The Channel 4 privatisation is a dry run for the crushing of the BBC

Decision made public after the House went into Easter recess and Ministers not giving interviews.

Especially not Nadine Dorries, famed for her “car crash” interviews. (Owl posts a You Tube of her appearance, last November, at the DMCS Committee: Nadine Dorries still not knowing what Channel 4 actually is.)

Sean O’Grady 

There are many puzzling, not to say troubling, aspects to the government’s proposal to privatise Channel 4, but the most disturbing is the thought that it is a dry run for the crushing of the BBC.

Legislating the move will test the arguments, probe the strength of opposition, preview tactics in the Lords and by the opposition parties, construct a new looser regulatory framework, and construct bogus or flimsy public service obligations that will more than likely be safely ignored by any new owners.

Losing Channel 4 is bad, but it will embolden and educate ministers about the best way to kill the BBC’s journalism. All have profoundly damaging consequences for democratic debate in a country where much of the print and web-based media is in the hands of right-wing interests.

Everything about the Channel 4 privatisation is deeply disquieting, and suggestive that it is only the first of a number of moves to shift the media landscape in the government’s interests. The ultimately doomed attempt to install ex-Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre to neuter Ofcom was another, as was the creation of GB News and the forthcoming new Rupert Murdoch-backed channel. The new boss of Ofcom, Michael Grade, does at least understand broadcasting and business, but he has made disparaging remarks about “woke” Ofcom staff.

One overarching problem is that no minister from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has been on the media to answer the many questions privatisation raises. The secretary of state, Nadine Dorries, once proudly declared that she doesn’t do news interviews unless she’s forced to (as if she were the head of MI5 or the Pope, rather than a workaday politician). There is also little chance of immediate parliamentary scrutiny. The decision was made public just after the House of Commons had gone into recess for Easter. Handy. So there’d be no pesky urgent questions from the opposition or invitations from the DCMS Select Committee to explain what’s up. Like with the earlier announcement on freezing the BBC licence fee, parliament has been ignored.

The £1bn that it is hoped will be raised from the sale will be placed in a sort of foundation for British independent production – even though Channel 4 disbursed this amount every year to its regional hubs in Leeds, Bristol and Glasgow. No longer: so, it’s problematic for “levelling up” too. Goodbye, creative hubs.

It also looks petty. Channel 4 is routinely accused (without much foundation) by Tories of being biased against them and against Brexit, even though Channel 4 News dutifully invites them on and they always refuse. Surely Jon Snow wasn’t that frightening? It was just such a no-show, by the prime minister for their 2019 climate debate, that saw him replaced with a globe fashioned from ice and visibly melting during the show, with Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon, Jo Swinson and other party leaders looking on.

It was a bit bold for Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, to call him a “known liar” and a “coward” at the Edinburgh Television Festival, though there is some evidence for both claims. Julian Knight, chair of the DCMS Committee, was honest enough to suggest that privatisation did indeed look like revenge.

The ostensible justification for the move – that it’s necessary to compete with Netflix and the like – is the most pernicious feature of this policy. Not only because it is nonsensical, given that Channel 4 has a different remit to Netflix and many of its hit shows feature on Netflix; but because it suggests that the privatisation of Channel 4 is a dry run for the much more ambitious project to crush the BBC. All the same arguments about the need to attract private sector capital and talent, to compete with streaming services and to neutralise perceived “woke” bias, can be applied to the corporation, and indeed Ms Dorries has referred to the “modernising” argument when she said that the abolition of the licence fee should be put out for debate. The privatisation of Channel 4 is the dress rehearsal for a much more important primetime battle.

It is difficult to believe that ministers are planning a wilful destruction of the nation’s most powerful soft power asset, and something cherished and admired the world over, just because they didn’t like the way the BBC covered the referendum. But the spiteful treatment of Channel 4 suggests that they really are that vindictive. “Cultural vandalism”, as the shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, calls it, doesn’t allow for how conscious and carefully thought through an act of destruction it all is.