Privatised Channel 4 ‘would result in loss of international news programmes’

·5 min read

The sale of Channel 4 could result in the loss of international news output and major foreign documentaries which would be a “loss to Britain”, the former head of news and current affairs at the channel has warned.

The Government is to launch a consultation into the privatisation of the channel, which was founded in 1982 to deliver to under-served audiences.

It is currently owned by the Government and receives its funding from advertising but could be sold off to a private buyer.

Potential investors would likely include big American companies.

Lord Dyson – Bashir report
Channel 4’s former head of news Dorothy Byrne (Jane Barlow/PA)

Dorothy Byrne, who stepped down as Channel 4’s head of news and current affairs last year after 17 years in the job, told Times Radio it was unlikely they would be interested in investing money in the kind of news reporting the channel is known for.

She said: “It’s the Government’s right to look at a publicly owned organisation like Channel 4, but it only looked at it four years ago or so and said then it was a precious public asset.

“I think in Britain we have a tendency not to recognise how good some of the things that we have are, our system of regulated public service television is the envy of the world and Channel 4 is part of that system.

“Channel 4 provides one hour of news a night. You can go all over the world and I think you’ll only see that in one other country, the last time I looked.

“And the agenda of that news is different, it’s much more international. And I’m concerned that although I think BBC, ITV and Channel 5 are terrific, they have very similar and narrow news agendas.

“And if you look at great programmes like Unreported World, you would lose those. There is no way that a private, possibly US, buyer is going to want to have to do an hour of regulated news, and big international documentaries like For Sama (which won a Bafta and was nominated for an Oscar) and the big investigation that Channel 4 did of war crimes in Sri Lanka.

“We would lose that and that would be a loss to Britain.”

Asked if there is “politics at work” because Channel 4 is expressing a “liberal-left world view”, Byrne said: “I never like to assign motivation and intention to people.

“What I would say is, if you think that sometimes a broadcaster’s output has been a bit embarrassing for you, well, that is part of democracy.

“We don’t want to be like Russian TV, where the output of a broadcast never upsets a government. There would be something really wrong if the government always liked the output of all broadcasters.”

The Government has said moving Channel 4 into private ownership and changing its remit could ensure its “future success and sustainability”.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden (Yui Mok/PA)

The consultation will also review the regulation of streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video.

It will consider whether new rules around impartiality and accuracy are needed for documentaries and news content on the platforms to “level the playing field” with broadcasters, who are regulated by the watchdog Ofcom.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “Technology has transformed broadcasting but the rules protecting viewers and helping our traditional channels compete are from an analogue age.

“The time has come to look at how we can unleash the potential of our public service broadcasters while also making sure viewers and listeners consuming content on new formats are served by a fair and well-functioning system.

“So we’ll now be looking at how we can help make sure Channel 4 keeps its place at the heart of British broadcasting and level the playing field between broadcasters and video-on-demand services.”

Alex Mahon giving evidence to MPs on Tuesday
Alex Mahon giving evidence to MPs on Tuesday (House of Commons/PA)

Channel 4’s chief executive, Alex Mahon, previously said the broadcaster could have “different priorities” if it is privatised, and cautioned against doing anything “irreversible” which could “possibly damage some of those things that we do for the sector”.

Media minister John Whittingdale has denied the Government wants to “get rid” of Channel 4 and told Sky News: “We don’t want to get rid of it, we want to sustain it.

“This is about making sure that it has a long-term future in a very different world to the one which most people are familiar with.”

Mr Whittingdale said Channel 4 needed to have access to the same kind of capital investment as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple, adding: “One of the requirements, I think, over the coming years is that Channel 4 needs to have access to the kind of capital investment needed in order to retain viewers.

“You do need investment in good content and with some of the new entrants, Netflix and Amazon, they are spending huge amounts more than Channel 4 is able to do, and an alternative ownership model may make it possible for them to access the kinds of money to continue to provide great programming.”

Colin Browne, chairman of Voice of the Listener & Viewer, which represents citizen interests in broadcasting, said it was “difficult to see” how privatising Channel 4 would be advantageous to viewers.

A statement said: “We will approach the broadcasting white paper consultation from the perspective of what is in the best interests of viewers, citizens and the UK production base.

“At first sight, it is difficult to see how the privatisation of Channel 4 can meet these criteria, but we will be responding fully to the consultation once it opens.”

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