Nadine Dorries – 2022 Speech on Channel 4 Privatisation

The speech made by Nadine Dorries, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in the House of Commons on 14 June 2022.

I start by paying tribute to all involved in putting on a wonderful platinum jubilee weekend over the bank holiday. My Department and the royal household spent years preparing for this fantastic event. It was a historic moment for Her Majesty, the country and the Commonwealth, and a celebration for all to remember. Once again, I pay tribute to the BBC and other broadcasters for their extended coverage, including the BBC’s coverage of the amazing concert.

It has been a great few months for our culture and heritage. Just a few weeks ago I was in Coventry, where I was delighted to announce that it will be succeeded by Bradford as the UK’s city of culture. The city of culture competition has been made a permanent fixture on the national calendar under this Government and, for the first time ever, we are awarding the runners-up £125,000 in funding. Local MPs will be involved in the decision making on how that money is spent.

The motion asks the House to support our much-loved cultural institutions. That support is in no doubt as far as the Government are concerned, as evidenced by the £2 billion committed to support our theatres, museums, cinemas, performance venues and other venues through one of the worst crises they have ever faced. I know how important this has been to those cultural institutions up and down the country, not least because they have told me. Theatres have said that without our support their doors would still be closed and their stages bare. Museums have said that without our support they would not have been able to protect their collections and put them back on display.

This Conservative Government have put our money where our mouth is by backing culture, and unashamedly so. There was no procrastination; we did it from the off.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)

Will the Secretary of State tell us what Channel 4 said when she suggested to it that it will be privatised?

Ms Dorries

I do not disclose private conversations. I am not sure which aspect of any conversation the hon. Lady wants me to mention.

Straight from the off, we provided £2 billion to support our cultural organisations and institutions across the UK, which is why, after the pandemic, our arts and culture are back with a bang.

Labour’s motion asks us to support our world-renowned British broadcasting, which is also not in doubt. Under this Conservative Government, the film and TV industry is absolutely booming: production studios are fully booked, British-made programmes are celebrated all over the world, and this Conservative Government have just delivered the first broadcasting White Paper in 20 years. It takes into account the huge transformation that the broadcasting world has undergone in the past decade or so, and seriously considers how we can protect our British broadcasters in the rapidly evolving streaming era. Unlike the Labour party, we have not buried our head in the sand. We have not ducked important choices and decisions. We are looking ahead and taking the necessary decisions that will allow broadcasters to flourish.

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con)

On the consultation, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the Government should not be ducking difficult decisions. I would completely understand if they do not wish to publish the 38 Degrees consultation responses, but will she publish the industry organisation responses and the individual responses, because they will help to dispel a concern that the programme and the process has not been properly run?

Ms Dorries

We have published a comprehensive response to the consultation, in line with the format used by all Departments in response to consultations—that has already been done.

Our “Up next” White Paper contains a number of key proposals to achieve our goals. First, we want to ensure that in a world of smart TVs and online platforms our public service broadcasters continue to receive the exposure that they deserve. On a traditional TV, BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 are given prominence on every TV set in England and Northern Ireland. Likewise, in Wales, we will always find S4C on channel No. 4, and in northern and central Scotland we will always find STV on No. 3. We plan to update those rules for the digital age by passing legislation that ensures that PSB content is always carried and easy to find on all major platforms.

Colum Eastwood

The hit series “ Derry Girls”, which is of course based in my constituency, has met with rave reviews all around the world, and has been instrumental in educating people on the Good Friday agreement and the principles that underpin it—a few people in the House of Commons could do with watching the last series. Does the Secretary of State agree with me, and with the creator and writer of “Derry Girls”, Lisa McGee, that it would have been impossible for her to get that programme made without Channel 4?

Ms Dorries

Let’s do a shout-out for Channel 4. “Derry Girls”, “First Dates”, “Gogglebox”—there are so many fantastic programmes that Channel 4 produces. That is not in doubt and not in question. I would, however, suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads the “Up next” broadcasting White Paper, because in it we state clearly that carrying and making that distinctive content is a part of what we want to carry forward with Channel 4—distinctive British content, which is what “Derry Girls” is and what much of what Channel 4 makes is. That is in the White Paper, and I suggest he reads it.

John Redwood

Many fine British businesses have grown, flourished and invested far more once being privatised, and I hope that this one will too. But will the Secretary of State see, during the privatisation, whether there is a way of allowing the people who work for Channel 4 and do so much for it to gain participation, perhaps partly by buying and partly by gift, so that they become shareholders in whatever entity emerges?

