern era. Other hon. Members have made that point, so I will not dwell on it. I also believe that a change of ownership can give it access to funds, as other hon. Members have pointed out.
My main point, in answer to several hon. Members who have raised this, is about why a sale is necessary. This is an important point to make because it speaks to how we manage public assets—the buying, holding and exiting of those assets. The word “ideology” has been used several times by Opposition Members. Perhaps this is a gross characterisation—hon. Members will forgive me—but often the Opposition are characterised as being ideologically driven and those of us on the Government side are characterised, or criticised even, as being over-pragmatic. It is interesting to see our actions and words here viewed through an ideological lens. Actually, we are making a pragmatic response.
As a state, we have a poor track record—across all parties and all Governments. We are very good at spotting problems, designing a response and delivering a solution, but then we tend just to hold on. We think that is virtuous, but in fact we risk creating self-perpetuating institutions that become an echo of the past. The real question is not whether this is an ideologically driven or pragmatic response; it is which is the better driver for creativity. I am mindful of bodies such as NatWest, because until two months ago the Government were still the majority shareholder.
What happens when we hold an institution—this has been shown time and again—is that institutional calcification occurs. Inevitably, funds are diverted, with more and more resource going into self-preservation. But the right sale, well managed, would break that up.
I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments, but does he have any evidence that the calcification he talks of is actually happening to Channel 4? There is obviously inflation in the sector. Does he think that Channel 4 is markedly less innovative than other players in the sector? Could he say a bit more about why he thinks privatisation would make a positive difference, given that Channel 4 has managed to flourish over 40 years of state ownership? There are other state organisations, such as the Bank of England, that we would not consider privatising because they have shown their value over many years.
I thank my right hon. Friend, who pre-empts my next comments. Indeed, I will come on to why flourishing is not just measured in finance. For every supply chain that might be disrupted by a sale, a new opportunity for entrants to the sector is created. We have already heard one such example in the intervention from my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant. Some of the production companies that started with Channel 4 in the early days were cutting-edge start-ups, but now they are becoming institutions in their own right, and we have seen the same pattern—to answer my right hon. Friend’s question —in silicon valley. For agrarians and those who enjoy gardening, sometimes we prune a successful fruit tree in order to encourage further flourishing and production.
After all, Channel 4 has achieved its objective, and this is the point. It was set up by a Conservative Government, under Margaret Thatcher, to create competition in our now thriving independent production sector. Now, having fulfilled this purpose, we are supporting our public service broadcasters to continue to grow, export British content and compete globally. To sell is a responsible question to ask.
By way of further example, about a year ago I spoke to the former chief executive of S4C—Sianel Pedwar Cymru, as we say over the border. It was clear then that S4C was being drawn away from the traditional broadcaster role into more of a media company role, but the funding arrangements in place were hindering that. I see a parallel with the situation facing Channel 4. To be clear, and in response to Kevin Brennan, success is not shameful and a sale is not punishment.
In conclusion, the Opposition should not fear change, nor should they resist the responsible management of public assets. It is the responsible thing and it is the right time now to ask the question: what next for Channel 4?
That we are having this debate at all shows the widespread failure of this Government. They are bereft of ideas and sinking in the polls at a time when the public are being hammered by soaring costs and squeezed incomes. Any sensible, competent Government would be laser-focused on addressing that, fixing the economy and giving people the support and security that they deserve.
But this is not a competent Government, and they are incapable of even basic administration or delivery, as we have just heard in the debate on their crisis at the Passport Office, which still fills my inbox. Instead they repeatedly try to distract and hoodwink us with unnecessary fights and outrageous announcements, diverting us all with culture war headlines rather than doing their jobs.
This culture war is an act of cultural vandalism. Channel 4 is a great British success story. It is publicly owned but privately funded, and is a major employer in our news and entertainment sectors, essential for small independent production companies, and the biggest single investor in the British film industry. Its remit has developed programmes that give opportunities to alternative and marginalised groups and made both a commercial and cultural success of their perspectives.
Not least among those are the opportunities and representation that Channel 4 has consistently championed for LGBT people since its launch in the 1980s, when previous Conservative Governments condemned our identities. That in itself shows that Channel 4 has never been constrained by its public broadcaster status. It nurtures skills and talent and extends our reach and cultural influence around the world; it would take an extremely strong reason for anyone to want to threaten that success, especially since the Government have no mandate or support from the public to do so.
The Government have not come forward with any coherent case for their proposal. Channel 4 thrived financially last year, with record revenue and surplus. It is already a major investor in our creative industries and is able to take wholly independent commercial and editorial decisions without answering to either Government or shareholders. In comparison with the now flagging Netflix, All 4 is the UK’s biggest free streaming service, generating 1.25 billion views in 2021, and 80% of UK 16 to 34-year-olds are registered.
Channel 4 already spends more with production companies in the nations and regions than any other public service broadcaster. More than half of its commissioning budget is spent outside London, going directly to small independent production companies, and it has major offices in the north, including one in Manchester.
In a first for terrestrial TV, this year, rugby league has been available for the first time on Channel 4, something that is huge for the sport. Some 750,000 people tuned in to watch Leeds Rhinos versus Warrington Wolves, and throughout the season we have had increased audiences getting to watch rugby league, perhaps for the first time—something that is important not only for Channel 4, but for a sport that rarely gets the exposure and audience share it deserves, despite its importance to communities such as mine and across the north of England.
