Selling off Channel 4 makes no sense and would be a disaster for West Yorkshire - Mark Casci

The damp, flat feeling of disappointment that filled our hearts in the aftermath of England’s European Championship defeat to Italy serves as a reminder of how close a margin of defeat and victory can be.

The defeat, along with the sickening violence and abhorrent racism that bookended the match at Wembley, led me to take the day off of social media and try and remind myself of times when things had gone our way.

This process saw me revisit a very cold and dark evening in October 2018 when I stood on the roof of the Platform building in Leeds city centre as I prepared to interview a host of political, business and creative industry luminaries about the fact that, just a couple of hours earlier, it had been confirmed that Channel 4 was heading to Yorkshire.Also on the rooftop that evening were a bunch of young people, creative industry types, for whom the victory was particularly sweet.

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For thousands of people across Yorkshire and the North, the road leading to working in television and broadcasting was a difficult one to travel.

The Government is looking at privatising Channel 4.

The industry is still almost exclusively located in the capital and the idea of carrying out work placements, often unpaid, would simply prove too much for many young people to bear.

Channel 4 coming to Leeds changes that. Its presence in the city goes well beyond it merely relocating jobs from London to Yorkshire. It provides a mothership which West Yorkshire’s numerous creative industries can orbit around and benefit from. Suddenly, the prospects for young people in the sector in Kippax and Keighley look as promising as for those in Knightsbridge and Kensington.

Which is why the news that the Government is considering selling off Channel 4 from public ownership is so concerning.

Ministers have launched a 10-week public consultation in relation to the future of the broadcaster, saying Channel 4 was “particularly vulnerable to market fluctuations and the decline in linear TV advertising spend” and that privatisation “could help secure its future as a successful and sustainable public service broadcaster”.

The day it was confirmed Channel 4 was coming to Leeds.

I find this concern baffling. Streaming is hardly a new thing, with Netflix and Amazon having been in the market for quite some time, certainly since 2017 when the then Tory Government headed by Theresa May committed to moving Channel 4 out of London in their election manifesto.

Furthermore Channel 4 is far from in bad shape. It generated a £74m surplus in 2020 and saw a 26 per cent increase in viewers of its online streaming platform in the same year. Channel 4 has been a success throughout its 39 years because it was the broadcaster that took risks.

It was not afraid to be edgy and took no interest in aping its fellow terrestrial channels.

Were it to be sold to private buyers, there is absolutely no guarantee this proud outsider tradition would continue. In fact, it is highly unlikely.

Channel 4's new home when being constructed.

Similarly, here in Yorkshire, what guarantees would we have that new owners would value supporting and enhancing the region’s hotbed of talent?

I am not alone in these concerns.

The new mayor for West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin, has taken up the cudgels and is currently consulting far and wide on her response. Thank goodness we now have a mayor who can do such a thing.

Similarly, Andrew Sheldon, creative director of production company True North, which has made several hit Channel 4 shows, said a sell-off would be against the grain of the Government’s levelling up agenda.

Let me be frank and say that I do not think for a second this Government is acting out of concern for the financial health of Channel 4. In fact, I think it wants to try and tame its editorial stance as much as possible.

From my view, Government should leave Channel 4 alone and look to its own affairs if it really wants to do some good.

We have had enough disappointments this week, and indeed this past 15 months.

Let’s not score an own goal and add to it.