GOVERNMENT plans to sell off Channel 4 have prompted widespread alarm about its potential effect on British television, the motivation behind the move, and the lack of transparency in the consultation process.
Bishops, and groups concerned about maintaining the quality of UK-based public- service broadcasting — including programmes about religion and belief — are worried about the proposed privatisation.
The Government is consulting on plans to sell off the channel, which has been in public ownership since its launch in 1982. Ministers believe that the sale will give the Channel “greater access to new strategic and investment opportunities”, and they want it to have “the best chance of a successful and sustainable future”. The consultation concludes on 14 September.
The move comes as more than half of UK homes now have subscriptions to global streaming services, such as Netflix and Disney Plus, and younger viewers are turning away from traditional broadcast television.
Critics of the sell-off point out that Channel 4 takes no public money; it made an operating profit of £71 million last year; it has developed extensive online services; and it invests its income in more than 270 UK-based independent production companies. Much of the channel’s content is produced outside London, and its new Leeds headquarters opens on 6 September.
The Archbishop of York has written to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, about the proposed sale. Archbishop Cottrell wrote: “Channel 4 offers something unique and precious in the British public service broadcasting ecology. I must emphasise how important is the programming it provides and how it should not be lost.”
The Archbishop welcomed Channel 4’s investment in skills and training at its new Leeds headquarters, and regional bases in Bristol, Glasgow, and Manchester, and urged its work with the independent production sector to be recognised as part of the review.
SOME observers see the potential sale as politically motivated: Channel 4 is perceived as Left-leaning and critical of the Government.
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, has described the proposal as “ideologically driven and therefore short-sighted and wrong”.
The media writer and Channel 4 historian Maggie Brown echoed such worries. “C4 has proved to be an adaptable institution, refreshing itself with regular changes at the top, and now entirely supports itself by selling advertising,” she said. “Though far from perfect, to hand C4 over now to a commercial operator — possibly an American-owned giant — on the grounds it is too small to flourish because of the rise of global streamers, or is vulnerable to a decline in TV advertising, is wrong and opportunistic.”
Colin Browne, who chairs the pressure group Voice of the Listener and Viewer, is also concerned. “The Government has declined to publish any evidence to support its proposal, nor produced an impact assessment. To make C4 more financially attractive to a potential buyer, its unique remit will need to be significantly loosened, to the detriment of UK viewers and the UK production sector.”
Concerns have also been voiced about the process for the sale, including the part played by a public-service broadcasting advisory panel formed of high-level media figures set up to advise ministers. The Government recently rejected a Freedom of Information request from the lobby group British Broadcasting Challenge to see minutes of the panel’s meetings.
The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, who sits on the House of Lords Communications Committee, said that its members were lobbying the Government for “a transparent process which takes account of C4’s unique contribution to UK broadcasting”.
The committee has raised questions about how the membership of the panel was decided, what steps have been taken to ensure a diversity of views, whether the panel will be consulting independent production companies about Channel 4’s future, and what part the panel will play in decisions about its ownership.
THE Sandford St Martin Trust, a charity promoting “thought-provoking, distinctive programming that engages with religion of all faiths, ethics or morality”, has given many awards to Channel 4.
These include programmes such as It’s a Sin, which portrayed the 1980s AIDS crisis; Ramadan in Lockdown, which followed Muslims as they adjusted and coped during the pandemic (News, 11 June); and For Sama, which chronicled five years of the Syrian uprising (News, 12 June 2020). The Trust also praised Channel 4’s Dispatches and Unreported World for being “unafraid of exploring the impact of religion on politics, economics and culture”.
The Trust’s executive director, Anna McNamee, explained: “We believe privatisation would not only negatively impact C4’s public-service content — and, in particular, the quantity and quality of religious and ethical content on offer — but would also damage the UK’s creative sector, jeopardising the future of innovative independent production specialising in this important genre, and imposing harm to the UK’s creative economy.”
The Trust believes that the drive to maximise profit for shareholders would lead to “less space and less investment for programmes or genres that deal with religion or ethics at a privatised C4”.
The potential proceeds of the sale seem small against the risks to the UK TV production sector, and the threat to home-grown programmes that explore the UK’s rich diversity. Any decision to sell Channel 4 seems born more of political vindictiveness than a carefully considered approach to public-service broadcasting.
The Revd Peter Crumpler is a self-supporting minister in St Albans diocese, and a former Director of Communications at Church House, Westminster.