21 July 2021
Andrew Mitchell raises concerns about the privatisation of Channel 4

Andrew Mitchell calls on the Government to ensure there is an impact assessment before the decision is made to privatise Channel 4 and asks about the future of content investment and jobs, as all previous reports have concluded that Channel 4’s remit is better served in public ownership.

Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

I draw the House’s attention to my interests as set out in the register. I approach this debate in a slightly less certain and more inquiring way than the very eloquent mover of the motion, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle). I ask myself, what sort of media do we want to serve our constituents? My own experiences of the media are quite well balanced— I have suffered but I have also benefited enormously from the media.

All around the world, the lesson is that the strongest, safest societies have independent, raucous, cynical, largely unfettered and disrespectful media. That is what keeps us safe as citizens and defends our human rights and civil liberties. The question is, where does Channel 4 fit into that? It caters for minority tastes and diversity in modern Britain. It aids inclusivity. Its news quality is outstanding. In independent surveys it is the most trusted outlet; look at the experience of people like Cathy Newman, Jon Snow, Gary Gibbon and Matt Frei. I draw hon. Members’ attention to the coverage of Syria, and the depth and the decent length of interviews on what is the greatest humanitarian catastrophe that the world has faced in the last two decades—the numbers on the move into Europe are absolutely staggering.

I draw hon. Members’ attention to “For Sama”, a film made by Channel 4 that would not have been made by other outlets. It is brilliant, moving and was shown in Parliament. We have seen what Channel 4 has done for Paralympic sports and on the Sri Lankan atrocities. As recently as last night, it was praised by John Kerry for the Exxon revelations.

Channel 4 is different from the BBC. It is true that all around the world the BBC is venerated—look at the work of the BBC World Service. When I had responsibility for these matters, I increased its funding ninefold because it is so important. The hugely elevated level of international coverage under James Landale is known to us all but, unlike Channel 4, the BBC is extremely establishment. It is often criticised by colleagues, particularly colleagues in Government, for being biased. But the BBC tries to hold the Government to account, and I would argue that in some ways it is too close to the Government—it may pull its punches because it is worried about the funding model or, indeed the charter. Channel 4 occupies a unique position in our national media.

I come to my questions for the Minister, who is extremely experienced in this area, and I hope that he will answer them. First, will he ensure that there is an impact assessment before rather than after the decision is made? Secondly, what evidence does he have that privatisation will encourage more content investment and more jobs? All previous reports, as the hon. Lady said, including the Government’s own from 2017, concluded that Channel 4’s remit is better served in public ownership.

Fourthly, have the Government addressed the genuine dilemma—I speak here as a strong supporter of capitalism—of whether there could be a conflict of interest in pursuing public policy objectives where the pursuit of profit is the underlying model? Channel 4 does not take money from the taxpayer; it is publicly owned but commercially funded and 100% of its revenue is reinvested in the organisation. It has a new headquarters, not in Birmingham, I regret, but in Leeds, which is out of London—that is very important. It is a huge boost to the British film industry through Film4 and it commissions rather than produces its own programmes, which hugely stimulates and expands the private sector. Those are important matters and I hope very much that in making this case, the Minister will address them.