This is a dud of a proposal, which would rightly be rejected by commissioning editors as a clear flop. Beyond just the creative sector, the plans are opposed by 91% of the consulted public. The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers tells us that advertisers “overwhelmingly oppose the privatisation” and the Federation of Entertainment Unions and the Bectu trade union warn that, according to Ernst and Young,
“the creative industries could be £2 billion worse off under privatisation, as well as 2,400 jobs in the creative industries being at risk and at least 60 production companies at risk of closure.”
Far from being strong reasons to privatise, they are clear warnings that the Government's plans could be an unwelcome body blow to a flagship British industry.
Rather than this reckless vandalism, Labour offers support to our great British success stories. I am glad to hear that those on the Front Bench will be taking every measure to oppose this, here and in the Lords. We are proud of our creative industries; we should be boosting them, not flogging them off.
I am sure we can all agree that the diversity and range of broadcasting here in the UK is a hallmark of a free and democratic society. Indeed, television is one of our most popular exports, and a huge source of soft power. We project Britain, and our ideals, through billions of TV screens around the world. I am a ’70s baby, early ’80s child. I was about eight when my parents first got a television, and I was absolutely glued to it, so Channel 4 really has been part of my life growing up. Indeed, people remember the excitement of acquiring the fifth channel.
Channel 4 is a modern, forward-thinking broadcaster providing millions of customers with unique content while, as we have heard, supporting and promoting the independent production sector. I reflected this morning on what Channel 4 shows I have enjoyed watching. I realised that aside from “Humans”, all the others are from about 20 years ago—“Brass Eye”, “Spaced”, “The IT Crowd”, “Father Ted” and so on. Plenty of shows produced by Channel 4 subsequently have pushed the boundaries of broadcasting, even if I have not watched them. I am told that one of them is called “Naked Attraction”. These shows, and many more, illustrate the vast range and depth of the creative talent at Channel 4. Importantly, the Government are keen to maintain and foster that in future, which is why they are taking action.
The media and television landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade, with the rise of subscription streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+ and Prime Video, all of which have been mentioned. They demonstrate the shift in the landscape. We can now access content through a range of devices at any time, wherever we are. We need to adapt. The world is changing and there is a new landscape, so public service providers must evolve. We have an increasingly competitive market. No Government can fully give powers to any company to adapt to this. Government ownership, in the context of that competitive market shift, is holding Channel 4 back from being able to adapt to the new state of play. Adapting, in the case of Channel 4, means diversifying and broadening revenue streams. It means having unrestricted freedom to create and produce its own content, fully utilising the creative talent that it is known for across the country.
These significant structural changes require investment —lots of it—and speed of delivery. That scale of change is best achieved through private ownership. During these testing times for many throughout this nation, it is not fair to ask the taxpayer to bear the burden of any resulting risks. More broadly, these challenges are linked to the Government’s levelling-up strategy. We want to empower the UK’s creative industries, wherever they are across our nation, by investing in independent production and creative skills, creating more jobs and opportunities for everyone. I welcome the fact that the Government seek to use the proceeds from the sale of Channel 4 to enable that investment.
The media Bill will empower Channel 4 by enabling it to pursue and track its own creative direction, bolstering the UK’s public service broadcasting sector. If we increase competitiveness, we drive growth and prosperity across our nation—something I am sure we can all agree, across this House, is a desirable outcome. Clearly—this will not be a shock—I am not on the side of the doom-mongers and the pessimists, or, as others call them, the Opposition. We heard a blast from the past earlier with all the stuff about big American companies coming over to take our assets. It is Corbynism again—Corbynism in an Islington lawyer suit. Channel 4 has a bright future. It has the capacity and the tools to succeed without the constraints of public ownership.
I have been listening to my hon. Friend with interest. How is Channel 4’s future brighter when it stands by itself if it is sold to a competitor? What is the gain?
I welcome the intervention. The gain is that the risk is not with the taxpayer; Channel 4 would be unburdening the taxpayer from the risk of future borrowing.
Channel 4 does have a bright future. It is a successful broadcaster in its own right, and it can stand on its own feet, but the risk of borrowing against the taxpayer is not something that the Government want to get into. Ultimately, for Channel 4 to flourish, the Government must step out of the way.
Yesterday, Bectu, Equity, the National Union of Journalists, the Musicians’ Union and the Writers’ Guild wrote a joint letter to the Secretary of State urging her to reconsider the sale of Channel 4 and in doing so protect the jobs of thousands of freelancers and the livelihoods of at least 60 production companies. It is here I have to declare a significant personal interest, as my partner is a freelance documentary maker who, as well as working for the big streamers, such as Netflix, is currently directing a project for Channel 4. That gives me some insight into exactly what is at stake and the projects that might never have been made without the existence of this hugely important British institution.
Like many others, I was addicted to “Brookside” when growing up, but I also learned so much more about the wider world and the plight and lives of those I did not encounter in my daily life. What we watch on television has the power to change and shape our lives and to teach us about places and people we do not know, from the very funny and sometimes jaw-dropping insights brought to us by “Come Dine With Me” to the 2018 episode of “Dispatches” made by Avanti that revealed the homeless shelter residents employed by upmarket London retailers, yet unable to afford to rent a home.
