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.

Ed Vaizey: Government must will the means, as well as the ends, in supporting public service broadcasters

8 Apr

Lord Vaizey of Didcot is a Conservative peer and member of the Lords Communications and Digital Committee. He was the UK’s longest-serving Arts Minister (2010-16).

Like so many people, I’ve watched more TV in lockdown than I have done in years. And it’s not just because we haven’t been allowed out.

There is some brilliant stuff out there. None more so than that shown on the main public service broadcaster (PSB) channels – Line of Duty on the BBC, The Pembrokeshire Murders on ITV, It’s A Sin on Channel 4, and All Creatures Great and Small on Channel 5. Great programmes that huge audiences are watching and talking about.

These are a few of the brilliant programmes the PSBs make, and a tiny example that doesn’t do justice to how much they contribute to the country and its social fabric. Whether it’s the contribution they make to democracy through their news services, the social value they have bringing the country together through national moments and sporting events, or the significant economic contribution they make with their huge investments right across the UK.

To put this into context, the UK TV and film industry helped the country avoid recession in summer 2019. It can now help our economy recover in 2021 and beyond.

Since 2011 the creative industries have created three times more jobs than the UK-wide average. Prior to the pandemic, the creative sector was growing five times faster than the wider economy and contributing £111.7 billion to UK plc – more than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences, and oil and gas industries combined.

The Chancellor’s ‘Restart’ reinsurance scheme has helped the cameras keep rolling in TV and film, supporting 160 titles in four months, protecting almost 20,000 jobs and generating £680m of economic activity. This support has helped the screen industry bounce back and record the second highest production spend in history. The creative industries are central to the UK’s future economy, and the PSBs have proven their value as the lynchpin of this internationally successful sector.

The PSBs have also played a pivotal role during Covid. Sharing accurate, reliable news and information when there is so much disinformation. Promoting public health messaging and advice and working together to support the take-up of Covid vaccines amongst BAME communities. And bringing joy in a joyless time.

Independent, impartial public service broadcasting also showcases the Britain’s culture and promotes our values to the rest of the world. It tells uniquely British stories to international audiences. It commissions programmes exported widely across the world, enhancing the UK’s reputation, influence, and soft power abroad.

The economic, social, and cultural benefits PSBs deliver are not restricted to London’s metropolis. Channel 4 has new offices in Leeds, Bristol, and Glasgow, while the BBC is moving staff and programming outside the capital. PSBs support creative and production clusters in all four nations of our Union. They provide training opportunities for young people from different backgrounds. They reflect, represent, and serve the diverse communities of all the United Kingdom’s nations and regions.

But PSBs are let down by outdated laws. They operate in a hugely different market from when the regulation was set up in 2003 – pre-digital switchover, when Netflix was LoveFilm’s DVD delivery service. We need to act quickly if we want the PSB system to continue delivering for the country, and I urge all my colleagues to make the case to the Government.

This has been powerfully illustrated by the latest DCMS Select Committee report, which has concluded that there is a need for urgent reform. The Committee calls for draft legislation in this parliamentary session, before finding time to introduce and enact this legislation before the end of 2022.

The single most important thing Government can do is here is to update the prominence rules so PSB content remains widely available and discoverable across devices and platforms. The alternative, if we don’t act, is that eventually we will only have Netflix, Amazon and Disney+. Great services though they certainly are, they don’t reflect life in the UK particularly, there’s no news on them and you will search in vain for anything that reflects a particular nation or region of this country.

As Julian Knight, the Committee Chair, has said: “To enable public service broadcasters to compete in a digital world, Ministers must renew broadcasting laws that are nearly 20 years out of date. It’s a question of prominence – too often public service broadcasters lose out on dominant platforms…”

It is easy to take for granted the fundamental contribution the PSBs currently make to the UK’s culture, democracy and economy. The reality – as the Select Committee has so robustly set out – is that unless politicians act now to support them, they will increasingly be unable to deliver anything like the scale of social benefits that everyone in the UK currently enjoys.

