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.