What would the privatisation of Channel 4 mean for levelling up - Henri Murison

Not even her most fervent supporter would claim that all Margaret Thatcher’s ideas were popular in Yorkshire, but if there was one we can all agree has been good for the county – and for the North as a whole – it must be Channel 4.

Set up as a counter to the commercial dominance of ITV and creative dominance of the BBC, Channel 4 was the Thatcher Government’s secret weapon in broadcasting policy when it was first launched in 1982.

Now, with its 40th birthday fast approaching, it has been an extraordinary success story, pumping over £12bn into the UK economy and playing a central role in creating an independent television production industry that is unmatched anywhere in the world.

And, just to show its credentials as a Thatcherite ideal of private/public enterprise, it has never cost the British taxpayer a penny.

The Majestic is the home of Channel 4 in Leeds.

The last time serious moves were made to sell Channel 4 out of public ownership, back in 2016, the eventual solution arrived at was to make it less of a London broadcaster and more of one that would serve the whole country, indeed, one that in particular would give a voice and a share of the media and creative industries to the North.

Following on from the BBC’s successful move to Salford, Channel 4 set its sights on Leeds, so there was a balance between both sides of the North, with the Beeb in the Northwest and C4 on this side of the Pennines.

Originally, the idea was to move 300 roles outside London by 2023 and make Leeds the new national headquarters. That move has gone brilliantly and Channel 4’s new HQ at The Majestic is already a magnet for the revival of TV production across the country.

In fact, Channel 4’s head Alex Mahon says they are ahead of schedule and there are now 400 roles here in Yorkshire and in the broadcaster’s other UK bases.

But just as it shows its immense promise to the North, the future of Channel 4 has been thrown into doubt by a misguided privatisation agenda.

There may be many things that are better off in private ownership, but if you want areas of the UK like ours that are shamefully underrepresented both on camera and behind it to get their fair share of the spotlight, Channel 4 is not one of them.

We might have our doubts about the levelling up agenda and the sincerity of Westminster politicians in supporting it, but reversing this policy would be a major reassurance to the North.

It’s not just the jobs that Channel 4 brings itself, but the underpinning of all sorts of supply chain companies.

There is a growing TV market in Yorkshire: to take one example, the post-production firms springing up at Tileyard North in Wakefield, but without Channel 4 in Leeds, they could disappear as fast as they sprung up.

And make no mistake, no private owner of Channel 4 will want to invest one more penny outside London than they are forced to.

With Channel 4, it’s part of their new DNA.

The broadcaster also brings with it a commitment already being delivered on, including here in Bradford, to offer skills training to tens of thousands of people from the sort of background who wouldn’t get a look-in if it were left to the cut-throat London-based market.

Channel 4 has a big educational programme for schools too.

Many people believe that the other broadcasting companies and streamers like Netflix only ever do public-service related things because the BBC and Channel 4 already do so much.

The best the government to date has been able to come up with is that it will use some of the proceeds of a sale to pay for some of the things Channel 4 already does.

But why sell the goose that lays those golden eggs rather than just let it keep laying them?

Margaret Thatcher might not have wanted to keep Channel 4 in public hands all this time – we will never know – but the fact is that if she saw the government stepping in with subsidies to replace the market-driven investment of one of the most successful industrial strategies of her era, she would hit the roof.

It’s time the two people offering to lead our nation through tough times – both with strong Yorkshire connections – recognised that this is one policy they could do without, because all it will do is undermine levelling up and make those tough times tougher.

Henri Murison is chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP)