Channel 4: Privatisation — [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:46 am on 21st July 2021.

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Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons 9:46 am, 21st July 2021

I endorse much of what Dame Angela Eagle has said.

Nearly 20 years before I was elected to this House, when I was aged 12, I put stamps on envelopes to help to save the Third Programme, which then became Radio 3. The Minister may point out that when Channel 4 started broadcasting, I had been in the House for—I think—seven years.

There have been a number of considerations of privatising Channel 4, under Margaret Thatcher’s Government, John Major’s Government and Tony Blair’s Government. I think that the public records, now that they are open, will show that in 1996, when my wife was the Heritage Secretary, most of the Cabinet Sub-Committee agreed to privatise Channel 4 for about £1 billion. She and the Chancellor had a discussion, and more and more money was offered in exchange for other cultural projects. She had to explain that privatising Channel 4 was not a question of money; it was a question of right or wrong.

The only thing that will not happen if and—I hope—when Channel 4 is not privatised is that the Americans will not take it over. I was influenced in my youth by a man called Graham Spry, the legendary father of Canadian national broadcasting. When the network of local radio stations in Canada was put together, he said, “The choice is between the state and the United States”.

I have heard no argument from the Minister or from anybody else that allowing Channel 4 to be taken over by a US mega-conglomerate of broadcasting or entertainment would be in this country’s national interest, in the interests of those who produce programmes for Channel 4 or in the interests of those who watch it. We are not just talking about the existing audience for Channel 4, and its many programmes and many ways of putting those programmes out; we are talking about future viewers and listeners.

I will not go through the programmes that Channel 4 has made that are of value; I will not even go through the things it has done that have annoyed me. But the fact that an MP could be annoyed by what they see in an entertainment programme or a news programme is just par for the course. Those programmes are not there to make us happy the whole time; they are there to alert others to what is going on and to make others think, and hopefully to make us think as well.

If one goes through the history of some of the stories that “Channel 4 News” has broken in its individual way, one can see that it has had a good impact. If what it is doing is wrong, it is exposed and its makers will either feel ashamed or apologise, and there is always Ofcom to regulate it. However, if we count up the number of times when its distinctive approach has been of value to the country—I would argue to the Government as well, but that is less important; it is its value to the country that matters—we see that the model chosen for Channel 4 counts.

As the Minister may remind us—and, by the way, the Wikipedia article on Channel 4 needs significant updating—we were expecting a second commercial channel for 10, 15 or 20 years before it came; the button for it was there on the television sets. The way Channel 4 has managed to adapt and evolve has been important, and I pay tribute to those who have led that, to the different chairs and chief executives of Channel 4. On balance, it has clearly been a successful method of allowing for flexibility that is distinctive from the normal commercial channels in this country, and from the BBC.

The Minister needs to explain how privatisation will lead to more content investment and more jobs if the independent producers say that they feel threatened, how content investment will come, and why the Government are planning to change some of the restrictions on Channel 4 so that it could, in the short term, apparently have greater income, which may give a better multiple to the price that might be obtained if it were to be floated off on the market.