Government launches bid to privatise Channel 4

The Government is to launch a consultation into the privatisation of Channel 4.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced the move on Wednesday after bosses at the broadcaster were quizzed on the issue by MPs on the previous day.

Moving Channel 4 into private ownership and changing its remit could ensure its ‘future success and sustainability’, the department said in a statement.

The consultation will also review regulation of streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video.

It will consider whether new rules around impartiality and accuracy are needed for documentaries and news content on the platforms to ‘level the playing field’ with broadcasters, who are regulated by the watchdog Ofcom.

The Government is to launch a consultation into the privatisation of Channel 4

The Government is to launch a consultation into the privatisation of Channel 4

The Government is to launch a consultation into the privatisation of Channel 4

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: ‘Technology has transformed broadcasting but the rules protecting viewers and helping our traditional channels compete are from an analogue age.

‘The time has come to look at how we can unleash the potential of our public service broadcasters while also making sure viewers and listeners consuming content on new formats are served by a fair and well-functioning system.

‘So we’ll now be looking at how we can help make sure Channel 4 keeps its place at the heart of British broadcasting and level the playing field between broadcasters and video-on-demand services.’   

But Sir David Attenborough has called for an end to ‘short-sighted political and financial attacks’ on public service broadcasters as ministers begin moves towards privatising Channel 4.

The 95-year-old presenter has given his backing to a campaign group which has warned that ministers should not try to ‘diminish’ these broadcasters.

The Government will today reveal details of a consultation on the sale of Channel 4.

Sir David’s name has been added to a group of public figures that have backed an open letter sent to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden.

Other names understood to have signed include Sir Lenny Henry, Sir Salman Rushdie, Lord Mandelson and actor Adrian Lester.

The group, called British Broadcasting Challenge, argue in the letter that ‘public service principles’ are ‘under severe threat’ not just from streaming services and big tech companies but also from the Government.

Yesterday Alex Mahon, chief executive of Channel 4, appearing in front of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said her station ‘would be making a different set of shows with a different set of priorities if we were run commercially’.

Channel 4 chair Charles Gurassa told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday that 'big American conglomerates' would be among the potential investors in Channel 4 if it was to be privatised

Channel 4 chair Charles Gurassa told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday that 'big American conglomerates' would be among the potential investors in Channel 4 if it was to be privatised

Channel 4 chair Charles Gurassa told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday that ‘big American conglomerates’ would be among the potential investors in Channel 4 if it was to be privatised

The broadcaster’s chairman, Charles Gurassa, told MPs that ‘big American conglomerates’ would be among the potential investors in Channel 4 if it were to be privatised.

But Channel 4 came under fire yesterday for handing out large pay rises for senior executives at the broadcaster as it was cutting production budgets during the Covid-19 crisis.

Channel 4 boss Miss Mahon saw her total pay jump from £943,000 in 2019 to £991,000 in 2020. Director of programmes Ian Katz had total pay of £536,000, up from £528,000.

Mr Dowden will today reveal the plans for a potential sale of Channel 4 to ‘ensure its future success and sustainability’.

Ministers believe the move ‘could help secure its future as a successful and sustainable public service broadcaster’.

As part of today’s announcement the Government will also reveal that streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video face being subject to the same tough broadcasting rules as traditional TV channels.

The ambitious plans by Government are an attempt to ‘level the playing field’ between traditional UK broadcasters and US streaming giants.

As part of a ‘strategic review’ it will consider ‘tightening regulation’ of these video-on-demand services, which also include Disney+.

It is understood this could see Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, which governs linear TV channels and the BBC iPlayer, applied to all online broadcasters including the powerful US streaming giants.

The move would represent a huge change for these online services, which are subject to significantly more lenient rules than the traditional broadcasters like the BBC.

It could also open up the prospect of companies like Netflix facing fines imposed on them by Ofcom, or being asked to publish findings against them.

It comes after Netflix was the centre of a huge row over the treatment of certain members of the Royal Family in the most recent series of The Crown.

A Whitehall source said: ‘It’s about levelling the playing field with broadcasters – if we think content and audience protection standards are important for broadcasters we should want these to apply equally to other platforms watched in an increasingly similar way too.’

Mr Dowden said: ‘Technology has transformed broadcasting but the rules protecting viewers and helping our traditional channels compete are from an analogue age.’ 

SNP MP John Nicolson told the C4 bosses at the committee that to most people these top salary levels would seem ‘obscene’ and were ‘absurdly large’.

He said: ‘I sometimes think listening to TV executives at these hearings, that they live in a parallel universe.’

Before the meeting Channel 4 chair Charles Gurassa had told journalists that these top bosses had been given ‘maximum bonuses’ as a result of their ‘stellar performance’.

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