Culture Minister John Whittingdale has said that the government is considering selling Leeds-headquartered Channel 4.
The broadcaster is commercially funded but ultimately owned by the government. Whittingdale told a fringe event at the Conservative party conference that the channel was struggling financially and said a sell-off could be happen.
“Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 survives as an advertising-funded model,” he said. “With the advent of the streamers and other competing services that model is under considerable strain.
“We do need to think about Channel 4 and whether there is still a need for a second publicly owned public service broadcaster, or what function it should fulfil. And that is something we are giving a lot of thought to.”
During the General Election campaign, a Conservative campaign source pledged to review Channel 4’s licence after they replaced Prime Minister Boris Johnson with a melting ice sculpture when he failed to turn up to a climate change event.
Whittingdale first proposed Channel 4’s privatisation in 1996, arguing that the channel needs external financial backing in order to survive. The government considered a sell-off when Whittingdale was culture secretary in 2015 but ultimately backed down in the face of an intense lobbying campaign from the broadcaster.
Channel 4’s annual report, due at the end of the month will provide further details about its financial sustainability, which had seen revenues stable at around £900m a year until the pandemic hit.
Whittingdale also told an event hosted by the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs thinktank that the licence fee, which funds the BBC, will probably survive in its current form for the rest of this decade.
He said a key problem for people wanting to turn the BBC into a subscription service was the inability to password-protect Freeview:
“There is no way you can introduce a subscription service on Freeview,” he said. “I don’t think the licence fee will survive in the longer term. But for the moment it is imperfect but the best means of paying for the BBC.”
Whittingdale also said he had been pleased with the BBC’s new director general, Tim Davie.
“His first action was to restore Rule, Britannia! to the Last Night of the Proms. He’s also recognised there is a lot of work to do to correct the perception of bias.”