Channel 4 privatisation to begin amid criticism from MPs and industry

Process for privatisation announced as part of sweeping changes to UK media landscape

Ministers will formally start the process of privatising Channel 4 on Thursday – despite widespread opposition from the British media industry, the broadcaster’s current management, and a large number of Conservative MPs.

The government insists that the publicly owned channel needs to be sold off, but there are doubts over whether they have the political support required to pass the necessary legislation. Ministers will also finally publish the conclusions of a 60,000-strong public consultation on the sale, with most comments expected to be against privatisation.

The announcement will be made as part of a range of legislative measures that will change the British media industry, including proposals to require broadcasters to make “distinctively British” programmes rather than show set in “non-specific locations, with an international cast, communicating in US English”.

Among the new media policies due to be confirmed in parliament on Thursday are a series of reforms designed to boost the UK’s public service broadcasters – which consist of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C.

The law on televising “crown jewel” sporting events could also be changed to cover streaming platforms. This could ensure Britons can watch all Olympics events for free, potentially undoing the recent rights deal with US media company Discovery, which reduced the BBC’s coverage and forced viewers to pay if they wanted to watch streams of all the events.

Other measures, which will be detailed in full in a white paper on Thursday, include:

  • Regulating the content on streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, giving the public the ability complain about offensive or inaccurate programmes in the same way they can already complain about programmes on broadcast television. Failure to comply could result in a service being fined up to 5% of its revenue.

  • Legally requiring television manufacturers to prominently feature British public service broadcasters on the homescreens of smart TVs.

  • Relaxing the rules on how broadcasters can meet their public service obligations, enabling them to fulfil the requirements by putting shows on more obscure channels.

Although public service television broadcasters broadly welcomed the proposals, the British radio industry complained that the government had ignored their pleas to force smart speaker devices such as Amazon’s Alexa to be required to carry their services.

By far the biggest announcement is the decision to push ahead with the privatisation of Channel 4. It operates as a publicly owned outlet that carries advertising, and is required to reinvest its profits into new programming rather than hand over the money to shareholders.

At the moment the broadcaster has an unusual business model devised by Margaret Thatcher’s government, which requires it to commission all of its shows from independent businesses – something the government proposes to rip up as part of its reforms.

On Wednesday the culture minister Julia Lopez told the House of Commons that the government has concluded Channel 4 needs private ownership in order to survive, even though almost the entire British media industry is publicly opposed to the plan.

She also faced strong opposition from her own MPs over the proposal, with many concerned about potential job losses in their constituencies if a new owner prioritises profits over giving shows to small, independent producers.

Sir Peter Bottomley, the father of the house, told the House of Commons on Wednesday: “Channel 4 is in the best state it’s been creatively and financially for decades.”

The Tory MP suggested that ministers may have been offended by some of its news coverage – such as replacing Boris Johnson with a melting ice sculpture in a climate breakdown debate – and added that the “government could do best by leaving it alone”.

Damian Green, another former Tory minister, expressed “profound scepticism” about the government’s privatisation plans and said the media industry was united in “saying Channel 4 isn’t broke and doesn’t need fixing in this way”.


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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