Here we go again. Only four years ago, in what turned out to be the Government and Channel 4’s phoney war, the privatising zealots were licking their lips at the thought of a corporate takeover at Channel 4, a much-loved public service broadcaster. After all, bus, water and rail privatisations under the Tories had been such resounding successes, so why not turn to yet another institution about which they knew absolutely nothing? In the end, the privatising zealots backed off. Why? The then Secretary of State told us at the time that Channel 4 works, that it delivers on its remit and that privatising it would involve too much grief for too little financial return.
In the intervening years, nothing has changed—well, apart from an 80-seat Tory majority and an enhanced desire to clip the wings of a pesky station with a news outlet that No. 10 fears for its independence and high journalistic standards. The thing is that Channel 4 does work. The Conservatives are fond of reminding us that they set it up. They did, and it delivers on the remit that it was given.
On diversity in programming and staffing, Channel 4 has been a trailblazer for women, black and minority ethnic people, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, as well as people living with disabilities. According to Ofcom, Channel 4 employs a greater proportion of women than any other public service broadcaster. The same is true of staff with disabilities. In 2019, Channel 4 also committed to doubling its target for employing staff with disabilities from 6% to 12%. According to last year’s Ofcom report, more than 10% of staff at Channel 4 were living with disabilities. Channel 4 News has a higher proportion of black, Asian and minority ethnic viewers than any other public broadcaster in the UK.
Channel 4’s commitment to diversity stems from its statutory remit to appeal to culturally diverse groups, to offer alternative perspectives and to nurture new talent. That is underpinned by Channel 4’s unique not-for-profit model. It is lamentable, therefore, that only months after we discovered that the BBC has so far spent over £1 million in legal fees fighting equal pay cases, the UK Government are now seeking to put one of our best and most diverse public service broadcasters at risk through a threatened, albeit sleekitly planned, privatisation.
I came out as gay—the first BBC network TV presenter to do so—when I was presenting BBC Breakfast on BBC 1. My bosses were furious, and my BBC Breakfast presenting gig was soon over. By contrast, over at Channel 4, the company was blazing a different, more inclusive trail. In February 1999, the first episode of the award-winning series “Queer as Folk” aired. Written by Russell T. Davies, the series chronicles the lives of three gay characters living in Manchester, and it marked a significant watershed moment for LGBT programming across these islands. For the first time, young gay men had people like themselves portrayed proudly onscreen. Fast forward to 2021, and both Channel 4 and Russell T. were breaking new ground again with the incredible “It’s a Sin”, which powerfully depicted the human impact of the HIV/Aids epidemic. What is more, the show has been credited with an upsurge in HIV testing, taking the channel’s public service obligations to a whole new level.
In news and current affairs, Channel 4 has also been trailblazing, with outstanding, high-quality factual output, in particular “Channel 4 News” and “Unreported World”. In an age of festering misinformation and disinformation and plummeting trust in the media, impartial and accurate public service broadcasting has never been so important. Public service broadcasters such as Channel 4 have been lifelines during the pandemic, providing coverage of daily briefings from leaders in all our nations across the UK. Huge efforts have been made to ensure that expert voices are featured and truthful information provided, in accordance with the public service broadcasting ethos.
As the vaccine is rolled out, Channel 4 coverage could not be more appreciated. In a world where anyone can spread disinformation and misinformation about covid, it is vital that we bolster the presence of our public service broadcasters on TV and online as a means of combating it.
The privatisation of Channel 4 would almost inevitably mean cuts. No privatised company would fund “Unreported World” or the Channel 4 daily news programme at its current length. Of course, that is perhaps what the Government want. A privatised Channel 4 would bring more commercially lucrative entertainment output. It might mean editorial lines being subjected to the whims of advertising and profit. We cannot afford to lose a second of factual programming in the dangerous times in which we live.
The Government have presented no serious case for the privatisation of Channel 4. If they press ahead, privatisation would see profit put first. It would mean slashing the half a billion pounds which go annually to independent production companies. There would also be a centralisation of Channel 4’s headquarters—the very antithesis of levelling up. Perhaps most concerning of all, we would likely see cuts to Channel 4’s hard-hitting news and current affairs programming, which effectively hold this Government to account. I suspect that is why the UK Government are so passionate about the prospect of privatisation. With record profits recorded last year and not a single penny taken from the taxpayer, it is certainly not to satisfy any public demand to tinker with—or attack—this much-loved public institution.
We all know what this is about for the Government. It is revenge—payback time, as Julian Knight, the Conservative Chair of the DCMS Committee has suggested. Channel 4 is all the things it is meant to be: innovative, inclusive, and, above all else, independent. The Secretary of State wants it brought under control. It is time for us as MPs to defend independent programme-making and journalism.