Take heart: the battle for Channel 4 has only just begun
Despite the Government pressing ahead with a sale, this will be a long process running deep into 2024 and almost anything could happen between now and then.
For a while it looked as if the privatisation of Channel 4 would be either quietly forgotten or slip down the Government’s realistic agenda.
Former Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden may have said he was minded to sell even before a rigged public consultation produced the “wrong” result, thousands of responses with as many as 90% hostile to the idea, not least Channel 4 itself and most of those who know about broadcasting.
Strangely they would also be choosing a time when the channel has a record surplus to top up reserves and make more award-winning programmes.
Then his successor Nadine Dorries displayed the depths of her ignorance before a Commons Select committee by suggesting part of the reason it should be considered for sale was that it was “ in receipt of public funds.”
Surely they would hide their heads in shame and move on to something else.
An unerring ability to find a really bad idea and run with it
Then there were all the problems facing the Johnson Government – the collapse in trade after it got Brexit “done,” and the Covid crisis which refuses to go away despite ludicrous declarations that we have come out the other side despite record infections running at nearly 5 million a week.
This uniquely incompetent and often squalid government is also presiding over the highest overall taxation, inflation rates and food and fuel costs for decades.
There is another problem that refuses to go away: the fact that Johnson routinely misleads Parliament, or lies as many term it, while either receiving, or about to receive, a fine for breaking his own lockdown rules.
Oh and there is also a war in Europe of a magnitude, or ferocity not seen since the Second World War.
Against such a background, it would surely be verging on the crazy to use up scarce legislative bandwidth to privatise, and probably damage a rare British success story, a public service broadcaster almost wholly funded by advertising and one that was the creation of the greatest post-war Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
You would think that wouldn’t you?
But not this Government with its unerring ability to find a really bad idea and run with it irrespective of all the facts.
Some such as Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror see the move as an assault on liberal values coming just before the 2024 General election but it is also partly at least revenge.
Dorothy Byrne, former head of Channel 4 news and current affairs, was one of the first to call Johnson a liar in a public speech and then replace him with a block of ice when he failed to turn up for a leader’s debate on climate change.
The anger at the Government’s decision is widespread and heartfelt.
Phil Smith, the director of ISBA, spoke for advertisers by warning that a sale could reduce competition in UK TV ad-buying, as Channel 4 is only one of three major TV sales houses. “No new owner, with a purely commercial incentive, could be guaranteed to maintain all the facets of Channel 4’s current offering,” Smith added.
A similar view came from the IPA – “We see no upside but significant downside to privatisation,” its director-general Paul Bainsfair said.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement from the very business sector whose ads pay for Channel 4.
Former editor of the Financial Times Lionel Barber was succinct about Dorries’ knowledge of Channel 4 finances and her belief that privatisation would somehow help the channel compete against Netflix and Amazon.
Her “level of ignorance is as disturbing as the casual vandalism,” he said.
Former Conservative Cabinet minister Damian Green said it was “unconservative” for politicians and civil servants to think they know more about running a business than the people who actually run it.
The increasingly impressive Labour MP Chris Bryant noted that selling the channel would be” “economically illiterate, culturally devastating and a hammer blow to the independent production industry.” It would undermine a great British export and an organisation that had helped to create diversity.
So that’s that then. Channel 4 will be swept up by a for-profit company, probably American which may or may not respect over time not just the letter but the spirit of any restrictions or requirements attached to the sale.
Absolutely not so. This will be a long process running deep into 2024 and almost anything could happen between now and then. Johnson could fall and be replaced by a more moderate Conservative Premier who might think selling Channel 4 a madness.
The Government could actually collapse under the weight of debt and cost of living increases.
Without such dramatic events the sale could face a cross-party campaign that could, at the very least, impose such restrictions that would make a sale less attractive to potential buyers.
Then, of course, there is the House of Lords where opposition to privatisation will be considerable and because privatisation was not in the Conservative manifesto legislation could be repeatedly blocked until political change takes over.
On this issue Labour should be strong and make keeping Channel 4 in public hands a manifesto commitment.
The battle has just begun.
Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays (today being an exception).
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