Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has said that Channel 4’s founding remit to stimulate independent film and TV production in the UK “has been done”, and that as a result, it’s the “right time to sell Channel 4”.
She also revealed that any sale of Channel 4 would include a clause to keep the channel as a free-to-watch public broadcaster for ten years after its sale, indicating other forms of funding like a subscription model could not be introduced for a decade.
Dorries said that the Government was still “working through the detail” on how or whether the public broadcaster remit will be enforced by the Government once that ten year period has passed.
Speaking to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Thursday, Dorries (pictured) said that the proposal to sell Channel 4 would be put before parliament “shortly” and that it would also include an obligation for the channel’s new owners to produce “distinctive British content”.
Channel 4 was launched in 1982 by Margaret Thatcher as a state-owned broadcaster with a public service remit to support independent British production in the UK and provide a culturally challenging alternative to the BBC and ITV.
Dorries told the DCMS Committee: “Margaret Thatcher set up Channel 4 40 years ago to stimulate, help grow, right down to grassroots, funding of independent production in the UK. That job has been done. It’s time to have that reinvestment in the skills and the expertise that we need.”
In April, the Government announced plans to privatise the broadcaster, with Dorries saying government ownership was “holding Channel 4 back from competing against streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon”.
Dorries told the hearing on Thursday, however: “I didn’t actually say I want it to compete with Netflix and Amazon because that’s not the case.”
Netflix’s share price dropped more than 35% in late April after new filings saw the streamer admit it had lost 200,000 subscribers and suggested it expects to lose two million more over the next quarter.
Dorries told the committee: “Let’s not forget that the independent production sector only earns 7% of its revenue from Channel 4.
“It’s the right time to sell Channel 4 and for the Government to receive a creative dividend from its sale so that we can invest back into the independent production sector.”
She went on: “What I will say is the sale of Channel 4 is happening. It will be in the media bill coming to parliament shortly. We will begin the sale process and there will be many options that many prospective buyers will put forward.
“But it will be a public service broadcaster which means it will be free to air. It will remain a public service broadcaster for 10 years. They’ll have to make distinctive British content. There will be many criteria in there.”
The Culture Secretary went on to say that while a public consultation showed 96% of respondents were opposed to the privatisation of the channel, the figures were the result of interference by “politically motivated organisation” 38 Degrees, a not-for-profit petition platform.
Dorries said: “What is a more important figure is that in public polling 53% of the public were not aware that Channel 4 was state-owned and thought it was already owned by a private company.”
Dorries also insisted the decision to privatise Channel 4 wasn’t motivated by revenge over the broadcaster’s coverage of the 2019 general election, including replacing Boris Johnson with a melting ice block at a climate change debate.
“It’s laughable… The ice sculpture thing is a vague distant memory somewhere from an election campaign. But no, I can promise you the sale of Channel 4 is something that’s been reviewed and under discussion for a long time, not just the last election,” she said.
No price tag has been set by the Government yet for the sale, but reports suggest the channel could be sold for as much as £1bn. Dorries confirmed today that any proceeds from the sale would be invested to address a growing “skills deficit” in the creative industries.
Citing industry analysts, The Guardian has reported that a privatised Channel 4 would face 40% to 50% cuts to its £660m programming budget.
Asked what she thinks about Channel 4 News, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said she “gets on really well” with presenter Cathy Newman and had been asked on a number of times in the last two weeks.
Apparently referring to eyewitness reports that former anchor Jon Snow shouted “F*** the Tories” while at Glastonbury Festival five years ago, Dorries added: “I have been on Channel 4 News a number of times. It is edgy. I am not going to justify a news programme whose anchor went out shouting obscenities about the Conservative Party.
“So they didn’t do themselves any favours sometimes on the news programme and I think that is probably as much as I want to say about that.”
In the same committee meeting, Dorries said she expected the review of the BBC’s funding model to begin “considerably before the summer recess”.
“I anticipate it will take about six months and I want to get it started as soon as possible and we will be announcing the terms of reference for the review very shortly,” she said.
Dorries said the BBC will not be expected to pay for the review. Instead, the DCMS will pay for it to avoid a “conflict of interest”.
She said: “I know that there are people who are saying, ‘I know you are going to move to a subscription model’. I am completely hands off as to what that review will look like and what will happen in that review in the future.
“The BBC will be part of that review and right now if anybody knows of an independent chair who would like to chair that review please let me know, because I am on the hunt for an independent chair to chair that review.”
Additional reporting by PA
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