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From the BBC to Channel 4: public broadcasting on the brink

CULTURE SECRETARY Nadine Dorries has done it again. After the gaffe last November before the media and culture select committee where she confidently stated Channel 4 received public funding, she has now stated on Ian Dale’s LBC radio show that Channel 5 “was privatized three to five years ago.”

The channel was established in 1997 (four groups bid for it) and the pornographer Richard Desmond acquired it in 2011, followed by the US media group Viacom in 2014. It was never publicly owned and therefore could never be privatized.

When her error was pointed out she dismissed it as “nit-picking.”

Add to this the fact that she dismisses many of the 96 per cent of the 56,293 responses to the Channel 4 consultation which opposed privatization, calling this “politically motivated organisation” by online activist group 38 Degrees.

The only problem with this argument is that the bar for submitting evidence to the consultation was very high, requiring quite specific detailed responses to questions. I know why MediaNorth submitted evidence.

That was also why, at the select committee hearing where she made her first gaffe, she also revealed that the delay in reaching a decision was because many of the responses were very detailed and lengthy. The responses were not just “clicktivism” — even though that is a perfectly valid way to express a view — after all we just put a cross in a box at election time and no-one asks for evidence about our choice.

At the time of the consultation there were doubts about the value of responding to the consultation. Raymond Snoddy observed: “You could be forgiven … for thinking this is a done deal and the consultation process mere window dressing.”

Well now we know. The DCMS white paper, Up Next — the Government’s Vision for the Broadcasting Sector, published the same day as the Channel 5 gaffe, makes a clear commitment to go ahead with the privatization of Channel 4.

In an upbeat introduction Dorries writes: “The UK’s creative economy is a global success story. Our production sector is booming, UK-created content is in demand and our mixed broadcasting ecology is admired internationally.”

She then goes on to state: “Our public service broadcasters are key to that success. Sitting at the center of this landscape, they develop skills and talent, drive growth right across the creative industries, and deliver distinctive yet instantly recognizable British content.”

In other words, a convincing argument for keeping Channel 4 in public ownership.

What follows in the white paper is a set of contradictory polices which will inevitably weaken public service broadcasting (PSB) while other policy proposals will support it.

Why the contradictions? One answer is to go to the acknowledgments at the end of the white paper. One of those is to the Public Service Broadcasting Advisory Panel.

In May 2021 the British Broadcasting Challenge wrote an open letter to the then culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, about the panel: “We are concerned that the government is being advised by a panel not set up under the Cabinet Office guidelines, meeting in secret with no public record of its agenda, discussions or recommendations.”

Lord Grade was a member of the panel until he was the culture secretary’s choice to become chair of Ofcom, after the fiasco surrounding the attempt to appoint former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre. Grade was on record for his criticism of the BBC license fee and its “excessive” coverage of “partygate.” He also supported the privatization of Channel 4.

Sections of the white paper are clearly shaped by the ideological priorities Dorries wants to push. Take the announcement confirming a two-year freeze in the BBC license fee. This was announced in January this year as part of Dorries throwing “red meat” to Tory supporters; here it is justified as “making sure we support households through a difficult time.”

Elsewhere it says the BBC “needs to address issues around impartiality and groupthink.”

The BBC will be the focus of the mid-term review in 2024 and then the BBC Charter Review process will start in 2025.

But the immediate focus of this White Paper is on the privatization of Channel 4 which the government wants to do before the next election. Dorries has argued that “government ownership is holding Channel 4 back from competing against [the] streaming giants” and a change of ownership would give it “the tools and freedom to flourish and thrive” as a public service broadcaster in private hands.

But the streaming giants are not focused on the kind of distinctive programming Channel 4 fulfills through its remit. It’s crazy to suggest that Channel 4 should be in competition with Netflix, Amazon, Disney and other streaming services, who plan to spend $100bn on content this year.

It’s just not credible to compare Channel 4’s spend of £500m on original content, mostly of the low-budget kind, with that of Netflix and other global streaming giants.

Putting Channel 4 in private hands will mean profits will take priority. Now all of Channel 4’s revenue from advertising goes into running Channel 4 and making programmes. The notion that a private owner would not want a return on their investment is delusional.

Also, Channel 4’s well-established relationship with the regions would be jeopardized if a push for greater efficiency meant a cut-back in production outside London.

However, one positive proposal in the white paper, recommended by Ofcom and the DCMS select committee report the Future of Public Service Broadcasting, is to ensure public service content is both available and easy to find on designated TV platforms.

All this makes our Festival of Debate event tonight so relevant and timely (visit https://festivalofdebate.com to sign up for free). We have an excellent panel.

Patrick Barwise is the co-author with Peter York of the War Against the BBC; Dorothy Byrne is the former head of news and current affairs at Channel 4 and now president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge; Paulette Edwards is a presenter with BBC Radio Sheffield, and Dr Tom Mills is chair of the Media Reform Coalition and author of the BBC: Myth of Public Service.

Linked to the event MediaNorth have produced a new publication, Uncertain Future: Why The BBC Must Survive.

The booklet examines the BBC’s track record, warts and all, as it celebrates its centenary year. The first section, War On The BBC, documents how, since the 1980s, the BBC has been under attack.

The second section asks Why is the BBC Vulnerable to Attack and examines some of the BBC’s own mistakes as well as the thorny issue of impartiality in news reporting.

The third section, Answering the BBC’s Detractors, dissects why the proposals to shift to subscription or take advertising won’t work and also mounts a robust defense of the range and variety of the BBC’s output.

Section four, the BBC and Public Service Media in the 21st Century, presents policy ideas for a reformed BBC at the center of public service media. The final section, What We Can Do, is a call to action aimed at those who want the BBC to survive for the rest of this century.

Granville Williams edits MediaNorth — www.medianorth.org.uk.

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