A report, The future of Channel 4, from the Communications and Digital Committee of the House of Lords (the UK’s upper legislative chamber), has criticised the Government’s handling of the debate about the publicly-owned broadcaster.
Ministers should have waited to consult on the future of TV broadcaster Channel 4 – and declaring privatisation their preferred option – until after setting out a vision for public service broadcasting, the Committee has said.
The debate about Channel 4’s future has been “a binary one” between privatisation or the status quo, the Committee says. “It should instead start by establishing our ambitions for Channel 4 before considering how best they can be realised.”
Risks and opportunities of both privatisation and continued state ownership must be weighed up, says the committee, while much will depend on how willing the government is to protect Channel 4’s public service remit and its contribution to the creative industries as part of any potential sale.
The committee was “surprised” that in both written and oral evidence when asked to describe any potential benefits of privatisation alongside potential risks, Channel 4 Corporation (C4C) “described only risks”.
“When asked about the potential benefits of privatisation, C4C’s response listed only potential disadvantages. We would have been more reassured to see C4C, as a publicly owned corporation, openly demonstrate that the potential benefits of privatisation had been considered by its board,” the report says.
The report says that privatisation’s main benefit would be increased investment in programming, content partnerships and technology through access to capital, enabling Channel 4 to diversify its revenues, enhance its sustainability and be more ambitious internationally. However, privatisation is not the only way in which Channel 4 could access capital, the Committee says.
The committee recommends that, regardless of ownership, Channel 4’s role in supporting small, medium, diverse and regional production companies should be strengthened, while ensuring that the interests of large, established production companies do not take precedence over the channel’s sustainability.
“It is difficult to reach a conclusive view on the ownership of Channel 4 without understanding the future public service broadcasting landscape,” stated Lord Gilbert of Panteg, Chair of the committee.
“We are not convinced by claims that privatisation is an urgent necessity nor by warnings that it would be a catastrophe for viewers and independent producers. We welcome the government’s and Channel 4’s sincerity in seeking the strongest future for the brand. However, the board of Channel 4 should be open to all possibilities for achieving this, including privatisation. Likewise, it would be remiss of the government not to consider possible reforms which might make Channel 4 more sustainable without a change of ownership.”
“The government’s upcoming White Paper must justify its decision on Channel 4’s ownership in relation to a clear and compelling vision for the future of public service broadcasting,” he concluded.