One of the most deranged Tory plans of 2022 has been abandoned: the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport confirmed on Thursday that Channel 4 will not be privatised.
It was always a bonkers idea. Channel 4 is owned by the British people, doesn’t cost us a penny and is a major creative force in the nation. It’s a commercial success, has a massively popular free streaming service, runs one hour of the brilliant Channel 4 News in prime time each night, and has just won Bafta awards for programmes as diverse as a drama about a Liverpool care home and Gogglebox. In a country in which key institutions such as the NHS are failing and flailing, it’s proof we are not utterly broken.
Nadine Dorries, the former culture secretary, wanted to smash the system. She said that Channel 4’s economic model didn’t work any more. It turned out that she had believed it relied on public funding. One almost felt sorry for her when a member of the parliamentary committee to which she revealed her ignorance had to put her right. Well, almost but not quite.
The destruction of Channel 4 was just part of her cunning plan. And we should be clear, privatising Channel 4 would have destroyed it. Whatever promises a commercial owner made, it would only have been a matter of time before Channel 4 News was dispatched to the fringes of the schedule. The other cornerstone of her grand plan was abolishing the BBC licence fee without having any system to replace it, thus threatening the BBC as an organisation. (This is another idea that the new culture secretary, Michelle Donelan, should review.)
Dorries has said this week that by not privatising Channel 4, the Treasury has lost out on £2bn. In reality, if the channel was to have kept any of its vital public service remit, the money gained would have been much less, while Channel 4’s own calculations pointed to a £3bn loss over 10 years and a huge blow to independent television production companies, which produce the channel’s output.
But now that the madness has gone, the exciting question is: what next for Channel 4? The channel has been held back by uncertainty about its future in recent years. Everyone agrees that its current model is not sustainable in the long term. It makes brilliant programmes but onerous regulation prevents it from borrowing significantly to upscale, from making any of its own programmes and from owning significant rights in programmes. Most people don’t realise Channel 4 doesn’t own the programmes it transmits. At times when I was there, I was frustrated because I or my teams had come up with an idea for a television show that sold round the globe, and Channel 4 gained none of the financial advantage.
Donelan has raised some interesting ideas. Channel 4 is not permitted to borrow more than £200m. She thinks it needs to have the ability to borrow more and she is right. Borrowing to grow a business makes good sense, especially in such a competitive environment. Donelan has also put forward the idea that Channel 4 should be allowed to make some of its own programmes. That is a huge challenge to the independent television production sector. Channel 4 was created on the basis that it would make none of its own programmes. As head of news and current affairs at the channel for more than 15 years, I saw how brilliantly that system worked. Unlike at the BBC, our programmes were made by people with many different views, outlooks and experiences. Again and again, we beat the mighty BBC, with its much bigger budget, to sweep the awards nationally and internationally because we didn’t speak with one voice and independent companies made programmes in their own ways.
Now I have left Channel 4, I work with independent production companies that operate with an intellectual freedom not possible for a publicly owned organisation. Ultimately, Channel 4 commissioners and lawyers ensure fairness and accuracy, but there is something wonderful about the fact that programmes shoot in from across the universe of ideas. That said, I don’t think that anything should be off the table. Channel 4 needs commercially innovative ideas. An organisation founded on ideas seen as mad at the time should consider every idea.
My own view is that it should shift significantly from London to Leeds, which is supposed to be its national headquarters. I accept this has major financial implications. The regulatory requirements on the channel already have hefty financial implications: news, current affairs, regional and nations requirements, requirements to represent the ethnic diversity of the UK. When I worked at Channel 4, my colleagues often said, and rightly, that they were expected to make programmes people wanted to watch, working with diverse new companies across the nations of the UK, and promoting radical ideas about society that many viewers would find difficult – and then they’d get criticised if they didn’t achieve all those contradictory objectives. Critics should look at all those demands laid on Channel 4 and then wonder how it has achieved so many of them over time while costing the nation nothing. I believe that with a shift to Leeds, and greater priority given to the north, some of the other onerous requirements on the channel could be loosened.
Channel 4 justifies its own existence a thousand fold. Let’s breathe a sigh of relief that the current government has worked that out – and start the real hard work of making the broadcaster even better.
Dorothy Byrne is president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, and former head of news and current affairs at Channel 4