Robin Millar – 2022 Speech on Channel 4 Privatisation

The speech made by Robin Millar, the Conservative MP for Aberconwy, in the House of Commons on 14 June 2022.

As so many on these Benches have said, Channel 4 has marked the landscape of our lives. Loved or loathed, the landmarks are all there to see across the broadcasting landscape. For me as a youngster, it was the NFL coverage of Super Bowl on Sunday nights that sticks in my memory. More recently, as an engineer, I enjoyed the prominence and accomplishments of the characters on “The Big Bang Theory”, and there are others that have taken our attention as a nation. Who could forget the cultural contributions of the likes of Homer Simpson, particularly his contribution to the English language of “Doh”? Perhaps I am the first Member in this House to mention that in this place. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), that was a cultural reference.

The motion moved by the Labour party opens with the words:

“That this House supports the UK’s much loved cultural institutions, which are celebrated around the world while creating jobs and growth across the country”.

I am sure that those words are unanimously supported by Members across the House. I am proud of this Government’s support for, and recognition of, the immense value of our cultural institutions. After all, it was this Government who opened the £1.6 billion cultural recovery fund, which protected museums, galleries and other cultural treasures from the existential threat that the pandemic presented to much of the UK’s cultural landscape. It was a Conservative Government who saved it.

Let me be clear that I believe the right sale of Channel 4 will help it to thrive in the modern era. Other hon. Members have made that point, so I will not dwell on it. I also believe that a change of ownership can give it access to funds, as other hon. Members have pointed out.

My main point, in answer to several hon. Members who have raised this, is about why a sale is necessary. This is an important point to make because it speaks to how we manage public assets—the buying, holding and exiting of those assets. The word “ideology” has been used several times by Opposition Members. Perhaps this is a gross characterisation—hon. Members will forgive me—but often the Opposition are characterised as being ideologically driven and those of us on the Government side are characterised, or criticised even, as being over-pragmatic. It is interesting to see our actions and words here viewed through an ideological lens. Actually, we are making a pragmatic response.

As a state, we have a poor track record—across all parties and all Governments. We are very good at spotting problems, designing a response and delivering a solution, but then we tend just to hold on. We think that is virtuous, but in fact we risk creating self-perpetuating institutions that become an echo of the past. The real question is not whether this is an ideologically driven or pragmatic response; it is which is the better driver for creativity. I am mindful of bodies such as NatWest, because until two months ago the Government were still the majority shareholder.

What happens when we hold an institution—this has been shown time and again—is that institutional calcification occurs. Inevitably, funds are diverted, with more and more resource going into self-preservation. But the right sale, well managed, would break that up.

Jesse Norman

I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments, but does he have any evidence that the calcification he talks of is actually happening to Channel 4? There is obviously inflation in the sector. Does he think that Channel 4 is markedly less innovative than other players in the sector? Could he say a bit more about why he thinks privatisation would make a positive difference, given that Channel 4 has managed to flourish over 40 years of state ownership? There are other state organisations, such as the Bank of England, that we would not consider privatising because they have shown their value over many years.

Robin Millar

I thank my right hon. Friend, who pre-empts my next comments. Indeed, I will come on to why flourishing is not just measured in finance. For every supply chain that might be disrupted by a sale, a new opportunity for entrants to the sector is created. We have already heard one such example in the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). Some of the production companies that started with Channel 4 in the early days were cutting-edge start-ups, but now they are becoming institutions in their own right, and we have seen the same pattern—to answer my right hon. Friend’s question —in silicon valley. For agrarians and those who enjoy gardening, sometimes we prune a successful fruit tree in order to encourage further flourishing and production.

After all, Channel 4 has achieved its objective, and this is the point. It was set up by a Conservative Government, under Margaret Thatcher, to create competition in our now thriving independent production sector. Now, having fulfilled this purpose, we are supporting our public service broadcasters to continue to grow, export British content and compete globally. To sell is a responsible question to ask.

By way of further example, about a year ago I spoke to the former chief executive of S4C—Sianel Pedwar Cymru, as we say over the border. It was clear then that S4C was being drawn away from the traditional broadcaster role into more of a media company role, but the funding arrangements in place were hindering that. I see a parallel with the situation facing Channel 4. To be clear, and in response to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), success is not shameful and a sale is not punishment.

In conclusion, the Opposition should not fear change, nor should they resist the responsible management of public assets. It is the responsible thing and it is the right time now to ask the question: what next for Channel 4?