Channel 4 privatisation sparks Tory backlash as ministers accused of ‘throwing red meat to right-wing voters’

‘Unconservative’ and ‘opposite of levelling up’, say senior figures

Nadine Dorries 'doesn't know very much about broadcasting sector', says ex Channel 4 chief

The government is facing a backlash from senior Conservatives over its plan to privatise Channel 4, as Boris Johnson was warned that Margaret Thatcher would not have attempted such a move.

The contentious decision to sell off the public-owned broadcaster has sparked outrage from opposition parties, top Tory backbenchers and leading media figures.

Channel 4’s former head of news and current affairs said the move was designed to “throw a bit of red meat to Tory supporters of a very right-wing nature at a time that the government is in trouble”.

Dorothy Byrne told Times Radio: “I think the political agenda is to show that the government is doing something radically right-wing to please people. It’s the same agenda as attacking the licence fee.”

Senior Tory figures Jeremy Hunt, Baroness Ruth Davidson, Damien Green and Tom Tugendhat were among those speaking out against the plan, confirmed by culture secretary Nadine Dorries on Monday.

Baroness Davidson, the former Scottish Tory party leader, pointed out that Channel 4 is “publicly owned, not publicly funded” and “doesn’t cost the tax payer a penny”.

She said Channel 4 had helped create a thriving independent sector outside of London. “This is the opposite of levelling up,” the Tory peer said of the plan.

Former cabinet minister Jeremy Hunt said he had never considered privatising the channel during his time as culture secretary: “I’m not in favour of it,” he told Sky News.

He added: “Channel 4 provides competition to the BBC on public service broadcasting, the kinds of programmes that are not commercially viable. And I think it would be a shame to lose that.”

Senior Tory backbencher Tom Tugendhat told Times Radio he was “pretty doubtful” about controversial the move. “I remain to be convinced this is going to achieve the aim the government has set out.”

Tory MP Sir Peter Bottomley said he also opposed the privatisation since it would be “bad for the diversity of television, bad for viewers and bad for independent producers”.

Former cabinet minister Damian Green said the idea was “very unconservative” – pointing out that “[Margaret] Thatcher, who created it, never made that mistake”.

Ms Byrne said Ms Dorries “doesn’t know very much about the broadcasting sector”. The former Channel 4 news boss also said Ms Thatcher “invented Channel 4 in order to invent the independent production company sector which has made billions for this country”.

The sell-off is expected to form part of a draft Media Bill to be unveiled at the Queen’s speech – setting out the forthcoming agenda for Boris Johnson’s government – next month.

Ms Dorries added in a tweet that she wanted the broadcaster to remain a “cherished place in British life” – but felt that government ownership was “holding Channel 4 back from competing against streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon”.

A government source told The Independent that the sale would form part of reforms “to modernise and sustain” the public service broadcasting sector – but was met with dismay by Channel 4.

A spokesperson for the broadcaster said it was “disappointed” with the decision but would “continue to engage” with the government to ensure Channel 4 “continues to play its unique part” in Britain’s creative life.

Channel 4 chief executive Alex Mahon said “there will now be a long process ahead”, writing to staff in an internal that it could take 18 months or more for the required legislation to pass through parliament.

Labour described the plan as “cultural vandalism” and warned it would cost the sector jobs in the north of England. Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It doesn’t make any sense – I can’t find many people are in favour of it.”

Another senior Tory MP Julian Knight – the chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee – questioned the motivation behind the planned sell-off.

“Is this being done for revenge for Channel 4’s biased coverage of the likes of Brexit and personal attacks on the PM? … there is a feeling of payback time.”

However, Mr Knight said he would support the Media Bill as a way of reforming public service broadcasting – saying Channel 4 “will have greater freedom to compete once privatised and if managed well”.

He added: “Privatisation – even for some wrong reasons – can work for C4, but must be part of a thorough overhaul of all public service broadcasting.”

However, former Tory leader William Hague said Channel 4’s privatisation could be a good thing, following reports that the government is seeking £1bn from the sale.

“It partly depends what you do with the money,” he told Times Radio. “If this raises a billion pounds, and it’s meant to go to support creative industries, as part of our levelling up agenda. Well, if that’s spent effectively, that will be a good thing.”

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