How Leeds will fight to stop Channel 4 sell-off – Alex Sobel

THE day October 31, 2018, was one of profound joy in Yorkshire. It was the day when Channel 4 announced that Leeds would be its new home. It is not often that we celebrate something started by Margaret Thatcher in Leeds.

How will the privatisation of Channel 4 impact on the broadcaster's relocation to Leeds?
How will the privatisation of Channel 4 impact on the broadcaster's relocation to Leeds?

Just three years later, we hear that Channel 4 may be privatised, with little realistic prospect that some global media company will want to headquarter its new UK asset, with the largest free streaming service in the UK, in Yorkshire.

In a small space of time, all the work done and investment decisions made, which are benefiting some of the most left-behind communities in the country, will be undone so the Government can tick some culture war box that says everything has to be run by space cowboy billionaires or sovereign wealth funds who do not care about our sovereignty.

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Channel 4’s publicly owned but entirely commercially funded model means it can operate in a way that no other British broadcaster can: it puts public service before profit at zero cost to the taxpayer. It is for and owned by the people.

Alex Sobel is Labour MP for Leeds North West and spoke in a Parliamentary debate on Channel 4.

This distinctive model generates economic, cultural and social impact in Yorkshire and across the UK. Channel 4, as it stands, will not put a billionaire into space, but it will give thousands of jobs to Yorkshire folk.

What has Channel 4 achieved through its unique commercial funding model for Yorkshire and other centres outside London?

Some £843m has been invested in production in the north of England since 2009. Channel 4 will have around 400 roles based outside London by the end of this year.

The new national headquarters has already been the catalyst for a clustering of TV, film and creative organisations in our region. It includes a number of independent production companies, the new UKTV Leeds hub, the trade association PACT – the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television – opening a new office and the country’s first Centre of Screen Excellence.

The Majestic is to be the new HQ of Channel 4 as the Government looks to privatise the broadcaster.

Channel 4’s new emerging indie fund is designed to help indies outside London to break through key stages of growth. The emerging indie fund replaced the alpha fund, which invested in many production companies in the north of England over the years, supporting early development and growth.

The indie accelerator provides development funding and bespoke support for 10 indies with black, Asian and minority ethnic leadership, including ClockWork in Leeds. The indie growth fund supports the UK’s independent creative sector by investing in UK-based small and medium-sized enterprises, taking minority stakes to help them grow their businesses to the next stage. Growth fund investments include Yorkshire-based companies Candour, Duck Soup and True North.

What has that meant for public sector broadcasting during Covid? Leeds-based Candour Productions produced The Truth About Long Covid, which was filmed entirely in Bradford, and Leeds start-up ClockWork Films produced Ramadan in Lockdown.

Channel 4 only commissions content from external production companies and therefore allows independent producers to retain the IP. Channel 4 funnels the money generated from advertising directly into the creative sector. This publisher-broadcaster model is unique among public service broadcasters but would not be compatible with a model that prioritises profit.

Channel 4’s model is robust and highly resilient. It has been tested by the pandemic and a sharp decline in advertising spend, alongside the rest of sector, but Channel 4 ended 2020 with a significant financial surplus. The corporation was able to repay its furlough payments and avoid the drastic measures taken by other media organisations, such as mass lay-offs or pay cuts for junior staff. In a privatised future, the victims would be British staff at the expense of foreign billionaires. Its model allows Channel 4 to put public service at the core of everything it does.

Thus far, Ministers have not produced an economic impact assessment for privatisation, nor a plan for one prior to making the decision.

We all suspect that there will not be one, as it would show that, rather than levelling up Yorkshire, privatisation will significantly level it down, with a dismantling of our independent production sector replaced by foreign imports and the old boys of Soho making our programmes once more.

That is why I am working with Tracy Brabin and our metro Mayors across the north, as well as the Co-op party, to look at mutualisation, not only to keep Channel 4 in Yorkshire but to keep it in public hands.

That is the only way to guarantee its unique offer into the future. If this privatisation goes ahead, it will be the tombstone of this Government’s cultural policy.

Alex Sobel is Labour MP for Leeds North West and spoke in a Parliamentary debate on Channel 4 – this is an edited version.

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