As well as groundbreaking documentaries such as “For Sama” and truly global news that covers stories that others do not show us, Channel 4 and its filmmaking wing Film4 have made so many astonishing dramas and films that we all know and love. We will all have our favourites—the dramas and scripts that stay with us, whether that is “Slumdog Millionaire”, “The Favourite”, “It’s a Sin”, “White Teeth” or “Indian Summers”, and the stars whose names are now so familiar to us: Dev Patel, Olivia Colman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jonathan Ross and Julian Clary, to name just a few.
Then there is the comedy, which has just been mentioned. It has to be worth saving the home of “Father Ted”, “The IT Crowd”, “PhoneShop”, “Stath Lets Flats” and “Drop the Dead Donkey”. I realised as a younger woman that even women could get involved in comedy—who knew? “Absolutely”, “Smack the Pony”, Mel and Sue and “Derry Girls” are all now part of our cultural heritage, reflecting the best and often the most ridiculous and eccentric parts of British life. Channel 4 has always shown us our global connections, too, and not shied away from controversy or honesty about the less proud parts of our nation’s history.
As an institution started by Mrs Thatcher, and an incredibly successful British business owned by its viewers, Channel 4 deserves our pride and our praise. As a pioneer of programming from previously overlooked or forgotten groups, whether that is bringing the Paralympics into every home, the pink triangle season or “The Undateables”, there truly is no comparable broadcaster.
The Government have looked at this idea before and changed their mind, and there is absolutely no shame in doing so again if the Secretary of State listens to the voices of creatives, content makers, advertisers, unions and the British public, who overwhelmingly say that they do not want this. This is a successful and popular business currently costing the taxpayer nothing at all, but bringing enjoyment, enrichment and employment to so many, so let us think again. We should be proud that when other companies such as Netflix are under huge financial pressure, Channel 4 is thriving. It should be preserved as something unique and influential—a showcase for Britain’s creative best.
It has been a good debate, but I must say that I am not persuaded by many of the arguments that have been put forward, even by my distinguished colleagues, the former Chairs of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale and my hon. Friend Damian Collins. It is a pity that the consultation was carried out in the way that it was. For a subject as vexed and contentious as this, it would have been more appropriate for at least the individual and organisational contributions to have been if not published, then at least digested in more detail and reflected.
If the Government are committed to exploring all the options, as has been recognised by many hon. Members on both sides of the House and as I think it is fair to say the Government have said, it is important that there should be an options paper to show which options have been considered. I was sad to see that the option of mutualisation has not been considered, because it has been effective in other areas. Welsh Water, which is in many ways the best of the water companies, is a mutual company limited by guarantee. I still hope that mutualisation will be considered.
The truth is that, notwithstanding some of the concerns that have been raised, Channel 4 is not a problem, and this measure comes at a time of severe and rising concern among people of this country about the cost of living, inflation and slow growth, and, in policy circles, about the loss of productivity. It is not just that Channel 4 is in rude health—although, as has been pointed out, revenues can go up and down over time—and has been sustained by its huge growth in digital advertising and its remarkable ability to reach interesting younger audiences; it is also that it is a highly dynamic organisation and a highly managerially innovative organisation. Therefore, for the Government to start to panic now about what its future advertising revenues may be is to rule out the possibility that diverse, interesting, engaging and innovative responses may be undertaken by this innovative team.
It is also strange for a Conservative Government to wish to sell off a business in the face of competition, rather than embracing and welcoming that competition and expecting the business to fight its corner. Let me remind the House that the intellectual property does not go anywhere. The fact that it is not trapped in Channel 4 does not mean that it does not reside within independent production companies, and that creates the dynamic tension and energy that has always sustained the sector.
I am afraid that I regard this as an unnecessary attempt to address a non-problem at a time of much wider concern. I refer hon. Members and the Government to the ancient Conservative principle: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
On the point about intellectual property, is it not interesting that the people behind some of the most successful productions in recent years, such as Michaela Coel, have refused to go to streamers such as Netflix because they insist on keeping the intellectual property, rather than letting it reside with the British small production companies, writers and creators who are responsible for it?
The hon. Member makes an interesting and fair point. Of course, if advertising revenue were so unattractive, the rest of the market would not be piling into it. At the same time, no matter who the owner of the enterprise will be, they will not be immune from wider inflation in programming costs. That is the nature of the business, and the question is what innovative and constructive responses will be undertaken by the management team to address that.
The plan is also bad economics from a public standpoint. The House will know that I spent a couple of years as a Treasury Minister, including during the period the Secretary of State talked about when all the support was given to the cultural sector, and I think it is bad economics. Even if the constraints were relaxed in the way that has been described, the revenue to be derived would be only, on a net basis, in the order of £500 million to £1 billion. My successor, the present Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, my hon. Friend Julian Knight, has pointed out that that is a drop in the ocean compared with the wider problem. At a 4% interest rate, £500 million amounts to £20 million a year. Are we really going to give up all the control, energy, drive and impetus that exists in Channel 4 now, and the £200 million of directed programming into independent production companies that comes from that, in return for the equivalent of a £20 million annuity? I do not think that makes any economic sense at all.
Overall, this is not a Conservative proposal. What matters in this case is the quality of the ownership. Channel 4 has an independent ownership structure; it happens to be owned by the state, but its ownership structure has made it resilient to political pressure and able to commission highly innovative, risky and interesting forms of programming, for which we celebrate it.
I cannot, as I do not have much time, but I may take my hon. Friend’s intervention later.
It is not a Conservative proposal to sell Channel 4, and even if it was sold now does anyone really think the value generated would not itself be a reflection of the proposed doom scenario in advertising revenues because of the way in which future cash flow works? The key issue here is that we should support an enterprise that itself supports independent production companies, many of them in our nations and regions, that proactively supports disabled people, that supports the Union, and that supports levelling up. That is what Channel 4 does.