Ms Dorries

I will go on to talk about the fact that we have many bidders who are looking at purchasing Channel 4, and we are looking at all options before we bring the matter to Parliament to see what is on the table. But for the sale of Channel 4, as it says in the “Up next” White Paper, what we are looking at is to sell Channel 4 as a PSB. Therefore, I do not think the model that my right hon. Friend outlines briefly would be conducive to that sort of purchase. We are going to sell to an organisation that will invest in Channel 4 and keep it able to make those distinctive programmes.

Several hon. Members rose—

Ms Dorries

We are not getting into a discussion, and I am going to make some more progress. [Interruption.] I am happy to take interventions when I have made some progress.

Secondly, we are committed to ensuring that all broadcasters are operating on a fair playing field, whether they have been around for a century or only entered the scene in the last few years, so we propose a new video-on-demand code that will hold Disney+, Netflix and other streaming services to similar standards as traditional broadcasters such as the BBC and ITV. These are crucial protections for all our PSBs, and ones that the broadcasters themselves have welcomed. With these changes and others, the Government are giving British broadcasters the support they need to rule the airwaves in times to come. As I said, dealing with the question of Channel 4’s future is a major piece of broadcasting reform, but it is just one part of our wide-ranging reforms.

For the past year, I have been carefully considering the broadcaster’s long-term future, as many of my predecessors have done. Over the last four decades, it has been a Conservative Government who have taken the important decisions to nurture and protect Channel 4, allowing it to grow and to broadcast world-beating content. It was Conservative Margaret Thatcher who established Channel 4 in the early 1980s. It was a Conservative who gave it the remit to deliver original, disruptive programming and to focus on independent production at a time when it was most needed. It was a Conservative Government who strongly encouraged Channel 4 to broaden its horizons beyond London and oversaw the move to Leeds. Now, faced with the transformation of the broadcasting landscape, it is a Conservative Government who are preparing Channel 4 for the future.

Mr Sheerman

I have known the right hon. Lady a long time and I know she is passionate about skills. I am concerned because Channel 4 has been the bedrock of creative skills and innovation, going much wider than the people it actually employs. She knows about skills and she cares about them, so will she try to put my fears to rest?

Ms Dorries

In selling Channel 4 we are seeking to protect Channel 4 so that it continues to make distinctive British content and to function as a PSB, but when we sell it, the question will be: what do we do with the proceeds of the sale? Investing the proceeds in the skills of those who work in the broadcasting and film sector is part of the objective of the sale.

Like every other broadcaster, Channel 4 now faces huge competition for viewers, for programmes and for talent, and many of its competitors have incredibly deep pockets.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)

The Secretary of State has outlined the legacy of what successive Conservative Governments have done to assist Channel 4. With that in mind, will she commit, under privatisation, to ringfencing and supporting the 81 essential jobs that Channel 4 has in Northern Ireland; to continuing, and growing, the £8 million contribution that Channel 4 makes to the gross value added of Northern Ireland; and to the production fund that has allowed the production of brilliant films and television series such as “Derry Girls” staying in place? Will that be protected, or will it all have to be negotiated again?

Ms Dorries

Levelling up is one of this Government’s primary objectives. We will be looking at bidders interested in purchasing Channel 4 to see whether they meet our levelling-up objective, which is about moving some of our major organisations and creating jobs outside London. That will be a consideration.

Michael Fabricant

Further to the last question, it is not just Channel 4; for example, it was Netflix that made “Game of Thrones” in Belfast, throwing in millions of pounds—far more than Channel 4, although I do not underestimate Channel 4’s importance.

My questions are these. First, will my right hon. Friend set out in her speech that the contract for the sale of this public service broadcaster will set out certain minimum criteria—in other words, news content, regional content and British content? Secondly, is she aware that many production companies feel squeezed out by Channel 4 —[Interruption.] Oh yes, they feel that at the moment there is a cosy arrangement with some production companies while others are ignored by Channel 4, and those smaller companies would actually welcome a change at the top.

Ms Dorries

As someone who has worked in the industry, my hon. Friend is deeply knowledgeable about how Channel 4 and the industry works. As I said in a previous answer, “Up Next”, the broadcasting White Paper, makes it very clear that that distinctive British content that makes Channel 4 so successful is part of the criteria.

The broadcasting White Paper is a fantastic piece of work, and I strongly recommend that everybody in the House reads it, as it makes it very clear what the Government’s objectives are for the broadcasting sector. Furthermore, we are taking the decision as a Government to look at broadcasting in the round—to look at the whole broadcasting landscape in the UK. I know that the conversation and the debate are focusing mainly on Channel 4, but we have to consider broadcasting in the round right now.

