The culture secretary has reiterated his belief that Channel 4 would benefit from a change of ownership, in the latest indication that the government intends to push ahead with privatisation of the state-owned broadcaster.
“I believe that if Channel 4 wants to grow then at some point soon it will need cash,” he will tell the Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge on Wednesday. “It can either come on the back of the taxpayer, or it can come from private investment. And it’s my strong position – as a point of principle – that I do not believe the borrowing of a commercial TV channel should be underwritten by a granny in Stockport or Southend.”
Oliver Dowden’s comments are strongly disputed by Channel 4 bosses, who say it is already financially sustainable and would not need to call on hypothetical taxpayers for extra funding.
The speech marks the end of a government consultation on the future of the broadcaster, which is currently required to put all its income back into commissioning programmes from the independent production sector. Over the summer there has been fierce lobbying to maintain Channel 4’s unique status by the broadcaster itself, independent production companies and even Sir David Attenborough.
Channel 4 has said that if it was bought by a for-profit company it would cause “harm” to audiences. It said new owners would be likely to cut back on investment in regional offices and chase ratings over original programming.
In an attempt to show its public service credentials, Channel 4 spent a seven-figure sum sub-licensing the rights from Amazon to show Emma Raducanu’s US Open tennis victory on Saturday night. Despite attracting more than 9 million viewers, it was a loss-leader because the channel could not show any adverts.
There is a suspicion the privatisation could be politically motivated. The station and its news output have repeatedly angered the Conservatives in recent years, especially during the 2019 general election when it replaced Boris Johnson with a melting ice sculpture during a debate.
Dowden said if the channel was privatised he would require it to maintain a commitment to news and current affairs programming, regional output and commissioning shows from independent producers. “If people disagree, then this is my challenge to them: please tell me how they’d intend to protect Channel 4 and the wider creative industries in a fairer, more sustainable way. Because standing still is not an option. In fact, it would be an act of self-harm.”
A report by Ampere Analysis, however, suggested up to 60 small independent production companies could go out of business if their work for Channel 4 dried up after privatisation.