Downing Street’s plan to privatise Channel 4 is already facing a Tory revolt – less than 24 hours after the plans were confirmed. On Monday night, the channel’s chief executive told staff that the government plans to proceed with privatisation. The official line from Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries is that this will ‘give Channel 4 the tools and freedom to flourish and thrive as a public service broadcaster long into the future’ and compete with streaming giants like Netflix.
Only the broadcaster takes a different view: that this is a mistake – and plenty of senior Conservatives agree. Former Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson has described it as ‘the opposite of levelling up’ – citing production companies across Scotland from whom the broadcaster commissions programmes. Meanwhile, former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has said he is against it on the grounds that ‘Channel 4 provides competition to the BBC on what’s called public service broadcasting, the kinds of programmes that are not commercially viable, and I think it would be a shame to lose that’. Other members of the One Nation caucus of Tory MPs have voiced concerns.
On the all-MP Tory WhatsApp group, MPs (including the Culture Secretary) are debating the measures with Red Wall MPs such as Ben Bradley coming out in support of the measures, and Damian Green opposing:
The chair of the DCMS select committee Julian Knight has also queried the proposal – suggesting that while it has the potential to unlock Channel 4’s potential, it also carries a big risk. Knight also touched on a perception issue: that the government’s true motivation is rooted in a view that Channel 4 is too left-wing:
Now, elephant in the room time – is this being done for revenge for Channel 4’s biased coverage of the likes of Brexit and personal attacks on the PM? The timing of the announcement 7pm, coinciding with Channel 4 news, was very telling… Undoubtedly, across much of the party – there is a feeling of payback time and the word privatisation tickles the ivories of many. The money is irrelevant – equivalent to four days’ national debt interest – so it must be used to support skills in creative sectors.
While the sale will generate money that will be reinvested in a ‘creative dividend’, there is no suggestion from the Treasury that this is primarily a money-making exercise. It follows that if the government wishes to stem a Tory revolt, they will need to start articulating why ministers believe it is necessary. The announcement is feeding into a wider concern among MPs on the left of the party that the government is moving to the right politically in a way that could isolate one plank of Tory voters.
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