Sale of Channel 4 could make UK ‘cultural colony to America’, warns playwright

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Playwright James Graham has warned that privatising Channel 4 could lead to the UK becoming a “cultural colony to America”.

The writer, who is behind plays including This House, Ink and Quiz, which he adapted for television, as well as the TV drama Brexit: An Uncivil War, cautioned that niche voices will struggle to emerge if a private owner of Channel 4 wants content that has international appeal.

Speaking during a debate at the Edinburgh Television Festival, media minister John Whittingdale said the current Government consultation on plans to privatise Channel 4 aims to make sure the channel can “continue to thrive” in a changing landscape as streaming services become increasingly dominant.

The channel is currently owned by the Government and receives its funding from advertising but could be sold off to a private buyer.

Mr Whittingdale said: “We want to preserve Channel 4 going forward and we do think this model is going to be very difficult to sustain because of the power and amount of choice available from the streamers.

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John Whittingdale said the plan aims to ensure the channel can ‘thrive’ (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

“It’s about trying to make sure Channel 4 can continue to thrive in what will be a very different landscape to anything with which we have been familiar.”

Asked about keeping the remit of the broadcaster, he said: “We are going to make it clear if there is a change in ownership the remit is there and that will stay and if they (a buyer) aren’t willing to do that, we imagine they won’t express an interest in the channel.”

Graham said a sale of the channel would hamper its “idiosyncratic” output, adding: “The media is changing and advertising is changing and these things all have to be addressed and robustly answered.

“I despair a bit on the idea we have to raise the white flag on public service broadcasting because of the arrival of these majority-American online streamers and that seems to be the dominant landscape for sharing news and entertainment in the future.

“I agree we possibly have to reform some of these models but that doesn’t mean giving up entirely on the public service remit and the social political good that that does.

“I adore my Netflix and Apple and YouTube, the quality of writing on these streaming platforms is incredible… I do think the problem is, and I know this from personal experience in meetings about creating ideas for content, that because it has a global perspective, it needs a British drama to appeal to people in Germany and China and particularly America.

“That is going to have an impact on the idiosyncratic British worlds which Channel 4 in particular really enjoys finding and doesn’t massively care if a viewer in Idaho is going to watch it or not.

Quiz
James Graham wrote Quiz, starring Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant (Matt Frost/ITV)

“We can celebrate the very prestige, quite period offerings of The Crown and Bridgerton, which are huge success stories and generate huge amounts of work, but we have to be honest, there isn’t going to be quite the independent, small, niche, diverse voices coming through those streaming platforms.

“We don’t want to become a cultural colony to America, which I think we will increasingly become.”

Earlier in the session, Graham questioned if the “culture of creativity” at Channel 4 could survive in commercial hands, to which Mr Whittingdale responded: “My concern that if we maintain the status quo in the longer term, Channel 4 is going to come under greater and greater pressure and it won’t be able to continue to do all these things that we want to see survive in the future, this is about bolstering Channel 4.”

Later, he added: “The uniquely British quality of programmes is something which we have been thinking about, how it would continue to have the public service broadcasters to deliver that, in a world where a lot of the content is not necessarily targeted at Britain, it’s targeted around the world. That is very difficult to deliver.”

Addressing the timetable for legislation, he said a media Bill would be introduced in the next session of Parliament.

When questioned if privatisation is a foregone conclusion, he said: “We have made it absolutely clear we haven’t reached any decision yet.”

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