Former culture secretary John Whittingdale has said he does not have a problem with 21st Century Fox’s Sky takeover and believes Channel 4 could thrive if sold off by the government.
Whittingdale, who held the position until last year, was speaking at a time when his successor, Karen Bradley, is considering whether to refer Fox’s Sky takeover to broadcast regulator Ofcom. (Fox today argued in a letter to the government that the deal would be “in the interest of the UK, its creative economy and its consumers”.)
Speaking at the Oxford Media Convention today, Whittingdale said that if he were in Bradley’s position he would refer the bid to Ofcom.
“If I was secretary of state I can tell you categorically I would refer it to Ofcom, without any hesitation,” he said. “On the grounds that there would be a huge political row if I didn’t… If you don’t refer it, you’re going to be accused of being got at by the Murdoch organisation.”
But Whittingdale added that he did not see why the deal should be blocked. “As far as I can see, I don’t think that there is a problem.”
Bradley is also in the process of considering a privatisation of Channel 4.
The government began mulling a sell-off of the broadcaster, which is publicly owned and privately funded, while Whittingdale was culture secretary.
Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham spoke out against a sell-off, arguing that a privately-owned broadcaster would have different, commercial priorities and fail to deliver the kind of content currently on offer.
Whittingdale today rejected this argument.
“Every time I talked about this I said if we went for sale either of 100 per cent or 50 per cent… the remit would stand, the remit would be strengthened,” he said.
They perhaps argued that if you had private sector investors they would want a return and inevitably the remit would be diluted. I said: No it wouldn’t, because you would have a regulator whose job it is to enforce the remit.