I thank Dame Angela Eagle for securing this debate on what she described as the wanton cultural vandalism that the UK Government are planning. The UK Government’s plan to privatise Channel 4 is completely unjustified. It is politically motivated and totally vindictive. When viewed in the wider context of other legislation going through Parliament on voter suppression, the right to peaceful protest and undermining the Electoral Commission, it is deeply worrying for our democracy.
Not only is this further evidence of a Government allergic to criticism and terrified of independent scrutiny; they are also ideologically driven to undermine anything that proves that public service can be delivered by a publicly owned organisation. By any measure, Channel 4 is and has been a success. It has more than met the remit it was given. As we have heard, it has been responsible for some of the greatest creative and commercial successes in UK television and film in the past 40 years. It has given creative opportunities to people who otherwise would never have had their voice or ideas heard, and it has taken a London-centric industry and reminded it that there is life on these islands beyond London. In short, Channel 4 has achieved what it was asked to do, and viewers like what it does.
Why are this Government so determined to change something that has been a demonstrable success? It is not for the money: the way Channel 4 is structured means that it does not have shelves of tapes or mountains of intellectual property rights waiting to attract a potential buyer. Any money generated would likely be absolutely minimal.
It is beyond credible that the UK Government honestly believe that UK viewers would be better served by Channel 4 being subsumed by one of the huge international TV conglomerates. As it is currently constituted, Channel 4 can experiment with format and take risks with new writers, and it can occasionally bomb without having to explain why profits might be down this year to an angry accountant representing a consortium of international investors. Let us be honest: not one of those multinational TV giants will give two hoots for the hugely successful model of spending outside London and supporting independent film and television production in the nations and regions.
The Government also know that even though Ofcom found that the multi-award winning “Channel 4 News” has been one of the most trusted media sources of information during the pandemic, no giant profit-driven multinational TV conglomerate will invest the money to continue to support it. That is where this begins to make sense: in the absence of any commercial, creative or public interest reasons for privatising Channel 4, one can conclude only that the motivation is politically driven spite. Channel 4 is the one thing that the Government fear most: a public service broadcaster that delivers good, informed and wholly independent news, and that makes people think, question and challenge what is going on around them.
Unlike the BBC, Channel 4’s greatest strength is that it provides that public service without relying on the UK Government for its finance. Unfortunately, its greatest strength has become its greatest weakness. This Government are gerrymandering the electoral map, curtailing citizens’ right to protest, and removing the teeth of the country’s electoral watchdog, so the last the thing they want is an independent non-compliant media. That, more than anything else, explains why they are determined to privatise Channel 4. The Government know that if they do, it will not come back, but has that not been their intention from the very start?