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UK Culture Secretary defends C4 sell-off

September 15, 2021

By Colin Mann

In a speech meant to be delivered to the Royal Television Society Convention before his unexpected demotion from the role, former UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden set out his support for the ongoing success of commercial public service broadcaster Channel 4 and the benefits a potential change in ownership could bring to the service and the rest of the country.

Dowden argued that new private investment could usher in a new era for Channel 4 as a leading PSB creating unique, risk-taking content which reflects modern Britain.

In the speech, in which he also announced new measures to protect the success of British broadcasting, he reiterated that Channel 4’s status as a PSB will continue in the event of a sale, with the obligations and requirements that come with it.

Dowden said that private investment could give Channel 4 more opportunities to cover moments that bring the nation together, as it did on September 11th by striking a deal for the rights to air Emma Raducanu’s historic victory in the US Open, and with the recent Paralympics coverage. He argued this is the best chance of securing a successful and sustainable future for Channel 4 in the face of intense competition from the continued rise of on demand rivals such as Netflix and Amazon.

He told the convention:

“Channel 4 is one of this country’s greatest assets… One clear way of making sure our British broadcasters thrive is putting them in the right financial position to compete and succeed for decades to come – no matter what the future of broadcasting holds.

“Right now, Channel 4 is in a stable position. But I think too many people are fixated on Channel 4’s current situation. I’m much more concerned with its long-term future.

“And I believe that if Channel 4 wants to grow then at some point soon it will need cash. Without it, Channel 4 won’t have the money to invest in technology and programming, and it won’t be able to compete with the streaming giants.

“The next obvious question: Where does that cash come from? It can either come on the back of the taxpayer, or it can come from private investment. And it’s my strong position – as a point of principle – that I do not believe the borrowing of a commercial TV channel should be underwritten by a granny in Stockport or Southend.

“Instead, we can help it unlock that much-needed investment. And we can do so while protecting the parts of Channel 4 that none of us want to lose.”

Dowden reiterated that Channel 4’s public service remit will remain:

“So if we do choose to proceed with a sale, I will make sure it remains subject to proper public service obligations. And I’d imagine those to include: a continued commitment to independent news and current affairs, to commissioning programming from the independent production sector, and that Channel 4 should continue to be representative of the entire nation.

“Let me be clear: I do not subscribe to the false binary choice between public service content and privatisation. We can have both. Channel 4 can continue to do what it does best: to fund original, risk-taking content – the kind you wouldn’t get anywhere else – and to showcase the very best of this country on free-to-view television.

“It did a fantastic job at broadcasting the Paralympics. I want it to keep doing that fantastic job in three years’ time, and the years after that. And I was so pleased that Channel 4 was able to bring the entire country together on Saturday night to cheer on Emma Raducanu in the US Open Final. We’ve needed these national moments this last year, and we need more of them on free-to-view television.

“A Channel 4 with a protected remit and deeper pockets could bring us many, many more in the future. If people disagree, then this is my challenge to them: please tell me how they’d intend to protect Channel 4 and the wider creative industries in a fairer, more sustainable way. Because standing still is not an option. In fact, it would be an act of self-harm.”

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