'We hope to show Nadine Dorries that there is real opposition to any plans to privatise Channel 4, and ultimately, we want to ensure that Channel 4 remains in public hands.'
The bid to stop the privatisation of Channel 4 was ramped up this week, with anti-privatisation campaign group, We Own It, staging a protest outside the government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in London.
The protest involved the delivering of a letter to the DCMS that listed the risks privatising Channel 4 poses to the commitment to ‘levelling up.’
The letter had been signed by trade unions, campaigners and politicians opposed to the privatisation.
LFF caught up with Tom Morton, We Own It lead campaigner, to discuss how the privatisation of Channel 4 poses a threat to independent producers and risks making the broadcaster more London-centric.
Vital to independent producers
Morton said that response to this week’s protest had been “incredibly positive.”
“It is clear that the general public is opposed to the privatisation of Channel 4. The signatories to our open letter also demonstrate that regional mayors, trade unions, and independent producers across the UK will stand against any privatisation attempts,” said the We Own It lead campaigner.
Channel 4 was launched in 1982 as an editorially independent broadcaster. It is aimed at providing a “culturally challenging alternative” to BBC One, BBC Two and ITV. Hence the broadcaster is vital to independent television producers up and down the country.
Each year, Channel 4 works with around 300 production companies across TV, digital and film, accounting for 37% of all public service broadcasters’ spending on independent production in the UK.
As Channel 4 states: “We nurture and bring to fruition new creative and digital ideas, and in the process we drive economic growth, create jobs and support hundreds of SMEs across the UK.”
The channel is currently owned by Channel Four Television Corporation. Unlike the BBC, it doesn’t receive public funding and is funded entirely by its own commercial activities, most of which come from advertising revenue.
In September 2021, Nadine Dorries, Tory MP for Mid Bedfordshire, was appointed the new culture secretary, taking over from Oliver Dowden. Plans for privatise the broadcaster were announced in June 2021 by Dowden.
Dowden had insisted that privatisation would ensure Channel 4 kept “its place at the heart of British broadcasting.”
In her debut DCMS Committee hearing, Dorries said she is “only interested in how Channel 4 will survive in the future”, adding “there are a number of issues I have to consider before we make the decision.”
As Dorries deliberates the broadcaster’s fate, Tom Morton is hopeful this week’s protest could influence the culture secretary’s decision:
“We hope to show Nadine Dorries that there is real opposition to any plans to privatise Channel 4, and ultimately, we want to ensure that Channel 4 remains in public hands,” said Morton.
‘Very harmful’ to the creative economy
The government’s plans to privatise the broadcaster have been heavily criticised. Much of the condemnation of the move is centred on its potential impact on audiences and jobs.
Charles Gurassa, chairman of Channel 4, said the broadcaster has “serious concerns” that the consequences would be very harmful “both to the UK’s creative economy and to the choice and breadth of distinctive British-made content available to UK audiences.”
The privatisation has also been linked to potential political motives. Conservatives have voiced complaint that they believe some of the content is biased against the Tories, resulting in suspicion that the bid to put the channel into privately owned hands could be a political move by the government.
Sir David Attenborough has joined the opposition towards the move, accusing ministers of a “short-sighted political and financial attack” on the UK’s TV networks. Attenborough put his signature to an open letter warning that the unique system of public service TV channels, which are regulated by operated independently from the government, was in danger.
Warnings have also been made about the impact privatising Channel 4 could have on the government’s so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda – to bridge the cultural, economic and social gaps between the affluent south and the less prosperous north.
The media industry has long been accused of having a London-centric bias. In a bid to alleviate such southern-centric bias, in September 2021, Channel 4 opened a new headquarters in Leeds, to build a major presence outside London.
The move was not just symbolic, but, as Karen Bradley, former secretary of state for culture, media and sports and MP for Staffordshire Moorlands, said, it represented a real shift in Channel 4’s focus, “creating jobs and opportunities outside the capital and helping to make sure that a national broadcaster has a national mission that benefits the whole of the UK.”
However, the MP believes that if the channel was privatised, such a move up north would not have happened. “I don’t believe that the move to Leeds – which Channel 4 initially resisted – could, or would, have happened under a private ownership model. I don’t believe that a private owner would freely choose to commission from as diverse a range of independents as Channel 4 does,” said Bradley.
For Tom Morton and We Own It, the privatisation of Channel 4 would damage communities across the UK and seriously hinder the government’s levelling up agenda.”
“Channel 4’s economic contribution in nations and regions outside of London is made possible as a direct result of public ownership, replacing that with a model in which they are forced to prioritise profits for shareholders in London would have severe impacts both economically and culturally,” Morton said.
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward
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