The future of television licence fee funding of the BBC and the proposed sale of Channel 4 in the United Kingdom are in the air again following the collapse of support for Boris Johnson and amid the competition to succeed him as party leader and prime minister. The political agenda for broadcasting has been driven by loyal Johnson supporter Nadine Dorries, the minister for digital, culture, media and sport. Her political future may well depend on who becomes the next prime minister.
A white paper, Up Next: The government’s vision for the broadcasting sector was published in April.
Among its proposals was a freeze in the licence fee funding of the BBC for two years and a review of the current licence fee funding model.
Another proposal was to sell off Channel 4, the publicly owned commercial broadcaster approaching its fortieth anniversary.
There were many other measures intended to maintain the public service broadcasting ecology in the face of increasing competition.
Among these was an aspiration to establish a clearer remit for public service broadcasters while affording greater flexibility in how this is delivered.
There are also proposals for a new prominence regime for on-demand television and to make protections for listed events including some sports finals a specific benefit for public service broadcasters.
Some of the proposals appear to be sincere attempts to maintain the broadcasting ecology, while some have been seen as an attempt to weaken organisations that could be politically critical.
The media bill to enact these policies in legislation was announced in the Queen’s Speech and was expected to be presented before the summer recess. It remains to be seen whether there will be the time or inclination to push forward with controversial proposals to reform broadcasting.
Plans to sell off Channel 4 have been widely criticised, even within the Conservative party and it has little public support, suggesting it is unlikely to a vote-winning policy. A government consultation received 56,000 responses, with 96% against privatisation.
Giving evidence to a cross-party committee in November, the culture secretary had appeared confused about how Channel 4 is funded, saying that it was “in receipt of public money” when it is self-financing from commercial operations.
There has been significant interest in acquiring Channel 4, although the proposed sale being prepared by bankers JP Morgan now seems far from a foregone conclusion.
The management of Channel 4 has offered an alternative plan, involving a joint venture with an external investor, which could yet be adopted. It has offered to sell its London headquarters, reduce its presence in the capital and move more jobs out of London.
Whatever legislation is tabled, it could be subject to amendments if members of parliament feel free to oppose some of its proposals.
Any future culture secretary is likely to have their own views, which may be more sympathetic to the BBC and Channel 4 than the current holder of the post.