The battle for the future of Channel 4

Portrait of Gareth Benest
Gareth Benest Director of Advocacy, IBT 20th September 2022

Image: Channel 4

The Government has now said that it will review its decision to privatise Channel 4. Gareth Benest, IBT’s Director of Advocacy, welcomes the announcement.

We are greatly encouraged by the new Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan’s decision to re-evaluate the business case for privatising Channel 4, which she announced this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. This is a welcome opportunity to revisit a policy which IBT has long argued against. We believe that privatisation of Channel 4 would lead to a reduction in its commitment to broadcast international news and current affairs.

So why is this important to IBT and its members?

The case for Channel 4

Channel 4 provides a platform for international stories that cannot be seen and heard anywhere else. It highlights stories from and about our members, and brings a wide spectrum of global issues to the attention of UK audiences. It helps people to hear different perspectives and understand the roles and responsibilities we have in a fractured but highly interdependent world.

The plan to privatise the channel – in the face of extraordinary resistance and in spite of its recent financial achievements – is a threat to this role and the support that Channel 4 provides to IBT’s members. Unless plans for privatisation are dropped, its cherished news and current affairs programmes will cease to provide that window on the world and the issues that our members care most passionately about.

Grand public service designs

Channel 4 has a public service remit that requires it to champion unheard voices, inspire change, promote debate, celebrate diversity, and take creative risks. According to the government’s own white paper, it has “done an excellent job in delivering its founding purposes – providing greater choice for audiences, and supporting the British production sector.”

Channel 4 belongs to the British people, just like the BBC. However, unlike the BBC, the channel is not funded by a licence fee. Instead, it generates all of its income from advertising, which doesn’t cost the taxpayer a penny. Not everybody, including the former Secretary of State, Nadine Dorres, seemed to grasp this important difference.

A unique international perspective

Channel 4 broadcasts a wide range of internationally-focussed and derived content, ranging from vast collections of foreign-language drama series (Walter Presents) through to groundbreaking news and current affairs programmes that regularly cover global issues.

Channel 4 News is a rare one-hour news programme, broadcast in a primetime slot. The show has earned its reputation as a trusted and fearless outlet for news that is drawn from across the UK and the globe. Unlike most news programmes, its production company (ITN) has invested significant time and resources into developing a network of freelance correspondents from diverse countries and regions. Its editors have frequently broken the mould of mainstream television news, bringing genuinely unheard voices into the most high-profile and urgent debates.

Unreported World provides a unique window onto the world for UK audiences, broadcast as part of Channel 4’s primetime flagship news programme. It covers diverse international issues ranging from gender-based violence in Pakistan to the threats facing the Baka community in the Republic of Congo; from Thailand’s wild tiger population through to the environmental impacts of fast fashion in Ghana.

IBT members have worked successfully with Unreported World in the past. For example, the programme-makers collaborated closely with IBT member Humanity & Inclusion to produce a powerful report on Syrian refugees suffering from life-changing disabilities sustained during the civil war.

IBT will be lobbying Ministers over the coming weeks and making the case to drop the privatisation of Channel 4. 

Gareth Benest is IBT’s Director of Advocacy

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