The govt must make its intentions clear over C4
A view from Gideon Spanier

The govt must make its intentions clear over C4

It is time for the government to end the uncertainty over Channel 4 privatisation.

The broadcaster is in danger of creative drift if it is left in limbo for much longer.

One does not have to agree with Vince Cable – the former business secretary who declared last weekend that selling Channel 4 would be "an act of cultural vandalism" – to think that the broadcaster is a rare jewel in British TV. If ministers want to sell this unique, alternative, public-service broadcaster, owned by taxpayers but funded through advertising, they should go public with a credible plan.

The Tories have said little (after first denying last summer that they were considering a sell-off) but they have been asking in recent weeks for new, detailed information about Channel 4’s finances.

The broadcaster’s 2015 figures ought to look good. The TV ad market rose 8 per cent, with the promise of more growth this year, and peak-time viewing increased.

No wonder buyers are circling. Likely contenders include BT (which this week refused to rule out a bid), Discovery Communications (which would love a free-to-air platform for its live Olympics rights) and Comcast (which has ruled out a bid for ITV).

Then there are other bidders with bank or private-equity finance. Lord Grade, the former Channel 4 boss, is said to be considering whether to get involved, although he insists he has no plans. Luke Johnson, a former chairman, is also apparently interested.

If nothing else, this suggests that would-be buyers think they could make a lot out of a privately owned Channel 4 and it could be worth far more than its supposed £1 billion price tag.

David Abraham, the chief executive, made a strong case for maintaining the status quo in an article for Campaign in December, in which he argued that Channel 4’s reputation for risk-taking and investment in original, British programming would be imperilled if it were run for profit. Many in adland don’t want to meddle with the broadcaster, whose edgy programming attracts young and hard-to-reach audiences.

But none of this should prevent us from having a vigorous debate about what a future Channel 4 should look like – something from which its management has so far appeared to shy away.

Grade, speaking to the Broadcasting Press Guild last month, argued persuasively that safeguards could be put in place to protect Channel 4’s remit as part of a sale.

It’s a fair question to ask: at a time when new players such as Netflix and Amazon are disrupting the market, would Channel 4 be set up today as it was back in 1982?

Let’s get on with it, ministers.