I have no doubt that Channel 4 can be further improved and enhanced, and I see its Next Episode as a down payment on the next generation of its own thinking about how its model could be further leveraged and enhanced, but at the moment it is doing a superb job. We should not sell it; we should proceed and support it in any way we can in the future.
I call Ben Bradley, who will be followed by the Front-Bench winding-up speeches, so those who have participated in this debate by making a speech should now make their way to the Chamber.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate on a topic I have not shied away from in the public discourse. In fact I found myself, not for the first time, in the middle of the usual Twitter storm when I tried to cut across the predictable hysteria about the announcement of this privatisation. There were accusations from the Opposition Benches that this decision was fascism in action, a ridiculous statement and nonsense—because, of course, the first thing every fascist dictator does is relinquish state control of the media. Once again the Twitter commentariat, wound up by certain Members on the Opposition Benches, proved that they are incapable of seeing any debate in sensible or nuanced terms and instead go for the clickbait headline. That is incredibly frustrating, so I am pleased to be able to debate this today.
I agree with my hon. Friend Julian Knight that we should do more privatisation. There would perhaps be less ability to create such hysteria if there were a steady drumbeat of measures from the Government on privatisation, driving the private sector and innovation.
Opposition Members have said that this is ideological. We have heard from Ministers and others on the Conservative Benches all the practical reasons why privatisation makes sense in many cases. I do not speak for the Government, but for me part of it is indeed ideological, however; I fundamentally believe the Government should not be involved in stuff they do not need to be involved in, and if the private sector can drive this kind of innovation, then it should. If the Government want to bring forward more measures to remove their hands from things they do not need to be involved in, I will welcome that. That is a challenge for the Minister, and perhaps she will take me up on it.
Before I take a more critical viewpoint it is important to say that Channel 4 will continue to play an important role in British life, because it makes some cracking content. I am not as old as my hon. Friend Ben Everitt, but I go back a bit as well, and I like Channel 4. I remember the time in the ’90s when “The Simpsons” was on at 6 o’clock on a Friday night; I used to sit down after my tea, and then there was “Malcolm in the Middle” and I would be allowed to stay up late until “Friends” had finished. That was my bedtime viewing on a Friday night. Those are all American programmes, actually, so they are probably not the best example. [Interruption.]
Before my time, I’m afraid.
Channel 4 has also recently won the rights to a number of England games, and it is only positive to have more football on free-to-air television. All that should be celebrated, but the decision to privatise Channel 4 comes with mutual benefits. I strongly believe there is more potential for Channel 4 to compete and to make tremendous progress in the private sector. State ownership is impractical in the long run. If the channel is to find investors to find the cash to grow and expand and do more, it needs private enterprise. We have heard from Conservative Members why it is struggling to do that, which I will come on to again shortly.
Why do we continue to limit the growth and ability of a much-loved TV channel when we can easily sort it out? Questions need to be asked about why running media companies needs to be a role of Government. Government ownership has implications. Through being funded by advertising alone Channel 4 has a valuation of about 1% of that of Netflix, for example. Channel 4 clearly needs more funding if it is to compete in an ever-changing and growing market and if it is to expand. Where is that meant to come from? Its advertising funding is already falling, it cannot sell its content as other companies can, and its spending is declining. It is limited by Government ownership.
Members have pointed to good things Channel 4 does, and Opposition Members have jumped to the worst possible conclusions about the risks to all those things, but there is no reason why those good things cannot continue. Words such as “abolish” have been used, but Channel 4 is not going anywhere. I do not believe that those terms reflect what is happening.
To return to the money, if Channel 4 is to grow at scale and take full advantage of market growth and compete effectively, its only current option is to borrow, with that risk underwritten by the Government, and I do no not think that that is an option; nor should the taxpayer be asked to do that. That takes me back to my earlier point: do the Government need to do this, or could someone else do it? The answer is firmly that somebody else could.
On money, Channel 4 has directly invested £12 billion in the independent production sector since its creation. How much do the Government estimate that a privatised Channel 4 will invest in our production sector? If they cannot say how much, why are we taking this risk?
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. She will have to ask the Government—I am not in the Government—but Channel 5 is a privately owned public sector broadcaster that invests a higher proportion of its revenue in small broadcasting companies than Channel 4, so that is a model that works. The shadow Secretary of State said that she felt that privatisation would stifle growth and innovation in British jobs. As I have said, examples exist in this country of privately owned public sector broadcasters who invest in those businesses and support our wider media sector. There are systems here that can work.
To me, this is fundamentally a much bigger debate: it is a question about the role of the state. If we want best value for taxpayers in not only financial value but freedom and choice, the state should not be in charge. If the state does not desperately need to run something and there is no practical reason why it should be the Government’s job, it should not do so. We should approach this issue and others by asking ourselves: do the Government specifically need to do this, or could the market do it? Could the private sector do it? Could the third sector do it? Could the community do it? In the case of the media, all of the above already do it.
As a council leader, I have started by questioning whether we do things as we do because that is the best way or because we have always done it that way. It is often the latter, and I have found that much more can be achieved through change. The state should be prioritising its responsibilities to deliver public services, to create the environment needed for jobs and growth and to tackle the major geopolitical challenges in the world. It should not be running and working in the TV industry.
