Government plans to privatize Channel 4 are widely likely to be challenged in court as they would undermine Boris Johnson’s commitment to ‘leveling up’ the country, the head of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has said.
Henri Murison, director of the NPP, whose chairman is former Conservative Chancellor George Osborne, said on Saturday that two bills would be announced for the next session of Parliament in this week’s Queen’s Speech – one on the proposals for privatization and another demanding that all government policies contribute to the “race to the top” – were completely at loggerheads and “totally incoherent”.
Ministers are facing growing Tory rebellion in Parliament over the plans, which were not in the 2019 manifesto, from peers and dozens of MPs who believe the government is wasting time on a policy which it says them will do more harm than good.
Channel 4 was created during Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister to encourage the growth of smaller production companies outside London and the South East. It undertakes not to produce its own programmes, but to commission them from over 300 independent production companies across the UK, including many in the North of England.
Channel 4 opened a new head office for around 200 staff in Leeds last year and is now aiming to increase the proportion of its commission spend to businesses in UK countries and regions to at least 50% by ‘next year.
Murison said Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ plan would run counter to a new bill being drafted by Michael Gove that will require all policies to pass a leveling test to ensure they contribute positively to the equalization of economic opportunities across the country.
“Based on what was in the upgrade white paper, our judgment is that the decision to privatize Channel 4 would not pass this test, and that does not reflect well on officials in the Department of Digital, Culture, media and sports who, in advising the secretary of state on her policy, they didn’t think to check that they would be consistent with other laws they are planning to pass,” he said. .
It is now expected that if ministers go ahead, companies that could lose the sale could take the government to court to force an overhaul. A consultation on the plans revealed that 96% of respondents were opposed.
Murison added: “If you were designing a policy to support the independent TV sector in areas like the North of England, if Channel 4 didn’t already exist, you would create it. When government ministers make decisions based on bad advice, they shouldn’t be surprised when they are challenged by law. I think it’s likely that other interested parties who are going to be disadvantaged will have good reason to consider taking legal action.
“On the tests of whether it’s good or bad for bridging the North-South divide, the privatization of Channel 4 will undermine the race to the top. It is completely inconsistent for the government to propose two bills that completely contradict each other. »
Dorries says Channel 4 must be sold if it is to survive and thrive “in the face of a rapidly changing media landscape”. She recently tweeted that she wanted the broadcaster to retain a “cherished place in British life”, but said she felt UK government ownership “prevents Channel 4 from competing with streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon. “.
She added: “I will seek to reinvest the proceeds from the sale into leveling up the creative sector, putting money into independent production and creative skills in priority regions of the country – delivering a creative dividend for all.”
Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell said: ‘Channel 4 is an upgrade broadcaster, commissioning half of its programming from creative businesses outside the capital, ensuring a pipeline of creative talent and jobs in regions and nations. Everyone knows that by selling it, those commitments would be watered down and any new owners would have to meet commercial requirements, leading to less investment in UK jobs and programs.
“That’s why these projects are going to get a rough ride in parliament and could face legal and competitive hurdles along the way.”
Since its launch, Channel 4 has directly invested £12bn in the independent production sector, creating nearly £1bn of value for the UK economy in 2019 and supporting over 10,000 jobs.