There is no plan to sell Channel 4 – at least, no plan that would keep it safe

Whatever options the government may be considering for privatisation, none of them look likely to preserve it as a public-service force for good

It’s that old “no plans” gambit again. As in “the government has no plans to sell Channel 4”, the mantra of two weeks ago. It was accurate enough, in a pin-dancing way, at the precise moment of utterance, of course. The government – as a long-lens shot of a confidential document reveals – is currently deciding which plan to choose for sell-off purposes (unless George Osborne turns out to have found a Chinese buyer over egg foo yong). But rushed, debate-starved deals need opening up.

Channel 4 is not always the bold, free-thinking contender it founders set out to build more than three decades ago. More Kirstie and Phil talk embarrassing bodies with Alan Carr before the 2.30 from Wincanton. But the idea of a not-for-profit public service channel, primed to grow independent production resources, remains potent. So do good deeds in a bad world like Channel 4 News and Dispatches. Alternative voices always welcome.

How can the chancellor and culture secretary keep that legacy safe? Profit will slash independent production resources. Commercial operation is bound to drain the channel’s distinctiveness. Too many conditions to the sale must reduce the asking price. No wonder there isn’t “a plan” just yet.

And, alas, the best plan of the lot – putting C4 in a big, devolved basket alongside the BBC so that ads and subscription money can help grow the sector and make sense of its targeting – is the ringfencing notion that would raise the biggest howl of the lot. You could sort out immediate BBC finances, differentiate channels, add iPlayer lustre along that path. Except that, like too many minds, it’s closed.

■ Whatever happened to those million-pound regulatory fines that make errant media companies shiver? Forget London: welcome to Madrid, where Mediaset Spain, that nation’s most popular TV group, has been fined a total of €20.6m for advertising and other transgressions over the past three years – including 42 separate fines this year alone. A world record? Perhaps Diego Costa could do the maths while he sits out his own red card ban.


Peter Preston

The GuardianTramp

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