Once upon a time, the state needed to do so to promote choice and sustain something very new—there was just a handful of channels and the industry needed that support—but now, that could not be further from the truth. Mrs Thatcher set up Channel 4 to promote competition and create content that would not otherwise exist. We now have content coming out of our ears—content galore. In fact, I have got content in my pocket right now. We have got content everywhere. We do not need to be putting the state’s energy into that—[Interruption.] Do not ask what kind of content. [Interruption.] Juicy. But there is no space any more where the Government needs to do that. It is brilliant to see a Conservative Government doing what I believe to be fundamentally Conservative things. I know that my right hon. Friend Jesse Norman disagrees, but my version of this is that the sale underpins the conservativism that I believe in of a small-state, pro-enterprise, innovation-focused Government who are handing the reins over to the creatives and innovators in the industry instead of sticking with state control because that is what we have always done. That is a good thing, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull said, more of it, please, Minister. I will take much more of it.
At a time when we want to be proud of our British institutions, let us have faith in Channel 4’s ability to compete. Let us release it from state ownership and allow it to do so.
I did not go either. I was not invited. Maybe after this speech I might get an invite next year, if Channel 4 is not privatised.
Let me say at the outset that this country is the best in the world at making television and films, that our broadcasters are the envy of the world and that Channel 4 is a much-loved part of that essential ecosystem. But why would that prevent the constant ideological attacks from the Government on those who contribute so much to our cultural Britain? We are proud of our public sector broadcasters and we should be backing them, not privatising them.
We have heard it said a lot today that Channel 4 is in great health, and it is. The public broadcasting model for Channel 4 works. As we have heard, in the last couple of years Channel 4 has produced record surpluses. And just for the information of the Secretary of State, who mentioned it again in her contribution, Channel 4 gets no public money. Those surpluses are invested back into the British creative economy, rather than into the hands of private shareholders. That investment, of course, is not limited to London, but goes to the entire country. Why? Because the regulations mean that it has to be. In fact, two thirds of the hours of original content commissioned by Channel 4 are produced in the nations and regions, boosting the creative economy in cities such as Glasgow. Over 400 roles at Channel 4, including senior commissioning decision makers, are based outside London, commissioning content from all over the UK for all over the UK. Perhaps another reason the Government want to privatise Channel 4 is because it is showing the Conservatives up by actually delivering levelling up far better than the Prime Minister could ever imagine. Some might say there is no reason that will not continue, but I am afraid that, with almost no conditions in the White Paper, there is little hope that it will.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent start to his contribution and his point is well made. Channel 4’s 4Skills initiative is based in its headquarters in Leeds. It provides opportunities in television and film for young people from right across the regions and nations, including Scotland, the south-west and the midlands, as well as Yorkshire. Without Channel 4, that would not exist. If it is privatised, there is no guarantee it will continue.
Yes, it is the cultural levelling up that Channel 4 has been able to achieve as part of its own agenda.
Analysis by EY—Ernst and Young—which was mentioned by my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty, estimates that over £1 billion would be lost from the UK’s nations and regions if Channel 4 did not invest in the way that it does now, and that nearly 2,500 jobs in the creative sector would be at risk. That is independent analysis. It is not just those directly employed by the broadcaster who would be impacted, but the entire British creative economy. As my hon. Friend mentioned, it is a creative economy that relies on economies of scale, security of funding and a pipeline of skills.
In its lifetime, Channel 4 has invested—we have heard this already—£12 billion in the independent production sector in this country. Every year, it works with almost 300 production companies, many of which are tiny, as well as medium and large-scale production companies. This proposal does not just impact the big stars in London studios, but the camera operators, the crew runners, the location scouts and everything that makes a production happen in every single region and nation of the UK. The harsh reality is that a privatised Channel 4 would be commercially incentivised to buy in programmes from overseas instead of supporting new and innovative projects in the UK. Why? Because it costs a lot of money to make content and that would hit profits. Look at some of the big loss makers, such as the award-winning Paralympics coverage which has not really been mentioned in this debate. It is a huge loss for Channel 4 in terms of its financial viability, but it does it and it does it incredibly well.
If I could reflect on the contribution made at the end by Jesse Norman, he made a critical point. Not only did he say that there are no options papers on where the future of Channel 4 could be beyond privatisation, but he hit the nail on the head. A lot of the contributions from the Government Benches have been about the headwinds that are just about to hit Channel 4. Those headwinds will hit Channel 4 whether it is in the public sector or private sector. It is hardly a good selling point to say, “We want to privatise one of our national assets to ensure it is not hit with these headwinds,” when a commercial broadcaster would cut the very things that Channel 4 does so well in times of hardship.
The hon. Gentleman implied that commercial companies would look to buy in programmes, rather than make them. Why is it, then, that most TV companies that have their own production studios are massively investing in making more programmes? ITV, BBC, Sky and Netflix are. Everyone recognises that the way to make money in the TV market today is to make programmes to sell, not buy in from other people.
Yes, but Channel 4 puts all those issues on the table in terms of investing directly in production. Channel 4 provides that shop window. If you say to a production company in Scotland which makes “Location, Location, Location”, “Would you like to make that for Channel 4, but you don’t get the IP?” either the costs will shoot up or they will not make it at all. This model works. It is part of the ecosystem. Production in places such as Leeds, Salford and Scotland is working so well at the moment because we have the BBC, ITV studios and Channel 4, all different parts of that ecosystem working together, so we have the economies of scale, the skills and the ability for people to be able to invest, because they know they can make great shows and great films in those places.
