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UK Government plan to privatise Channel 4 needs ‘rigorously scrutiny’ chief content officer tells Wales Screen Summit

16 Jun 2022 7 minutes Read
Ian Katz. Picture by Channel 4

The UK Government’s plans to privatise Channel 4 should be “rigorously scrutinised by MPs and peers on all sides”, its chief content officer has told an industry conference in Wales.

Having been publicly owned since its creation in 1982 by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, and entirely funded by advertising, the broadcaster is being sold off as previously announced by Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries.

Speaking at the Wales Screen Summit in Cardiff, Ian Katz, chief content officer at Channel 4, reflected on the “complex and finely balanced ecosystem” of Britain’s public service broadcasting architecture, saying in a speech: “Few outside the industry – and even in it – have a firm grasp of it, and it’s hard to precisely predict the consequences of tinkering with bits of it.”

“That is why over the coming months it is vital that the government’s plans to privatise Channel 4 are rigorously scrutinised by MPs and peers on all sides.

“That they fully understand the hole in British life that will be left if it is sold off without proper protections for the role it plays in supporting our creative economy, in levelling up, in representing all of Britain, in driving innovation, in promoting informed, critical thinking and intelligent, open debate.”

The former Newsnight editor cautioned that if the proposed privatisation goes ahead “without careful protection of its essence”, then “little might seem different the day after the channel is sold”.

“But little by little, a precious part of our natural cultural capital could be lost. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, we may not understand the cost until it’s too late.”

Earlier this week, during Labour’s Opposition day debate in the Commons, Ms Dorries told MPs the Government intends to use the proceeds of the sale to “benefit the entire country”.

She also claimed the reason behind the Government’s decision to change the channel’s ownership is because the “state cannot own a public service broadcaster that takes on the risk of borrowing money”.

On how she plans to “benefit the entire country” by selling off Channel 4, Ms Dorries explained: “Though it’s early days, unsurprisingly, there has already been lots of initial interest from a wide range of potential bidders and when a sale is secured it won’t just benefit Channel 4. We intend to use the proceeds to benefit the entire country.”

Mr Katz also responded to Ms Dorries’ comments describing Channel 4 News as “edgy” and saying the programme sometimes has not done itself “any favours” in terms of impartiality.

He said: “Let’s not dwell on Nadine Dorries’s observation before the DCMS select committee that Channel 4 News ‘didn’t do themselves any favours’ since the government has repeatedly made it clear that there is no element of political score-settling behind its push for privatisation.”

‘Distinctive’

In April this year the Government’s White Paper offered a first look at proposed plans for Channel 4, saying that under public ownership, the broadcaster has limited ability to borrow or raise capital by issuing shares and its set-up “effectively stops it from making its own content”, as it is heavily reliant on advertising revenue.

In his speech, Mr Katz referenced Channel 4 News as “the most distinctive – and least commercial – areas” of output adding that “it is very likely that a privatised Channel 4 would deliver a different kind of news programme to the one we air now”.

It is not yet known what will be included in the media Bill once it has passed through both houses of parliament as far as protection of Channel 4’s remit goes, but based on the White Paper, Mr Katz said it would be “possible to look at some of the most distinctive shows Channel 4 makes and take an educated guess about whether they would appear on a purely profit-driven channel”.

After naming popular Channel 4 comedy series’ such as Derry Girls and We Are Lady Parts, he said: “If the business you are in is business, then comedy is not good business. Or, you might say, a privatised Channel 4 is just not funny.”

Also announced was a commission, in partnership with S4C, of Caradog Pritchard’s novel Un Nos Ola Leuad (One Moonlit Night), into a opera to be sung in Welsh and broadcast on British TV.

Ian Katz added that out-of-London producers were “the most important voices in the privatization debate” as he reminded the industry that the Government White Paper makes no commitment to the nations and regions under a private owner.

In an interview following his keynote speech, Katz said there remains a “long legislative process ahead” regarding C4’s future and insisted it is not privatization per se that worries him but what he sees as weaknesses in the Government’s proposals.

“I don’t have any dog in the race or preference about models of ownership,” Katz said, dismissing the idea that the government is motivated by political pique to “unpick the fabric of public broadcasting” as “stunningly cynical”.

Katz said the White Paper “doesn’t seem to protect the essence of the Channel”, with “scant protections” around spend in the indie sector or for regional representation from the broadcaster or its supplier base.

“When I see those omissions, I worry hugely about the future,” Katz said. “I think we’re waiting now to see when the Government publishes its actual legislation, which we’re led to believe will come in soon, whether it’s got the protections that we’ve been led to believe there are for the heart of what Channel 4 does.”

Katz said: “There are parliamentarians on all sides who are puzzled by why the Government is so intent on this direction of travel when the overwhelming view in the industry, and the creative community more widely, is that this is a policy that is bad for the industry, bad for levelling up, bad for the viewer, bad for the culture.

“It’s really important all those views really surface over the course of the next few months and that everyone involved in this decision takes a long hard look at the hole in Britain that a profit-driven Channel 4 could leave.”

Katz insisted the Government’s scrutiny on Channel 4 was not impacting commissioning decisions or the broadcaster’s appetite for taking risks.

“There are no no-go zones,” he declared. “We are not commissioning any differently to the way we commissioned a year ago, or two years ago, either for fear of antagonising the Government or because we worry about what a future privately owned Channel 4 could do with those commissions. You won’t see a toothless Channel 4.”

He predicted comedy could be the hardest-hit genre.

“Look at ITV and Channel 5 – how much original British comedy do you see on those Channels? It’s not surprising the answer is almost none. Only a tiny proportion of comedies find their way to a large enough audience to be profitable. If the business you are in is business, then comedy is not good business. Or, you might say: a privatised Channel 4 is just not funny.”

John McVay, Chief Executive of Independent Producers’ Body, Pact, has forecast that if a US conglomerate were to buy Channel 4, up to £4.2bn could transfer from UK producers to the new owner over 10 years.

“That’s IP leaving your business, leaving your community, leaving your economy and going to someone else,” McVay said. “You will not be able to invest in your talent, your culture, and your economy. That’s a scandalous move by the government and we have lobbied hard to make them reconsider the proposal. When we asked them why they’d gone so far, they told us that was so they could maximise the sale value.

“That the Government will throw you under a bus for some spurious benefit is a scandal – we will continue to lobby. We may not be successful, but we think it’s an existential threat to all the creativity we see around the UK, it will impact on inclusion, it will impact on other aspects of our creative and economic life.”


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