by Harry Fone, grassroots campaign manager of the TaxPayers' Alliance
In a recent interview with the Sunday Telegraph, the chief executive of Channel 4, Alex Mahon revealed that the broadcaster won’t be seeking a taxpayer bailout despite the economic destruction inflicted by coronavirus. At the TPA we very much welcome this news, but the question remains - why is Channel 4 still taxpayer-owned in 2020?
Many people are surprised to learn that it’s not just the BBC that is a publicly owned broadcaster. Established in 1982, Channel 4 became the fourth channel in the UK after BBC One, Two and ITV (as the name suggests!). It is currently a not-for-profit public corporation of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Although slightly different in the early days, the channel is now funded in the same way as many other privately owned stations.
As part of its licence and remit, Channel 4 must produce certain styles of programming and in a prescribed way. For example, it must make “at least 330 hours of school programmes in each calendar year of the Licensing Period.” Similarly, there are some onerous regulations about how independent programmes are commissioned. These features make public service broadcasters distinct from others, but to many viewers the distinctions seem meaningless. Many media providers (such as Netflix) provide independent programming, or children’s factual TV options, without such regulations. It’s not clear by Channel 4 should be any different. Why not remove these burdens by privatising Channel 4 and give it more say over the content it produces?
Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 is exposed to commercial risk, as it doesn’t force millions of taxpayers to pay £157.50 each to keep the lights on. According to the most recent annual report, Channel 4’s finances are in good shape - they had a £5 million financial surplus in 2018 and cash reserves of £180 million. It’s admirable therefore that Ms Mahon has put it on the record that she won’t ask for public cash to keep the channel afloat.
So, what’s the point of C4 being publicly owned? Well, there isn’t one. There is no observable reason for it existing in its current state. In the age of content streaming over fibre optic internet, it’s quite frankly ridiculous and unnecessary that we have two publicly-owned broadcasters; especially when they feel the need to display conspicuous political and cultural biases. Even the channel’s annual report reads like a right-on manifesto, using niche gender terminology and touting the rather Orwellian-sounding phrase “social change”. These may play well in the metropolitan bubble, but not so much to the average viewer of Grand Designs - or indeed the average taxpayer who owns them. Ministers shouldn’t be interfering in the editorial content of a TV channel, but they have every right to tell those broadcasters they won’t be left to pump out divise content with the support of British taxpayers.
Channel 4 is already halfway there, competing in the private sector, exposing itself to market forces. The chief exec seems very confident in the future of the station, stating, “we’re doing programming that’s knocking out the park, that reflects the nation … so we’re winning against people with lots more money, and people with guaranteed income.” A definite shot across the bow of the BBC if there ever was one. And a good reminder that Channel 4 itself doesn’t think it needs a taxpayer safety blanket to compete, survive and thrive. If it’s that confident in its own content, who are we to tell them otherwise.
To all extents and purposes, Channel 4 is already operating like a private company. Let’s go one step further, unshackle it from taxpayers and let C4 go off on its own.