Privatisation of Channel 4 is facing opposition in the Parliament

LONDON, (Parliament Politics Magazine) – Following a backlash from within his own party, top Conservatives fear PM Johnson will find it difficult to get his plans of privatising Channel 4 through parliament.

Former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, as well as former cabinet ministers Jeremy Hunt and Damian Green were outraged by the intentions to generate £1 billion or more by selling off the state-owned channel.

According to senior Tories, Johnson’s plans would struggle to pass the House of Lords, and he could face a revolt in the Commons as well.

The plan was not included in the Conservative party’s manifesto, making it easier for Lords to fight the necessary legislation.

An internal Station 4 email indicated that Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, was pushing ahead with plans of privatising the channel after 40 years of public control, which sparked outrage.

“Channel 4 is publicly owned, not publicly funded,” Davidson said, leading demands for the government to reconsider. It is completely free to the taxpayer. By charter, it also commissions material but does not create or own it. It’s one of the reasons cities like Glasgow have such a thriving [independent] industry. This is the polar opposite of levelling up.

Channel 4’s sale was civil servants and politicians thinking they knew more about how to run a business than the people who ran it, Green said, pointing out that the channel was founded by a Conservative government with one of its goals being to boost Britain’s private sector television sector. Extremely conservative. Mrs Thatcher, who founded it, would never make such a blunder, he added.

After Channel 4’s negative coverage of Johnson and Brexit, the Conservative chair of the culture select committee, Julian Knight, expressed fears that privatisation was being done “for revenge.” He also indicated that the prospective sale earnings were “irrelevant” in the context of the national debt, but that he would support a sale if it were part of a broader revamp of public broadcasting.

He was not in favour of it because, as it stood, Channel 4 gave competition to the BBC on what was known as public service broadcasting – the kinds of programming that weren’t commercially viable – and he believes it would be a shame to lose that, a former culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, told Sky News.

When he was culture secretary, he said he never contemplated privatising it.

Peter Bottomley, the house’s father, said the proposed sale was terrible for the diversity of television, poor for consumers, and bad for independent producers, adding that it was discussed in the mid-1990s and turned down. It needs to be rejected right now.

A number of Conservative MPs expressed their opposition to the sale on the Conservative MPs’ WhatsApp group, claiming that there was no legitimate rationale for it. However, one MP claimed that there were considerably more MPs who were either neutral or supportive of Dorries, and that one of the reasons for the move was that Channel 4 couldn’t borrow privately.

In an emergency question in the House of Lords about the topic, the government was met significant opposition, notably over protecting Channel 4’s news output and foreign ownership.

When asked by Labour’s Alf Dubs if there would be any safeguards in place to prevent a foreign media company from buying Channel 4, culture minister Stephen Parkinson said the government expects a lot of interest from across the world in the sale.

Eleni Kyriakou

Eleni is a journalist and analyst at Parliament Magazine focusing on European News and current affairs. She worked as Press and Communication Office – Greek Embassy in Lisbon and Quattro Books Publications, Canada. She is Multilingual with a good grip of cultures, eye in detail, communicative, effective. She holds Master in degree from York University.