The Government has confirmed it will not put Channel 4 up for sale, instead introducing reforms to allow for its “long-term sustainability” and help it “better compete in the age of streaming giants”.
Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan decided not to take Channel 4 out of public ownership, a policy announced under the tenure of her predecessor, Nadine Dorries, during Boris Johnson’s premiership.
Daily Mail political editor Jason Groves claimed that according to a Whitehall source, the privatisation plan was driven by Johnson’s “anger” at being replaced by an ice sculpture at a Channel 4 News leaders’ debate about the climate crisis in 2019.
Donelan said on Thursday: “After reviewing the business case and engaging with the relevant sectors I have decided that Channel 4 should not be sold.”
Instead, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said, the Government will legislate through the upcoming Media Bill to relax the publisher-broadcaster restriction on Channel 4 so it is more able to produce its own content rather than having to outsource everything to external production companies and help “put it on a more stable financial footing by growing its commercial income”.
The Media Bill will also contain a statutory obligation for Channel 4’s board to focus on the “long-term financial sustainability” of the channel, as well as a wider range of measures to “modernise decades-old broadcasting regulations”.
These would include, the DCMS said, “prominence reform to increase the growth potential of the UK’s public service broadcasters and foster innovations in the way TV is produced and consumed”.
ITN, which produces Channel 4 News as well as ITV News and 5 News, has frequently called for new prominence requirements guaranteeing trusted news can be found easily on a wide range of platforms, warning of a “news desert” if people only watch a limited number of streaming services such as Netflix and are never given a simple opportunity to see news content.
Channel 4 welcomed the decision to end the pursuit of privatisation, with chief executive Alex Mahon saying: “The principle of public ownership for Channel 4 is now set for the foreseeable future, a decision which allows us to be even more of a power in the digital world.
“Channel 4 is innovative, editorially brilliant and loved by audiences that others don’t reach, most of all the young and underrepresented.”
Channel 4 was created in 1982 by the Conservative government of Baroness Thatcher and is entirely funded by advertising, out of public ownership.
A Yougov poll in April found that 47% of UK adults were against the privatisation, with 14% in favour and 39% unsure. Some 27% of Conservative voters were in support, compared to just 6% of Labour voters.
The National Union of Journalists had called the proposed sell-off “bad for journalism and bad for the United Kingdom” while ITN had warned that a guarantee of the channel’s news provision including that it should remain an hour-long programme in a fixed slot would be necessary in the event of the sale. Channel 4 News anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy this year described the channel as “the definition of a citizen-serving media entity”.
On Wednesday the NUJ welcomed initial reports of the change of plan, saying: “Privatisation of Channel 4 threatens quality journalism, jobs and creativity. Government should never have proposed the sell-off.”
Donelan, who was appointed by Liz Truss and remained in the role after Sunak took over as Prime Minister, had previously cast doubt on plans to privatise the broadcaster.
She said she was re-examining the “business case” to make sure “we still agree with that decision”.
When the Government announced plans last year to take the channel out of public ownership, it said it was so the broadcaster can better survive in a media landscape dominated by the likes of Netflix and Amazon.
Labour’s shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell described the proposed privitation as a “vendetta” against Channel 4 by the Conservatives and a “complete waste of everyone’s time”, calling for the planned Media Bill to be made law and give Ofcom powers to regulate streaming companies like Netflix.
“Labour opposed this sell off, and took a strong stand. Government must now bring forward the Media Bill to protect and promote Britain’s broadcasters in the streaming age,” Powell said.
Additional reporting by PA Media
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