In addition, Channel 4 faces a series of unique challenges—challenges that other public service broadcasters with different ownership models do not face. Streamers such as Netflix spent £779 million on UK original content produced in 2020, more than twice as much as Channel 4. While other PSBs, such as the BBC and Channel 5, have the freedom to make and sell their own content, Channel 4 has no inhouse studio. Its ownership model restricts it from borrowing money or raising private sector capital. It is left almost entirely reliant on ad revenues. Those revenues were already shifting rapidly online, and the competition is only set to heat up now that Disney+ and Netflix have confirmed their plans to enter the advertising market. In addition to that, we have, later this year, new, huge streamers coming into our homes, which will also, quite probably, be operating on an advertising model.

Under its current form of ownership, Channel 4 has fewer options to invest, fewer options to innovate and, crucially, fewer tools with which to grow. There are serious challenges that require serious plans to overcome, not the kneejerk reaction or hyperbole of the Opposition.

Alun Cairns

Will the Secretary of State join me in calling on the Opposition to engage positively in this debate? We all respect the interest in the independent sector and we all want to see it grow, and it will have that opportunity under the new model. Rejecting any form of change will simply undermine the industries that we are seeking to support.

Ms Dorries

I could not agree more. Labour may not like to hear it, its refusal to even engage with the profound changes in the broadcast landscape is further evidence that it does not have a serious plan for broadcasting. If it really wants to protect Channel 4 and to protect the wider broadcasting ecosystem, it is not enough to consider only Channel 4’s current success.

John Redwood

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the Opposition think that they know better than the audience what Channel 4 should show every evening? Is it not a good idea that we move to a model where the owners engage with the audience and try to grow the audience, because that way they will attract more revenue?

Ms Dorries

We agree on many things, and we agree on that.

Michael Fabricant

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I may have inadvertently misled the House. I said that it was Netflix that produced “Game of Thrones”, but it was not. It was HBO and Sky Atlantic that invested a quarter of a billion pounds in Northern Ireland, considerably more than any other broadcasting company.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

I thank the hon. Gentleman, but that was more of an intervention; it was supposed to be a point of order. None the less, I am grateful to him for correcting the record so swiftly, so I thank him for his point.

Ian Paisley

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As a matter of accuracy, would it not have been better if the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) had confirmed that over £250 million is paid into film making in Northern Ireland annually without any of those companies?

Madam Deputy Speaker

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point of order. I do not know whether that would have been better, because it is not a matter for me to comment on; it is an additional point of debate.

Ms Dorries

Our responsibility is to consider the long-term sustainability and future of Channel 4. As a responsible Government, we are prepared to acknowledge those challenges head-on, and to do what is needed to protect one of our most important public service broadcasters not just today, but in the years to come. We therefore believe that it is time to unleash Channel 4’s full potential—the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) slightly misquoted me on that—and open up the broadcaster to private ownership while, crucially, protecting its public service broadcasting remit. That is a fundamental point: we are protecting its public service broadcasting remit. For those Opposition Members who are complaining and throwing up faux concerns, I repeat that we are protecting it as a PSB.

A sale will allow Channel 4 to grow and access greater investment, meaning that it can create more great programming, made by people who live and work in the UK, without losing what makes it distinctive. Just look at another public service broadcaster, Channel 5. After its sale to Viacom, Channel 5’s overall content budget grew by, on average, 7% a year. It is my genuine belief that this much-needed, long-term investment and the associated risk that comes with it—because investment does not come without risk—should come from private ownership, rather than being borne by the taxpayer.

Stephen Doughty

The Secretary of State keeps on speaking about the broadcasting ecosystem. Of course, crucial to that ecosystem are the independent production companies. Channel 4 has invested in a number of such companies in my area of Cardiff and south Wales, so it is absolutely crucial to our creative economy. Analysis by EY suggests that her model would result in a 40% reduction in investment in that crucial regional supply chain. Does she not accept the very real risks to those crucial independent production companies, which are part of our broadcasting and creative infrastructure?

Ms Dorries

The impression given is that Channel 4, as a result of being sold, will cease to exist. That is not the case. Those independent production companies are actually overloaded with work. We made more films in the UK in the last quarter of last year than were made in Hollywood. This whole sector of broadcasting and film making is booming. We are selling Channel 4 so that it can have more inward investment, not taxpayers’ money, and so that it can make more content, not less. The work will continue for independent production companies, not least from many of the companies that are coming into the UK to make films and television content, just as in Northern Ireland.

Our vision for Channel 4 is one where it continues to do all the things it does best, while being freed from the shackles that currently restrict it. I repeat: all the things it does best. That means it will continue to make diverse, interesting and edgy content with independent production companies, just as it does now.