Let me reflect on some of the contributions that have been made this afternoon. The Father of the House kicked us off, and was absolutely correct to say that Channel 4 does not want privatisation. The Secretary of State is essentially saying, “We know best, so we will do to Channel 4 what we think is best.” The Father of the House concluded by saying, “stop messing it around”. That is right. Why try to fix something that is not broken?
My hon. Friend Kevin Brennan in his own wonderful style did a superb “Yes Minister” characterisation. Channel 4 does not have a problem to solve, but the Government are trying to find one; he was right to call it “Parliamentary Pointless”.
I will reflect on the impacts on Scotland later in my speech, but Ben Lake was right to say that privatising Channel 4 will have a huge impact on the Welsh production sector. With the BBC investing in Cardiff and Channel 4 putting productions into the city, the sector in Wales has flourished in a way that it did not before.
Ian Paisley is right to say that Channel 4 is an enabler. We need the big production companies to be able to make programmes in order to seed smaller production companies and the entire industry. If we do not have those productions—the big returning drama shows—it is difficult to maintain a production company in an area, which Channel 4 does so well.
Ben Everitt told us that he watched Channel 4 at night when he was younger, but that he has never watched “Naked Attraction”. Mr Deputy Speaker, he needs to come to the House and correct the record, because nobody believes him! [Laughter.]
My hon. Friend Rosie Duffield reeled off a list of wonderful television programmes and films that Channel 4 has made over the years, including “Drop the Dead Donkey”, or, as it was rebranded last week, “Vote of No Confidence”.
Ben Bradley also tried to create a problem that does not exist. Along with a number of contributors this afternoon, he said that Channel 4 should be released from its shackles to be able to borrow. Well, it has not borrowed or required to borrow in 40 years. Maybe it will not require to borrow in the next 40.
Let us not forget about film, as this is not just about the impact of privatisation on television. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central, the broadcaster is the single largest investor in British film through Film4. We can see how wonderful some of those films have been, as they have won BAFTAs every single year and have really put the British film industry on the map. I think that gets to the heart of why so many people are outraged by the Government’s proposals.
Our great nation punches so well above its weight when it comes to our cultural impact on the world. There are few better examples of that than the British stars of screen—big and small. Many of our most famous faces got their big break through Film4 productions, many of which were huge risks to Channel 4, but because of its funding model and way it was set up, it was able to take those risks and some of those productions were hugely successful. I think of Ewan McGregor, Olivia Colman and Dev Patel, who we have heard about already, and film-makers including Danny Boyle and Steve McQueen. It is little wonder that so many stars, film-makers and directors have come out against and condemned the Government’s plans.
What of training, skills and jobs? We have heard from my hon. Friend Alex Sobel on this issue. Let us not beat about the bush: getting into the television and film industry is incredibly difficult for those who are lower down the socioeconomic scale. Channel 4 has been at the forefront of helping young people to get into the industry through 4Skills, which gives 15,000 young people a year opportunities to get into the sector. That costs money and is not the kind of thing that a commercial broadcaster will do. It has an industry-leading production training scheme through its supply chain that focuses solely on social mobility. That is all at risk. Why? Because it is not protected in the White Paper.
The move to sell off Channel 4 will have a particular impact on the Scottish creative economy. Since 2007, Channel 4 has spent more than £220 million on Scottish productions—about £20 million a year in recent years. It is the key commissioner from Scottish independent production companies and other Scottish broadcasters such as Scottish Television. Channel 4’s features and daytime team, its largest creative team, is now based at its Glasgow office. The broadcaster’s emerging indie fund and its indie growth fund have provided support to fantastic Scottish production companies such as Black Camel Pictures, which was responsible for the BAFTA-winning “Sunshine on Leith”.
And who can forget “Location, Location, Location”, one of Channel 4’s most successful shows, which is produced by IWC, a Scottish production company? Maybe the Prime Minister might need Phil and Kirstie’s help in finding a new place soon. I hope so. Even TV’s most famous house hunters might struggle to find a place with a built-in karaoke bar, but that is the challenge
Channel 4’s influence is not just on Scottish television. Film4 has produced memorable Scottish hits—perhaps none more so than “Trainspotting” in my home city, even though it did not portray Edinburgh in the best of lights. Film-making brings in £600 million a year in UK-bound tourism, right across the United Kingdom, although I am not sure that “Trainspotting” did Ladbrokes toilets any good. Channel 4 has given us generation-defining entertainment, and it will again.
I am grateful for the SNP’s support for our motion. John Nicolson made an excellent speech, but I must say that Channel 4 is also under threat from the SNP’s plans for independence. It proposes to put an end to Channel 4 in Scotland, because it would be independent, and it set out in 2014 that it would do the same for the BBC. What are its proposals for Channel 4 and the BBC? Governments are attacking our public sector broadcasters because those broadcasters hold the powerful to account, whether they like it or not. They are attacking the very principle of a UK-wide public service broadcaster delivering for diverse audiences all over the country. None the less, we are grateful for the SNP’s support for the motion.
Today, though, it is for Conservatives to make their decision. As we have heard, 91% of respondents to the Government’s own consultation made their opposition to the proposals clear. Those who oppose the proposals include the advertisers that pay for advertising on Channel 4 because of the diverse audiences that it produces, which other broadcasters cannot reach. If the Secretary of State is looking for a “Countdown” of Conservative Members who do not support her proposals, I say to her, “Three from the top, two from the middle and one large one.”
