Tuesday 6 October 2020 4:02 pm

Media minister warns Channel 4 could be privatised in fresh broadcasting row

Media minister John Whittingdale today said the government was mulling a sale of Channel 4 as he launched a fresh salvo on the publicly-owned broadcaster.

Speaking at a virtual event during the Tory party conference, Whittingdale said ministers were debating the Great British Bake Off broadcaster’s future amid competition from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon.

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I do think there is a very important debate to be had about Channel 4 because, unlike the BBC, Channel 4 survives without any taxpayer funding as an advertising-funded model,” he said.

“With the advent of the streamers and other competing services that model is under increasing strain and I’m not sure it is sustainable into the future.”

He added: “And so we do need to think about Channel 4 and whether or not there is still a need for a second publicly-owned public service broadcaster or what function it should fulfil, and that’s something we are giving a lot of thought to.”

Channel 4 is owned by the government but does not receive public funding, instead relying on a commercial advertising model.

But much like the BBC it has public service obligations, meaning it is required to provide a variety of education and entertainment programming.

Whittingdale, who served as culture secretary under David Cameron, has previously pushed for the government to sell off Channel 4.

But the broadcaster has successfully resisted the challenge, agreeing instead to move its national headquarters from Westminster to Leeds.

Channel 4 has been battling a sharp downturn in revenue in recent months due to the near-collapse of the advertising market as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this year the company outlined plans to furlough 10 per cent of staff and cut salaries for directors in a bid to find £245m in cost savings.

However, a source close to Channel 4 told City A.M. that advertising revenues had “vastly improved” since lows in April and May and that the company was now more upbeat about its financial outlook.

Channel 4 declined to comment on Whittingdale’s comments.

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Broadcaster battles

The UK’s public service broadcasters are facing growing scrutiny over their futures amid the rise of Silicon Valley streaming rivals and a row over alleged bias.

Whittingdale’s warning to Channel 4 comes just a day after the former culture secretary suggested the BBC may need to switch to a Netflix-style subscription model.

Speaking at an event organised by media watchdog Ofcom, Whittingdale said the UK’s public service broadcasters had to adapt to a changing media landscape.

“One of the issues for debate, in the longer term, not the next year, is the funding,” he said.

“We’ve already begun to see evidence that people are questioning whether they need to pay the licence fee. That means there is going to be a debate about the licence fee but that will be for the end of this decade.”

The BBC’s licence fee funding model, which will be up for review in 2027, is a key issue facing new director general Tim Davie.

Davie, who took up the role at the beginning of September, has vowed to reform the organisation, but has ruled out a subscription model.

Ofcom is currently carrying out a review into the role of public service broadcasters, which is set to be published next year.