A war of words has broken out in the British media over the forthcoming plan to privatize Channel 4 – with the Secretary of State for Culture Nadine Dorries in one corner, and the broadcaster’s chief executive Alex Mahon in the other.
Following this week’s confirmation of the government’s plan to sell off the state-owned broadcaster which is funded by advertising, Dorries has penned a column in the Daily Mail to stress the “unique and important cultural role in British life” played by the channel that she says she watches herself, along with the rest of her family. She called criticism of the government plan “lazy, overwrought and ill-informed rhetoric from the Leftie luvvie lynch mob.”
She wrote too, though, of the vast sums spent by streamers on producing original content and said: “To suggest that Channel 4 isn’t already competing with new platforms for audience share, talent, ideas and skilled employees is wilfully delusional.”
She added: “In fact, Channel 4 decreased the amount it spent on new content by £158 million at a time when it should be investing in new programmes, technology and skills.
“The channel is niche and State-owned, a restrictive incongruity in itself.
“And because of the way Channel 4 is owned, it cannot build a back catalogue to export, or have an in-house studio to create and sell content. Instead, it relies almost entirely on advertising, which is increasingly migrating online. It would be irresponsible for any government to sit back and allow the status quo to continue.”
Dorries called the plan to sell a huge opportunity to contribute to the “levelling up” agenda promised by this government – moving opportunities more fairly between the north and south of the country – and described it as a culmination of the vision of Margaret Thatcher, the UK Prime Minister who approved plans for the inception of Channel 4, back in 1982. Dorries wrote: “In 1988, Margaret Thatcher was right. She could see that Channel 4 would only ever reach its full potential when it was free from the constraints of the State – and that is the vision and the outcome we will deliver.”
Meanwhile in the Sunday Times, Alex Mahon, who has been at the helm of Channel 4 since October 2017, has pointed out the crucial part the company has played in championing new and diverse voices on the channel, of financing independent content – Channel 4 makes no original content of its own – and the broadcaster’s very healthy balance sheet, including the fact that Channel 4 has not taken any tax-payers’ money in 40 years of operation. She wrote:
“In the past two years, our revenues have reached record levels and, unlike other broadcasters, we have no debt — and we have £270 million in cash in the bank. Even more important, we are as creatively healthy as we have ever been, with our shows picking up no fewer than 44 Bafta nominations last week.”
She also highlighted Channel 4’s favourable position in terms of attracting digital revenue, saying:
We already lead UK television in making the transition from traditional to online advertising revenues, and we know that many British consumers want content for free and are ready for the digital future. The plan we proposed to government as an alternative to privatisation accelerates our existing digital strategy as well as multiplying the secondary benefits of public ownership, such as job creation and skills building outside London — in places where private media companies generally don’t invest.”
Mahon added that more than 60,000 responses to the government’s privatization consultation came in from broadcasters, producers and members of the public. The government is yet to publish this material.
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