Will Conservative Members vote to sell the broadcaster to a private entity that is likely to centralise creative output in London, or will they vote to continue a model that invests in our creative economy in their very own constituencies? Will they sell a cornerstone of modern British culture to the highest bidder, or will they continue a great British institution that proudly exports our culture around the world?
The country would be grateful, the industry would be grateful and viewers would be grateful if the Secretary of State scrapped this privatisation. In the words of Mrs Doyle from another of the channel’s famous shows, “Go on, go on, go on.”
I welcome the chance to close this debate on the importance of our much-loved cultural institutions, the future of UK broadcasting and the plan to sell Channel 4. I thank hon. Members for their contributions and thoughts.
The motion rightly recognises the role that our broadcasters play in bringing our nation together. There is no better example than the absolutely extraordinary coverage of Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee celebrations. I echo the Secretary of State’s tribute not only to our fantastic DCMS officials, the royal household and our broadcasters for the jubilee coverage, but to every person who participated in the exceptional showcase of British talent, from the glorious eccentricity of the pageant and the precision of the military parades to the musical power of Saturday’s concert and its innovative production, which included breathtaking light displays around Buckingham Palace, complete with drone corgi. It was a magical, delightful, magnificent kaboom of creativity.
I confess that I read the motion with a wry smile, because Lucy Powell has been teasing and tantalising us with Labour’s patriotic pitch in the media for a couple of weeks now. Today, we saw it on the Floor of the House. During the glorious jubilee, the penny finally dropped for the Opposition that British people actually feel rather proud of our country. The hon. Lady has flogged to her leader the idea that the privatisation of Channel 4 is just the wedge issue that Labour needs to convince voters, after five years of campaigning for Comrade Corbyn to be Prime Minister, that it is the party of our most cherished institutions. “We are the patriots!”, she cheers from the Front Bench.
The trouble is that our plan for Channel 4 is not some ideologically driven attempt to dismantle all that is great about British broadcasting, no matter how hard the hon. Lady has tried to mischaracterise it today. It is part of an ambitious and considered strategy to ensure that British public service broadcasters not only survive in a very rapidly changing market, but grow and continue to be relevant to British and global audiences for many years to come, producing the kind of content that delights and informs viewers, underpins our cultural and democratic life and, critically, generates economic growth across our country. The structure of Channel 4, the sustainability of the licence fee and the diminishing value of linear prominence are all issues that have been knocking around for many years, but, as has been discussed at length today, market changes have injected real urgency into this debate, and we will not allow the can to be kicked down the road any further when the future of our public service broadcasters is at stake.
I agree with the Minister on prominence, and in fact the Government should have acted sooner, as I called for them to do several years ago. She talks about kicking the can down the road, but what will happen after 10 years under her plans? Is she not kicking the can down the road for the future of this public service broadcaster by saying that in 10 years’ time anything can happen?
I can account for what the Secretary of State and I have done within our roles, and I think we have pushed forward an extremely ambitious set of reforms in the short time we have been in DCMS. This is an exciting time to be in public service broadcasting. I always thank the hon. Gentleman for his contributions because I know he has expertise in this field.
It is this Government and this Secretary of State who have decided to act, bringing forward a comprehensive package of reforms to support our PSBs through the first broadcasting White Paper in 20 years. It is the next step in a long history of support for our creative industries. It was a Conservative Government—under Margaret Thatcher, no less—that established Channel 4 in the 1980s to stimulate independent production and distinctive content. It has worked, and then some. It was a Conservative Government that encouraged Channel 4’s move to Leeds to spread the benefits of the creative sector beyond London. It worked. And it is a Conservative Government that are tackling the limitations of Channel 4’s ownership structure in this new broadcasting landscape, redirecting sale proceeds into a creative dividend to address the skills challenges of now.
Let me just touch on those limitations, because it is important to remind the House of them. Channel 4 is a fantastic broadcaster that has great management, innovative programming, high quality journalism and a diverse audience, but it is uniquely challenged in two ways. First, the publisher-broadcaster restriction means that it cannot own its intellectual property, so it finds itself reliant for 74% of its income on linear TV advertising revenues. Such revenues have fallen 31% sector-wide between 2015 and 2020, and that trend is set to accelerate as audiences move online and change their viewing habits.
Are those the most recent figures that the Department has? Many of us have been asking Channel 4 what its revenues were in the year that finished last year, and the growth in its digital advertising might also be something that the Minister would like to share with the House.
We would be very keen to get more information on Channel 4’s business at the moment, as it has been rather difficult to extract.
Secondly, should Channel 4 need to borrow money to keep up with the content investment of rivals, that borrowing would sit on the public balance sheet. In the light of those fundamentals, we are not going to apologise for asking the serious and responsible question as to whether this ownership model and structure is the right one for today’s broadcast challenges. That is something that the Secretary of State outlined today, and it has been expertly set out by my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale.
I understand why hon. and right hon. Members want reassurance on this plan, and I want to provide it, but before I turn to some of the points raised this afternoon, I want to tackle some of the outlandish assertions in the article by the hon. Member for Manchester Central in The Yorkshire Post today. She claims that our selling Channel 4 could
“kill off independent film production”.