By contrast, the Big Tech platforms are so large and powerful that they will be in an invincible, unassailable position in ten years’ time. As Parliamentarians and policymakers we must will the means necessary to support Britain’s public service broadcasters, as well as welcoming the positive end results they bring.

Iain Dale: Biden seems to forget his Defense Secretary’s name, and the media says nothing. Imagine if it had happened to Trump.

12 Mar

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Poor Piers Morgan. Said no one ever. A narrative has grown over the last few days that he has been “cancelled” by ITV. He has fuelled that by alleging that he has been sacrificed on the altar of free speech.

Sometimes being a professional controversialist can come back to bite you on the backside. Personally, I am very sorry he has left Good Morning Britain. In the five years that he has been presenting on it, its audience ratings have been lifted out of the doldrums to a point where the show could have potentially outgunned BBC Breakfast. That is in large part, but not exclusively, down to Morgan.

Even people who can’t stand him found themselves tuning in to rubberneck some of his poor interview victims. It was often compulsive viewing, even if at time it seemed to be too much about him, rather than the people he was talking to.

He was the cock of the walk who ruled the roost. His fellow presenters knew their roles and were happy to play them. Susanna Reid had a lot to put up with but she was brilliant in playing the yin to his yang. She became mistress of the well placed eye-roll.

So what happens now to both Morgan and GMB? Morgan will come up smelling of roses. He always does. He’s already being courted by Andrew Neil and GB News. It wouldn’t surprise me if he re-emerged on the new News UK channel. He’s know to be close to Rebekah Brooks. They’ve already signed by Lord Sugar, if rumours are to be believed. A show with both of them on it would be a surefire ratings hit.

As for GMB, it’s got a big decision to make. Do producers seek to replace like with like and recruit a Morgan sound-a-like or do they go the more conventional route? It’s a big decision to make and will define the show for the next few years.

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It is profoundly shocking that a serving Metropolitan Police officer should have been arrested in connection to the disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard.

Cressida Dick looked crestfallen in her live news conference on Wednesday evening. I was in the middle of presenting Cross Question, and members of my panel found it difficult to maintain their composure. City AM’s Andy Silvester was close to tears. So was I.

The conversation about women’s safety is rightly continuing to dominate the news. While no one should run away with the idea that all men are misogynist women-hating bastards, it’s clear that a lot needs to be done to educate men on how not to spook women who are quite innocently walking along a dark street late at night.

Apparently the police have been knocking on doors around the streets where Sarah lived in South London and asking women to stay in and be more careful. While I understand the motive for doing that, their time might be better spent talking to men and asking them to think about ways they can help women feel safer. For example, if you’re walking down a street behind a woman late at night, just cross to the other side.

I took a call on my show from a mother who had been attacked in the woods by a man and the first thing she was asked by the police was “what did you do to provoke him?” The man was spoken to but unbelievably wasn’t charged. A few weeks later he committed a very serious offence against a woman and was sent to jail.

It is hardly surprising that so few women come forward to report incidents of sexual harassment or assaults if they don’t feel they will be taken seriously, or will be blamed by the police. That’s where attitudinal changes really need to be encouraged. And enforced.

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This week Joe Biden appeared to experience a “senior moment” at the White House when he forgot the name of his Defense Secretary.

It was excruciating to watch. I covered it on my radio show but I hardly saw a mention of it elsewhere.

Imagine if it had happened to Donald Trump. Imagine the acres of newsprint that would be devoted to it. Imagine the US talks shows. They would have talked of nothing else. Imagine if Donald Trump hadn’t held a news conference for 40 days. Biden hasn’t seen fit to call a single one, I’m told.

And this is where people understandably lose patience with the media. They don’t like double standards. Biden is getting a free ride from the US media in a way that Trump never did. Nor should he have.

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The Premier League has written to clubs, managers and players asking how VAR could be improved for next season. It’s very simple. Abolish it. It’s ruining people’s enjoyment of football. It really is as simple as that.