Sir David Attenborough has warned that the government is pursuing “short-sighted political and financial attacks” on the UK’s television networks, as ministers prepare to announce plans to privatise Channel 4.
The wildlife broadcaster has put his name to a campaign saying that ministers risk destroying a network of editorially independent television channels that currently promote “quality, diversity, innovation, respectful debate and trust”.
Attenborough, once polled as the most trusted man in Britain, signed an open letter stating that the UK’s “unique” system of public service television channels – which are heavily regulated but operate with independence from government – is now in danger.
“The very public service principles that have served us so well are under severe threat – not only from the unregulated streaming services and ‘clickbait’ content of big tech companies, but also from government,” says the letter, which has been sent to the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden.
Dowden is expected to unveil plans for Channel 4’s future on Wednesday, amid heavy speculation that he will propose privatising the broadcaster, whose news output has long angered some in the government.
It comes amid an upheaval in the broadcasting sector which has found itself in the middle of a government-backed culture war, with ministers strongly defending the new right-of-centre GB News at the same time as the BBC comes regularly under attack.
Although he is best known for his world-famous nature documentaries, Attenborough also served as a pioneering channel controller of BBC2 and has worked in British broadcasting since the 1950s. He is one of more than 100 prominent individuals to sign the letter warning about the risk of damaging trust in the media by undermining the UK’s public service broadcasters, which include the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5.
They operate with strict conditions, such as requirements to make a certain amount of news and educational programming and having a strong commitment to impartiality.
Ministers have already launched a review of the public service broadcasting sector, which has been financially challenged by the growth of streaming services such as Netflix. However, the campaign group British Broadcasting Challenge has complained that the organisation set up to advise the government – which features two Conservative politicians and the UK boss of Facebook – lacks transparency.
The signatories to the letter, who also include the former MI6 chief Sir John Sawers and the author Sir Salman Rushdie, warn that the government could damage the reputation of a major British asset. They say: “In a post-Brexit, post-Covid world order, the soft power of our public broadcasters is a significant national asset, both politically through the BBC World Service and economically.”
The public statement, organised by British Broadcasting Challenge, also says the BBC’s budget has been dramatically reduced in real terms over the last 10 years. It raises concerns that ministers intend to impose further cuts on the national broadcaster in forthcoming licence fee negotiations.
The group is instead calling for a more transparent, politically neutral review of British television: “We believe that this is the moment – in an era of misinformation and the ‘weaponised’ politicisation of news and opinion – to build up our Great British public service broadcasters rather than diminish them; to stop short-sighted political and financial attacks; to provide a vision for the future that allows our PSB system to grow as a trusted, independent network that is worthy of the UK, its citizens and the world.”