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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:17 am on 21st July 2021.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 10:17 am, 21st July 2021

I am secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, so naturally, when this issue came up again, I sought a meeting with those at the NUJ and talked with them about their views, and they consulted their members. I think we are all in the same position: we just cannot believe that this matter has come around yet again—especially those of us who were involved in the 2016 discussions, when we thought that the future of Channel 4 had been sensibly resolved. The privatisation seems to be a particular obsession of the Minister—it is almost as though he needs some counselling. It has become an addictive obsession that he has been pursuing since the 1990s, as others have said, and it is completely irrational.

From the trade union point of view, we look at the security of jobs and the economics of the organisation that we are negotiating with. When looking at the economic performance of Channel 4, I cannot for the life of me understand what the problem is for the Government. The latest figures show a record £74 million pre-tax surplus. As other hon. Members have said, including my hon. Friend Alex Sobel, Channel 4 is now opening up offices around the country—hubs in Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol—and is doing exactly what the Government want by investing in the regions as part of the levelling-up strategy. Channel 4 is economically sound and completely in line with the Government’s policy direction.

Channel 4 provided 10,600 jobs across the UK in 2019, of which 3,000 were jobs supported by Channel 4 in the nations and regions. As Andy Carter set out, it is working with private sector producers to bring forward talent on an eminent scale. It has done so successfully, and has been well rewarded by the various independent bodies that adjudicate on these matters.

It is very difficult to understand the rationale for the Government’s pursuit of this privatisation. Others have given their views about the range of attitudes. The Father of the House has demonstrated yet again his wide-ranging experience of what has been going on over decades. Mr Mitchell, in a very balanced way, indicated the concerns that he and many others in the Conservative party have. Paul Siegert, the NUJ’s national broadcasting organiser, gave a true reflection of its members’ views in saying:

“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.”

If it is not broken, why are the Government proposing the fix of privatisation? Four years ago—I remember this, because I was there—the Government said that Channel 4 would continue to be owned by the public. In our view, they should honour that promise. I hope they see sense. I have to say that the consultation that is going on, particularly over the summer period, flies against all the rules of consultations.

Let me ask one final question of the Minister. At the moment, the Government are being advised by a panel they set up on the future of public service broadcasting. The panel does not publish its minutes and is not meeting in public. Why is that happening? Why is it not more open and transparent? Why can the Minister not explain the role of the panel, and indeed its composition? That generates concerns that there is more to this than any rational thought about the future of broadcasting. It is more about ideology, and maybe an element of political spite.