Dame Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered privatisation of Channel 4.
I am very relieved to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Deputy Speaker, and thankful to have secured this timely debate on the future of Channel 4.
Ministers have made it clear, for the sixth time, that they want to privatise Channel 4. They have issued what they ludicrously describe as a consultation document, in which they reveal that their preference is wholesale, 100% privatisation of Channel 4. They have also decreed that the exercise will close on 14 September, which leaves little parliamentary time to resist this act of wanton cultural vandalism and leaves the public only the summer holiday period in which to notice the existential threat that the Government’s actions pose to one of the most successful experiments in UK broadcasting history.
Channel 4 was established in 1982 with an unusual structure and remit. It is Government owned but wholly commercially funded, which means that it costs the taxpayer nothing. More important, Channel 4 has no shareholders and is free to reinvest all the surplus it can generate back into content production. That enables it to develop adventurous and experimental programming that would never find more conventional commercial backing and would therefore never see the light of day if Channel 4 did not exist in its current form.
Over the years, Channel 4 has developed such programming with some panache, and as a consequence the UK has a thriving cultural pool of TV and film production talent and punches well above its weight in the soft-power stakes of cultural influence on the global stage. Channel 4 has also nurtured a younger audience, which makes it especially attractive to advertisers and to those who wish to sponsor content.
Channel 4’s public service broadcasting remit obliges it, among other things, to be innovative, inspire change, nurture talent and offer a platform for alternative, culturally diverse voices. In the 39 years since its creation, Channel 4 has fulfilled its remit—and more. It has become a pint-sized film powerhouse with 37 Oscars and 84 BAFTAs. Film4, its production arm, has co-financed successes such as “The Favourite”, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “12 Years a Slave”, to name but a few. Its successful TV output this year alone includes the AIDS drama “It’s a Sin”; a comedy about a female Muslim punk band, “We Are Lady Parts”; and the magnificent “Grayson’s Art Club”, which got many of us through the lockdown in better shape than we would have been in without it.
The support the channel has given to the Paralympics has been inspirational and genuinely groundbreaking. Its news output, although controversial with Conservative MPs, includes “Unreported World”, the Heineken of news because it reaches the parts that others simply do not go to.
Since Channel 4 is prevented from undertaking any in-house production, it has played a leading role in growing the UK’s world-leading independent TV production sector. It works with more than 300 production companies a year, and has been responsible for directly investing £12 billion in the independent production sector since being established in 1982. That supports 10,000 jobs in the supply chain, a third of which are in the nations and regions of the UK. It also means that Channel 4 effectively acts as a kind of early-stage venture capital fund that takes risks and is able to finance innovation.
It is absolutely clear that the channel’s more risky and experimental programming would never see the light of day if it had to search for commercial backing. If it were not for Channel 4, many exciting and successful careers for writers, directors and performers might simply never have happened. Crucially, the country would have been much poorer in cultural terms if such unusual, diverse voices and talents had remained undiscovered and unfulfilled, their voices and viewpoints stifled and unheard. That model has proved to be robust and resilient, and it has come through the pandemic in good shape, so why on earth are the Government seemingly hellbent on destroying such a successful and innovative system?
Only five years ago, after an 18-month review, the then Culture Secretary, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), described Channel 4 as a “precious public asset” and declined to privatise it. She did, however, require it to establish hubs in the regions, which it is doing in Glasgow, Bristol and Manchester, alongside a new national headquarters in Leeds. Any sale is likely to reverse that decentralisation to the regions and would destroy the hubs before they had had a chance to establish themselves. That is a peculiar manifestation of the Government’s self-proclaimed mission to level up, whatever we think that oft-used slogan actually means. Why destroy a unique institution that more than pulls its weight in the national interest?
Ministers have been desperate to find arguments to revive the privatisation threat for a sixth time, and appear obsessed with completing this irreversible destruction despite the fact that there is no merit whatever in the proposal. The Minister for Media and Data, whose response to the debate I eagerly await, has had it in for the channel for decades. Last year, he told an audience at the Tory party conference that the channel was struggling financially, but it is not. It has just returned its highest ever pre-tax surplus of £74 million, despite the disruption caused by the pandemic.
Ministers and some Tory MPs have also attempted to justify their obsession with an irreversible privatisation by claiming that UK media players need scale to compete with the Americans, but not all of them do. Moreover, Channel 4 is competing superbly well with the Americans in their own backyard, as its haul of Oscars shows. It is not trying to be a huge, mega-global media player. That was never its purpose. It occupies an incredibly valuable niche of distinctively British programming with a distinctive voice of its own. All 4, Channel 4’s advertising-funded video-on-demand service, has just posted results that demonstrate a 25% increase in views of its streaming services. Channel 4’s social platforms have had 4.2 billion content views. That once more demonstrates that Channel 4 is evolving to compete in the rapidly changing media environment of on-demand without changing its structure or ownership. Ministers have claimed that Channel 4 needs access to capital to compete, but its executives have denied that that is the case, and its record of producing innovative programming in a unique way bears them out.
Privatisation is often justified as a money-raising effort, but as Channel 4 does not produce content in-house, it has no lucrative back catalogue, and its value has been estimated at between £1 billion and £2 billion. That will make scarcely a dent against the £400 billion that the Government have borrowed and splashed around with such abandon during the pandemic, so money raising cannot be a reason behind the Government’s intention either. What on earth is going on? Why are Ministers hellbent on this destructive act?
When we look at the flimsy arguments that Ministers have used to justify this cultural vandalism, it is hard not to draw the more obvious political conclusion that the Government wish to destroy Channel 4 because they do not like the fact that it caters for diverse audiences and different viewpoints—that they are pursuing a hegemonic media project to control public discourse and they do not like dissenting voices.
There are some hints around. The output of Channel 4 has been described by one Tory MP as woke rubbish. The clue is in the dripping contempt for anything different. Anything that does not share the current Tory world view is beyond the pale and ripe for destruction.