Bishop expresses 'deep alarm' at plans for Channel 4 sell-off

(Photo: Channel 4)

A leading Church of England bishop has expressed 'deep alarm' at plans announced by the UK government this week to press ahead with the proposed privatisation of Channel Four, despite widespread opposition.

Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, Bishop of Ripon and Chair of the Sandford St Martin Trust – a charity promoting 'thought-provoking, distinctive programming that engages with religion of all faiths, ethics or morality' – made her views clear in a statement issued yesterday.

She said: "The Trust is deeply alarmed at the news that the government is pushing ahead with plans to privatise Channel 4. It is our belief that one of the many risks associated with privatisation would be the demise of religious and ethical content provision on the Channel.

"In its current form, Channel 4 has reasonably successfully delivered on its remit to represent and make content relevant to the UK's diverse faith communities, but we believe there is still room for improvement."

Bishop Hartley lists a series of Channel 4 programmes that have won awards from the Trust. These include 'It's a Sin', portraying the 1980s Aids crisis, 'Ramadan in Lockdown' following Muslims as they adjusted and coped during Covid, and 'For Sama,' that chronicled five years of the Syrian uprising.

She also praised C4's 'Dispatches' and 'Unreported World' for being "unafraid of exploring the impact of religion on politics, economics and culture."

Bishop Hartley explains: "If ever there has been a need for such a valued and valuable public service, the time is now. The Sandford St Martin Trust has long argued that to ignore religion is to leave a gaping hole at the heart of public service broadcasting.

"Because of its current remit, Channel 4 has been at the frontline of promoting tolerance and understanding across a range of social differences. It must remain there."

Other Church of England bishops have also expressed reservations about the proposed sale. When the idea was first suggested, Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell wrote to Oliver Dowden, then Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

He told him,"Channel 4 offers something unique and precious in the British public service broadcasting ecology. I must emphasise how important is the programming it provides and how it should not be lost."

Archbishop Cottrell welcomed C4's investment in skills and training at its new Leeds headquarters and regional bases in Bristol, Glasgow and Manchester, and urged its work with the independent production sector to be recognised as part of the review.

Current Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, announced the government's decision to press ahead with privatisation this week, despite major opposition from the media industry, including leading broadcasters, such as Sir David Attenborough.

She explained: "A change of ownership will give Channel 4 the tools and freedom to flourish and thrive as a public service broadcaster long into the future. I will seek to reinvest the proceeds of the sale into levelling up the creative sector, putting money into independent production and creative skills in priority parts of the country."

Critics of the sell-off point out that C4 takes no public money, made £71 million operating profit last year, has developed extensive online services, and invests its income into more than 270 UK-based independent production companies. Much of the channel's content is produced outside of London and its new Leeds headquarters opened last September.

They have also pointed out that any new commercial owners will have to pay dividends to their shareholders, and that costly public service commitments – such as covering religion or carrying the channel's current commitment to news – will erode their potential profit margins.

Many observers see the potential sell-off as politically motivated, with C4 perceived as left-leaning and critical of the government.

Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds, has described the proposal as "ideologically driven and therefore short-sighted and wrong."

Peter Crumpler, former director of communications for the Church of England, shares the concern. He said, "As someone who was watched the UK media scene for many decades, the potential proceeds of the C4 sale seem small against the risks to the UK TV production sector, and the threat to home-grown programmes that explore the UK's rich diversity, including in the areas of faith, morality and ethics.

"Any decision to sell C4 seems born more of political doctrine, perhaps even vindictiveness, than a carefully considered approach to public service broadcasting.

"It will be interesting to see if the government has the determination to see through this privatisation, in the face of strong opposition in both Houses of Parliament.

"Given all the other pressures on it – from Ukraine to the spiralling cost of living and 'Partygate' – this controversial move seems hardly worth the energy it will expend."