Channel 4 has warned it could be forced to cut its investment in regional television production if the government pushes ahead with “irreversible” plans to privatise the broadcaster.
The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, is expected to make an announcement on Channel 4’s future on Wednesday, which is likely to involve a consultation on whether it should be sold off.
Channel 4 is in the unique situation of being run as a commercial channel that is owned by the government, with a remit to reach underserved audiences and reinvest its income in new programming.
Its chief executive, Alex Mahon, said a change of ownership could damage the government’s levelling-up agenda, as the broadcaster prepares to open regional bases in Leeds, Glasgow, and Bristol.
She said a new commercial owner would inevitably look to make a profit from the station, meaning less money would be spent on programming and investment outside of London.
“Being owned by the British people, our model puts public service before profit. We’re focused on the scale and growth of the whole industry, not any single business or bottom line,” Mahon said.
Ministers and Conservative aides have made little secret of their antipathy towards Channel 4, which has been threatened repeatedly with privatisation.
Figures in Downing Street often reference the occasion when the channel’s former news chief Dorothy Byrne publicly called Boris Johnson a “liar” in a keynote speech in 2019. During the subsequent general election, Tory aides also briefed that they would target Channel 4 after the broadcaster replaced the prime minister with a melting ice sculpture during a debate on climate change.
Mahon said plans to co-host Channel 4 News from Leeds, spend more money outside London, and a commitment to nurturing new British talent could be curtailed if privatisation took place. She said: “All of that advertising money is ploughed back into the creative sector. We don’t make a profit. The profit is made by many small and medium businesses across the UK.”
She cited the channel’s recent documentary on Princess Diana, which helped spark the BBC’s Martin Bashir scandal, and the drama It’s a Sin as distinctive examples of the broadcaster’s output.
The broadcaster’s annual financial results also show how revenue bounced back in 2020, after making heavy cuts to programme budgets early in the pandemic. However, Channel 4 is heavily dependent on advertising revenue as it does not own the rights to many of its own shows.
The Channel 4 chairman, Charles Gurassa, also said he was disappointed the government had taken the unusual decision to block the reappointment of two members of the broadcaster’s board. He said it was proving difficult to recruit new directors because the government has yet to appoint a new Ofcom chairman to oversee the hiring process, after failing to ensure the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre got the top job.