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Privatisation of Channel 4

Volume 715: debated on Thursday 26 May 2022

7. What discussions she has had with industry stakeholders on the Government’s proposals to privatise Channel 4. (900244)

The Government consulted extensively on the future of Channel 4, and the views from a broad range of industry stakeholders informed our policymaking and final decision. As a Scottish MP, the hon. Member may be particularly interested to know that I met STV and MG Alba about the broadcasting White Paper, which included the proposal to privatise Channel 4. My officials also recently met representatives from the Scotland Office and the Scottish Government. We are at a unique turning point in public service broadcasting. We think we have the chance to make Channel 4 bigger and better, while preserving what makes it so special.

When the Secretary of State was asked by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee why she wanted to privatise Channel 4, she said that it was because it was costing the taxpayer too much in subsidies. I think she was the only person in the room who was labouring under that particular delusion. Given that that excuse has gone, is it not time to come clean and say that the Secretary of State’s mission against Channel 4 is to do not with making it a better broadcaster, but with trying to shut down a broadcaster that has a nasty habit of broadcasting the truth, in particular truths that the Secretary of State might prefer not to be made known?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I know the Secretary of State’s reasoning for this decision better than he does. He also mis-characterises what was said at the Select Committee. He will be aware that Channel 4 is uniquely dependent on linear advertising, that it cannot own its own content, and that its borrowing sits on the public balance sheet. We think we have an opportunity to free it from some of those constraints to allow it to invest more in content to get private sector capital into the business, and we think that that will help to grow Channel 4, so that it can invest more in the businesses that he purports to care about.

The Secretary of State said that she wanted to remove the straitjacket from Channel 4. Except for the opportunity to borrow, which I did not know Channel 4 had asked for, the only straitjacket is the public service remits. Will those be reduced in any way?

Can the Minister kindly tell the House why the aim to compete with Amazon and Netflix should be one of the purposes of Channel 4, especially if either Netflix or Amazon, or a similar-sized foreign-owned organisation, might buy Channel 4?

This is not necessarily about allowing Channel 4 to compete in exactly the same way as Netflix and Amazon; it is about understanding the changing market dynamics that those companies are creating. As I said in my previous answer, Channel 4 is uniquely constrained. Its borrowing would sit on the public balance sheet, but it also cannot own its content. We believe that in today’s market, it needs to be able to own its content in order to have much greater flexibility in how it runs its business, and getting private capital into the business would help it to do that. While people can bury their heads in the sand about the fundamental dynamics in the market, we are taking some difficult decisions, which we think are the right decisions to secure not only the future of the business, but the future of the kind of content that audiences in this country love.

Yet again, the Secretary of State fails to come to the Dispatch Box herself to defend one of her own flagship policies, despite publishing a media White Paper and the Government consultation and tweeting over recess that she was selling Channel 4 off without coming to this place. Perhaps the Minister can clear up some of the confusions about the level of support for the Government’s plans. Despite the impression the Secretary of State gave at her recent Select Committee hearing, is it not the case that according to the Government’s own report, even when the 38 Degrees responses are removed, only 5% of respondents agreed that Channel 4 should be privatised? What is more, the majority of stakeholders are also against the sell-off. So can the Minister tell us who, apart from a small coterie around the Prime Minister, actually supports their plans?

I think the hon. Lady has been living in a different world. Only last week or the week before, the Secretary of State was grilled for three hours in Select Committee and took endless questions on Channel 4’s future, and—[Interruption.] I have to answer the questions that are put to me. We do not have advance sight of which ones the hon. Lady will come on to. I will simply say that the fundamental facts of the market dynamics that I have set out remain. In the consultation that she cites, a huge number of responses were to the 38 Degrees redrawing of the questions we set. We have the responsibility as a Government to look at the long-term trends in this business and to make a decision about what is best for the business, for the taxpayer and for UK audiences and creative industries. That is the sole thing driving the decisions we make in this space.

Sorry, but I thought it was Ministers who decided which questions they responded to, not the other way around. It was their decision to do it this way. [Interruption.] The question about Channel 4 is on the Order Paper.

Is it not the truth that the Secretary of State made up her mind long, long ago, based not on the evidence or the responses, but on her own ideology and a petty vendetta against Channel 4’s news coverage? The evidence is compelling: privatisation is bad for levelling up, bad for the skills pipeline, bad for the independent production sector and bad for our world-beating creative industries. Just like the forthcoming BBC licence review, is not this process just a sham? She does not listen to evidence, the industry, the public or many of her own Back-Benchers. Why does she not drop the ideology, support British jobs and British broadcasting, and stop the sell-off?

I would simply say that that is not the truth. This is not a decision driven by ideology; it is about what is best for our creative sector, what is best for audiences and what is best for the taxpayer. I am sure the hon. Lady will have plenty of opportunities to have ding-dongs with the Secretary of State on those issues in the forthcoming media Bill debate.