The Privatisation of Channel 4

Channel 4 is a much-loved British television channel, which has brought both newsworthy information, and powerful entertainment to the public since it was founded in 1982. However, the government has now announced that they intend to go ahead with plans to privatise it. The reasoning behind this change is that ministers believe Channel 4, as it is publicly owned at the moment, is not able to progress with the rapidly changing televisual scene. For example, Nadine Dorries – the Culture Secretary – stated that, in comparison to paywall companies like Netflix, Channel 4 is always going to be on the back foot while its funding comes from the government. One source even referred to the government funding of Channel 4 as its ‘straitjacket’.

But, like many big changes that the Conservative party have made, it has not been a clean-cut decision. Dorothy Byrne, who was formerly head of news and current affairs at Channel 4 criticised Dorries’ argument, saying, ‘the argument doesn’t stack up because Channel 4 is not there to compete with Netflix.” Byrne argued that Channel 4 is more a ‘public service’, producing, amongst other things, important news programmes, which Netflix would never make. 

Aside from many members of the public having an, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ attitude to the change, the decision has sparked more controversy than just Byrne’s argument that it does not add up. Channel 4 was introduced under Thatcher’s 1980s government, to enable under-privileged audiences to access more TV programmes. Channel 4 News remains an important source of information for many. Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who is the main anchor for the news show, tweeted that he believes facts have become muddled in this heated discussion – ‘Channel 4’, he wrote, ‘is state-owned, but commercially funded by ads and doesn’t get public money.’ Considering that a primary argument for privatising the channel is the money it takes from the taxpayer, this throws into question the Tories’ motives. Location, Location, Location star, Kirsty Allsop, who has worked with Channel 4 many times even argued that it was an example of the Conservative government putting profit above culture. 

         The privatisation of Channel 4 does seem a tragedy on the culture front: it has been home to powerful and important, as well as deeply-successful, shows over the years. Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin (2021), was nominated for 11 different BAFTAs but it is likely it would never have been made if not for Channel 4: the series was turned down by every other broadcaster before it found its home. Channel 4 bosses have suggested that the privatisation would lead to the axing of many such beloved shows and highlighted the £74m surplus that the network made despite the pandemic.To privatise, and therefore inherently restructure such a staple of British culture has been a shocking decision and it is hardly surprising that people have strong opinions on the matter. The network has produced so many award-winning programmes, and provided so many with jobs, and does not appear to be doing any harm to the tax-payer’s money. What is more, it is clear that television has been a source of some solace to many throughout the pandemic, and now with the war in Ukraine. The decision to remove an – ostensibly free – mode of access to this solace comes at a time when we are perhaps more acutely aware than ever, of the importance of accessible arts and culture.

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Molly Phillips

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May 2022
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