Karen Bradley: The Government should think twice about privatising Channel 4

13 Jan

Karen Bradley is a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and is MP for Staffordshire Moorlands.

It may not be the highest-profile job in the cabinet but, in terms of the breadth of the issues it covers, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is one of the biggest.

From broadband to broadcasting, from print media to social media, from opera to football, from castles to libraries, DCMS has a role in some of the most important and life-enhancing elements of British life. Every incoming Secretary of State has to set their own priorities whilst also inheriting a huge set of pressing decisions from their predecessors. That was true for me when I was given the job in 2016, and it’s true for Nadine Dorries now.

One issue which was handed to me when I entered the department, and which has been left on Nadine’s plate too, is the future of Channel 4.

Then, as now, that was an open question, with privatisation a live option which I seriously considered. The case for privatisation of Channel 4 has been made repeatedly over the years, ever since its creation by Margaret Thatcher in 1982 as a publicly-owned but self-funding free-to-air public service broadcaster – a vital addition to the media landscape which has more than justified its existence over almost four decades.

It is a case that has to be listened to – and I did listen to it, as I know Nadine will. But in the end, I decided that while Channel 4 needed some quite significant changes to the way it was run, its ownership model was not part of the problem.

What is unique about Channel 4? Unlike other public service broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 5, and unlike paid-for streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime, Channel 4 produces none of its own programming: it is what is called a publisher-broadcaster.

This means that it relies more than anyone else on independent production companies for its content, therefore commissioning work from a wide range of UK businesses, large and small, and playing a crucial role in helping them get started and stay viable.

Indeed, around 15 independents a year get their first ever TV commission – their first break – from Channel 4. This makes Channel 4 perhaps the most important start-up incubator in the TV production industry.

That doesn’t mean that nothing ever needs to change. The media industry has always had a London-centric bias, and Channel 4 has been no exception. That’s why, along with deciding against privatisation, I encouraged Channel 4 to build a major presence outside London – and I’m delighted that its new Leeds HQ opened in September 2021.

Leeds represents not just a symbolic move, but a real shift in Channel 4’s focus, creating jobs and opportunities outside the capital and helping to make sure that a national broadcaster has a national mission that benefits the whole of the UK. Its new regional sales and creative hubs in Manchester, Glasgow and Bristol are making a major contribution to that too. Channel 4 has committed to commission at least 50 per cent of its content outside the M25 by 2023 – far more than the 35 per cent it is required to commission, and far further than any other public service broadcaster. That is levelling up in action.

I don’t believe that the move to Leeds – which Channel 4 initially resisted – could, or would, have happened under a private ownership model. I don’t believe that a private owner would freely choose to commission from as diverse a range of independents as Channel 4 does. The incentives for a new owner to move production – including out-of-London production that meets Channel 4’s Nations and Regions quota – to in-house studios, for the sake of economies of scale and rights retention, will be very strong, and I worry about the knock-on effect in terms of lost commissions for independents, especially small and regional ones.

Any conditions placed on a sale – such as a requirement to keep the HQ in Leeds, or imposing a higher regional quota on Channel 4 than on anyone else – would reduce the attractiveness and price to a potential buyer. A far simpler solution is to keep Channel 4 where it is.

As a Conservative, I have no instinctive preference for public ownership. However, when it comes to thinking about broadcasting and our world-leading creative industries as a whole, the Channel 4 ownership question has to be about the best way of supporting private enterprise and promoting Global Britain. It is also especially important to consider what is best for start-up companies in the TV and film production sector all around the UK. That was Margaret Thatcher’s vision, and I hope it will be Nadine Dorries’ vision too.

Robert Halfon: Our national catchphrase this year is four simple words – “You are on mute”

16 Dec

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

We three kings: From Tiger King to Burger King to Sausage King. What a year 2020 has been.

So the end of 2020 is almost (at last!) upon us. A year in which some of us have taken up central casting from The Truman Show – being ogled, googled, zoomed, teamed and even on the odd occasion ‘citrixed’. We have lived life via our computer screens as if we were part of a giant sociological experiment. Not quite a goldfish bowl, more like the giant London Sealife Aquarium – which, as it happens, is just a swim across the Thames from the Palace of Westminster.

Our United Kingdom catchphrase has become one of just four simple words: ‘You are on Mute’. Even after nine months of lockdown, semi-lockdown, tiers, semi-tiers (or is that tiers one, two or three?), we still can’t remember to switch our microphone button ‘on’ when our daily Truman Show begins.

Not only content to be watched, we have been the watchers, too – binge-watching Netflix, Amazon Prime and not forgetting The Mandalorian on Disney Plus. Lockdown started with Tiger King (who is apparently now about to get a prison pardon from Donald Trump) and ended with Brexit Series (part 4072) with Michael Gove, describing his EU counterpart, Maroš Šefčovič, as “the Sausage King” because he had allowed sausages in lorries to travel around Northern Ireland (at least that is what I think he was talking about). This was all living proof that the Yes Minister episode about sausages was, of course, as real as a Panorama documentary, though this time it was the Brussels Eurocrat saving our sausages rather than the British Politician.

If it wasn’t sausages on the menu, Scotch eggs (albeit with sausage meat), suddenly flipped into our national consciousness as each Cabinet Minister, expecting to be asked about weighty and worthy issues of the day, was instead told to set out Scotch egg public policy – or even pub policy. The good news that this free commercial for Scotch eggs (whoever masterminded this advertising deserves a Nobel prize), has resulted in Scotch eggs literally being sold out around the country. In fact, news reports state that there has been a tenfold surge in demand for this culinary delight – all enjoyed, needless to say, as part of a substantial pint. One company, Scotch and Co (what else), said sales had gone up by 25% in the past month alone.

All this eating of sausages and Scotch eggs, alongside our occasional intake of lockdown alcohol (hic), meant that we all had to get fitter. Despite Joe Wick’s best efforts, this was not easy. Because, before Scotch eggs and sausages came along, our moral duty in August according to the Chancellor – was to Pig Out to Help Out. After months of lockdown, the time came to use up the Treasury’s ‘free’ (£520 million taxpayer-funded) vouchers for Burger King, Ronald Macdonald and Colonel Sanders.

By my count that makes it three Kings – Tiger King, Sausage King and Burger King: perfect for this time of year (although not quite what the Bible imagined).

Yet surely, if Sir Tom Moore could walk one hundred lengths of his garden and raise millions for the NHS, then the rest of us could, at least, get up from the sofa to turn the radio off, rather than shouting at Alexa.

Granted, we were allowed to walk across golf courses, as long as we obeyed strict Covid regulations and did not dare to touch, let alone swing a golf club.

But lockdown keep-fit clearly worked for some. The brilliant Ministerial rising star, and newly lean Will Quince, proudly announced on Twitter recently that he had lost a good few stone in weight. When I saw Quince’s Tweet one Saturday morning, I felt so fat-shamed that I immediately put away my giant tub of Haribo Cola bottles, ordered courtesy of Amazon.

Soon it will be Christmas. Our Cromwellian overlords have allowed us just a few magical days of fun. We are even permitted to see some friends and family from three different households. Exciting.

Hopefully, as we all get jabbed in the New Year, 2021 won’t be quite as mad as this one. As we resume tiering, I await with anticipation and excitement You Tube’s next instalment of Joe Wicks’ “cure your Turkey and Guinness hangover”, no doubt starting on our Truman Show on 1st January.

As this is my last Conservative Home column of 2020, may I wish all readers a most Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.