Why a privately owned Channel 4 would be bad for Leeds and bad for the UK - Roger Marsh

In 2018 I led the team that secured Channel 4’s new, national headquarters for Leeds.

Leeds's fight to get Channel 4 was hard won.
Leeds's fight to get Channel 4 was hard won.

Our campaign, Be the Spark, highlighted what makes our region so special and how Channel 4 would bring opportunities to, and benefit from, our young, creative, digitally-savvy population.

This is one of the proudest achievements of my professional life – which has seen me working as Director General of Strategic Finance and Operations in the Cabinet Office; with PWC for nearly four decades, including 25 years as a partner; as chair of the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership since 2013; and more recently as chair of the NP11 group of Northern LEPs.

But the Government plans to privatise Channel 4, arguing it is necessary to access capital and give it the financial stability and agility to compete in a globalised, streaming marketplace.

We believe this would be profoundly damaging to UK broadcasting and the creative industries, and jeopardise Channel 4’s future in our region, so are looking to ‘Save The Spark’.

Channel 4 is in robust financial health. While the pandemic impacted advertising, this was not unique to Channel 4, and revenues bounced back strongly. Channel 4 reported its strongest ever financial results in 2020, delivering a record financial surplus, allowing it to invest more in content. It is already a UK market leader in streaming. All4 accounts for one in eight of its viewers, which it plans to double and generate 40 per cent of revenue through digital and non-advertising by 2025.

As an advertising-funded publisher-broadcaster, independent producers can generate revenue from global sales and reinvest in developing talent, leading to locally-produced series like Ackley Bridge being available worldwide on Netflix. In summer, Channel 4 and Sky expanded their commercial partnership that sees All4 on Sky’s set top boxes. Private ownership, which would likely commission and own more content produced in-house, jeopardises this interdependent operating model.

Channel 4 choosing Leeds has been a catalyst for our creative and cultural sector with some of the UK’s largest independent producers having moved to or expanding in the region.

These investments, alongside significant public sector financial support, were made in good faith on the basis of Channel 4’s long-term presence and commitment to the North. We can see how this is paying wider societal dividends beyond economic growth.

Through its Nations and Regions strategy, introduced by government in 2017, it is required to spend half its commissioning budget outside of London and is on track to do so by the end of the year. We estimate that over the next 10 years Channel 4’s presence in Leeds will add £1 billion to our economy and create a further 1,200 skilled jobs in the creative sector and supporting industries.

Already, it has contributed £105 million to the North, supporting 1,132 jobs. Alongside Salford’s MediaCity, this creates a true creative Northern powerhouse and supports the aspirations of our young people, demonstrating that they don’t have to move to London to build a media career. It is an example of levelling up in action, which would be at risk if Channel 4 were in the private sector.

Whether pioneering streaming, or partnering with TikTok, televising the Paralympics, or working with Amazon to show Emma Raducanu’s historic US Open final – seen by over nine million people – time and again, Channel 4 has proven its agility in the changing media landscape.

All this is possible because of Channel 4’s unique remit as a public service broadcaster.

Since 1982, it has consistently showcased diverse voices, communities, alternative viewpoints, and dared to innovate.

A privately-owned Channel 4 could not maintain this model, commitment to diverse communities or relationship to the nations and regions. There may be a case for tweaking its operating model in an ever-changing and hugely competitive media landscape, but privatisation is not the answer in my view: role rather than ownership.