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Channel 4 privatisation should be scrapped, says culture secretary

Michelle Donelan has signalled a major government U-turn in letter to Rishi Sunak

By Joe Goggins

Official portrait of Michelle Donelan MP, 2019
Donelan has advised Sunak against the proposed sell-off. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The UK’s culture secretary has advised against the privatisation of Channel 4, in an apparent government U-turn.

In a letter to prime minister Rishi Sunak that was leaked to the News Agents podcast, Michelle Donelan said that there are “better ways to ensure Channel 4’s sustainability” than privatising the broadcaster, which publicly owned. Donelan’s predecessor in the role, Nadine Dorries, had sparked outrage last April by announcing plans to sell off the channel.

“After reviewing the business case, I have concluded that pursing a sale at this point is not the right decision,” Donelan wrote. She went on to add that the television sector “would be very disrupted by a sale at a time when growth and economic stability are our priorities”.

She also said that a reversal of the plan for privatisation “is likely to be popular with parliamentarians, particularly those who raised concerns about the effect a sale of C4C (Channel 4 Television Corporation) may have on the UK’s system of public service broadcasting”. Donelan goes on to put forward an alternative proposal involving the imposing of a new statutory duty on the Channel 4 board to focus on long-term sustainability, saying that her “intention is to be clear … that we expect them to achieve greater sustainability”. 

However, she also said that the government should give Channel 4 “more tools” to aid in its efforts “optimising the support and the growth they provide to the creative sector and the regions”. Responding to reports of the letter’s content, Labour called Dorries’ controversial decision last year and the subsequent fallout “a complete waste of everybody’s time.

Lucy Powell, the shadow culture secretary, said: “The Conservatives’ vendetta against Channel 4 was always wrong for Britain, growth in our creative economy, and a complete waste of everyone’s time. Our broadcasting and creative industries lead the world, yet this Government has hamstrung them for the last year with the total distraction of Channel 4 privatisation.”

Sunak had previously indicated that he would press ahead with the privatisation, during his initially unsuccessful campaign to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister last July. Leading industry figures had decried the plans at the time of their announcement last spring, with The Thick of It and Veep co-creator Armando Iannucci saying that they stood to undermine the channel’s “tremendous economic and cultural achievement.”