Let us set aside the fact that we believe any new owner would want to maintain Film4, for all the reasons she cites on its value. She completely underplays the strength and depth of the UK’s booming film industry, ignoring all the other players who support it, including the British Film Institute, with its own film fund, the UK Global Screen Fund, into which the Government channel £21 million to promote and distribute UK film around the world, and the fact that our film sector is doing so well that it cannot keep up with the demand for skills and studios.
The hon. Lady says that the sale of Channel 4 will lead to the move of more jobs back to London. I remind her that the BBC has committed to increasing its spend across the UK, that non-London production spend will remain in Channel 4’s remit and that ITV, Sky and Channel 5 all have large operations beyond the capital. There are so many centres of excellence outside London in our production sector that there are huge incentives to keep investing in our regions. She goes on to denigrate channels that are motivated by what she appears to see as a dirty word, profit, over public service. I wonder if she understands that those two things are not mutually exclusive. ITV and Channel 5 are all privately owned public service broadcasters. Indeed, since Channel 5’s sale to Viacom, it has gone from strength to strength, producing some fantastic, distinctly British content. As detailed in the White Paper, she will also understand that Channel 4 will remain a public service broadcaster, with quotas for independent production and the remit protected. We believe that getting private capital into the organisation will allow it to commission more, not less.
I now turn to the contributions of others. My hon. Friend Damian Collins made the excellent point that Channel 4 itself has suggested a joint venture as a way forward, which would change the relationship with the independent production sector. Implicit in that is that the status quo cannot hold because of the changing dynamic of the market—the strong headwinds he cited—with the shift to online, inflation in production costs and so on.
John Nicolson, in his waspish speech, suggested that we are trying to make Channel 4 like Netflix or Amazon. That is not the case. We are saying that those businesses are changing the market, and we need to equip Channel 4 to deal with that.
The Father of the House, my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley, suggested that we the taxpayers, as owners, should listen only to Channel 4 on whether it wants to change. I refer him to the absolutely fascinating contributions from panellists to the Lords Communications and Digital Committee inquiry on the licence fee, and the challenge they cited about small-c conservatism in media organisations.
My hon. Friend Robin Millar touched on this in his superb speech, including on the reticence we often find in organisations about changing and trying to come to terms with some of the challenges they face. I think there is an urgency to this debate on sustainability that we are taking on. He also mentioned Channel 4’s vulnerability to shocks because of its structure.
I enjoyed the speech of Kevin Brennan. It was fun, but it was a wholly inaccurate artistic interpretation of the advice of officials who have provided extensive analysis of some of the market dynamics that they think provide a real challenge here. Incidentally, I sometimes find myself imagining alternative scenes in the Opposition offices, with the shadow Secretary of State saying, “Do you know that Channel 4 is the only broadcaster capable of keeping the film, TV and creative industries and the regions going, and also producing content that audiences actually like?”
The Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Julian Knight, recognised the importance of getting private sector capital into the business to allow it to grow. I assure him that we want Channel 4 to continue to produce news. It is part of a genuine suite of support for the creative economy. Rachel Hopkins reduced these critical media reforms to a “petty vendetta”, and I can assure her that that is not the case. Channel 4’s sale is part of a package of media reforms that the sector has asked for.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon pointed out, it is in our interests to see Channel 4 thrive. It is because of those interests that we want to drive these reforms, and we believe that Channel 4, in thriving, can invest more in content. He talked about the cut in content spend that we have seen over the last year or so, and he also highlighted the superb Lords report. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe gave an important account of the trends in play and the need for a radical reset of Channel 4’s role.
Rosie Duffield talked about the independent producers, and I want to reassure her that we also value the distinctive content and see that as part of the sale process. I also want to assure my right hon. Friend Jesse Norman that we have digested the consultation responses fully. We put a lot of departmental resource into doing that.
In so far as there is any ideological drive, I was interested in the challenge from my hon. Friend Ben Bradley—a deeply unfashionable view in this House, it seems, too often—that private sector capital going into a business is a good thing because it can grow businesses, create jobs and drive innovation. Fundamentally, it can also provide content of the kind that audiences—too little discussed, I think, in this debate—love.
The right buyer for Channel 4 will be one that shares our ambition for the business and our belief in what makes it special. As I say, I note the concerns of the hon. Member for Canterbury about its distinctive content. I want to assure her that we are not trying to change the distinctive role Channel 4 plays; we are seeking to give it the best set of tools and the freedom to flourish and thrive long into the future. That is why the Government will move ahead with plans to move Channel 4 out of public ownership to become a free-to-air, privately-owned public service broadcaster.
The Government today have been accused of cultural vandalism, including by Charlotte Nichols. Let me say that the greatest act of cultural vandalism would be to let our public service broadcasters wither on the vine due to the small-c conservatism of the Opposition or an attitude that there is nothing to see here for our PSBs, particularly given the jobs and the values at stake. We want our public service broadcasters to have a long-term future and, through our media Bill and our broadcasting White Paper, we have the plan to deliver just that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
supports the UK’s much loved cultural institutions, which are celebrated around the world while creating jobs and growth across the country;
in the Jubilee year supports world-renowned British broadcasting which brings the country together in celebration;
believes that the Government should reverse its decision to sell Channel 4 as it will undermine the UK’s world leading creative industries and the delicate ecosystem of companies that support them;
and calls on the Government to ensure that, if the sale does go ahead, Channel 4’s headquarters continue to be based in Leeds and its remit ensures that it continues as a public service publisher-broadcaster, commissions over 50 per cent of its content outside London, continues its significant investment in new independent British films and funds quality news content which is aired at prime time.