The Opposition motion talks about protecting Channel 4’s PSB remit. Anyone who takes the time to look at our proposals will see that they pose no threat whatsoever to that PSB remit—Opposition Members talk as if there is. Under private ownership, Channel 4 will still be required to commission a minimum volume of programming from independent producers—I hope the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) heard that—just as all other PSBs are required to do. Under private ownership, we will maintain Channel 4’s existing obligations for regional production outside London and England, just as all other PSBs are required to do. Under private ownership, Channel 4 will still be required to provide original, innovative and educational programming that represents the breadth of society, as well as primetime news and current affairs—again, just as all other PSBs are required to do. Under private ownership—that is the rub here, is it not? The words “private ownership” are the nub of it. Under private ownership, we would also have the freedom to unlock Channel 4’s full potential by removing the publisher-broadcaster restriction, which the Labour party seems to want to protect, but which is the very restriction preventing Channel 4 from achieving long-term financial security. What company pays 100% for content but does not own the content? There is no other company that would regard that as a successful business model. The restriction effectively prohibits the broadcaster from producing and selling its content, denying it a crucial way to make money.

I cannot imagine another company—I look for anyone in this House to reassure me—that would be able to survive by paying 100% of the cost of the business while owning none of the product.

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con)

In Channel 4’s own response to the Government’s “Up Next” White Paper, it proposed raising £1 billion in private money through a joint venture partner, and that the joint venture partner would retain intellectual property and programming. The idea that the status quo is sustainable is not one that Channel 4 shares, and even it has called for a radical reset of its role.

Ms Dorries

It is exactly as my hon. Friend has outlined. The hon. Member for Manchester Central asked me what Channel 4 said, and one of its responses was that it wants to raise money. It wants to invest and raise money. The state—[Interruption.] Channel 4 is state-owned. The state cannot own a public service broadcaster that takes on the risk of borrowing money. If that goes wrong, it is the taxpayer who has to pay that debt. We as a Government cannot burden the taxpayer with risk, potential debt and responsibility.

Removing the restriction will allow Channel 4 to do exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) says: to raise that revenue stream and improve its long-term sustainability. We can do all those things with a sale, while protecting all that makes Channel 4 unique. We are not looking for any old buyer for this broadcaster. We are looking for the right one—one who shares our ambition for the business and our belief in what makes it special. It is precisely because of what Channel 4 does, and how it does it, be that distinctive programming, news content or film, that we are confident that we will find the right buyer.

Unsurprisingly, though it is early days, there has already been a lot of initial interest from a wide range of potential bidders. When a sale is secured, it will not just benefit Channel 4; we intend to use the proceeds to benefit the entire country. As I said, Channel 4 was originally established to help boost independent production, and it has been successful in that mission—so successful, in fact, that we face a new and very positive challenge. Production studios across the country are booming. They are so in demand that we need more and more people to work in them. We therefore intend to funnel some of the proceeds of the sale into addressing that new challenge and giving people up and down the UK the skills and opportunity to fill those jobs, delivering a creative dividend for all.

As I have to keep reminding those who choose to ignore it, the sale of Channel 4 is just one crucial part of a much larger piece of broadcasting reform, and the question of Channel 4’s long-term sustainability is—[Interruption.] The accusation is being thrown at me from a sedentary position that I am going to get rid of the BBC. It is not good enough to invent accusations from the Front Bench. Commentary has to be based on what the Government are actually proposing and what is actually happening. [Interruption.] Okay, so we did freeze the licence fee—yes. In this environment, that is a cost of living saving. There is absolutely no way, in today’s environment, that we could go to the country and ask individuals to pay for an increase in the BBC’s licence take. I am absolutely amazed that Opposition Front Benchers think that would be an acceptable thing to do, when hard-pressed families are struggling to pay their bills—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

Order. The shadow Secretary of State must stop shouting at the Secretary of State from a sedentary position. If she wants to make a point, she should get up and intervene. I cannot hear what the point is. I can hear the Secretary of State’s answer, because presumably she can hear the hon. Lady, but nobody else can. That is why we debate properly in here by standing up and making a point, not shouting like football supporters—[Interruption.] I withdraw that. I am not criticising any group in society; I am just saying that it is unacceptable.

Lucy Powell

Perhaps the Secretary of State will give way on that point, then, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Ms Dorries

The question of Channel 4’s long-term sustainability is hardly a new challenge. I am not the first Secretary of State to seriously consider whether private ownership is ultimately the best way to protect one of our best-loved broadcasters, but I am the only one who is prepared and willing to act and do what is right, not just for Channel 4 but for British broadcasting and ultimately the British taxpayer.