Lord Burns: "No financial reason" to privatise Channel 4

Lord Burns, the outgoing chairman of Channel 4, has said he can see "no financial reason" to privatise the broadcaster.

Lord Burns: the outgoing chairman of Channel 4
Lord Burns: the outgoing chairman of Channel 4

Sir Peter Bazalgette, the chair of Arts Council England and a former chair of Endemol UK, interviewed Burns at a valedictory dinner hosted at the House of Lords last night by the Royal Television Society.

Burns, who was involved in a number of privatisations in his time as the permanent secretary to the Treasury, said there are normally two reasons that are put forward for a change of ownership: "whether or not there is any financial reason for doing it" and "whether it will actually improve the industry".

The government was forced to confirm it was looking at the future of Channel 4 last year after a press photographer snapped a photograph of a policy document being carried by an official on his way into Downing Street.

Burns continued: "I assume that what is going on there is an investigation going on into whether there is any chance to the ownership that would improve public service broadcasting in this country. I certainly hope that’s the reason why.

"On the first test, it seems to me there is no financial reason for it at all. The government has got as much in the way of asset sales available to it as you could possibly hope to need over the forthcoming years. If you recall it’s still quite heavily into banks and other organisations.

"There is a debate to be had and I’m more than happy to engage on the issue of whether or not it could improve public service broadcasting in this country. My view is any substantial change towards an equity-based ownership would be very damaging."

Burns said he would not be opposed to Channel 4 having investors that received a fixed rate of return or possibly a future arrangement whereby the broadcaster returned some money to the government.

"That is something that could be debated and constructed," he said to a question from Bazalgette.

Burns continued: "I’m very happy to have investors in Channel 4 if they are to receive a fixed rate of return. But once they want an equity-style return, which depends upon the long-term return to shareholders, then that begins to cause a problem.

"It wouldn’t cause a problem immediately. But this is something that would gradually eat away. The whole history of ITV and Channel 5 has been to gradually eat away at the requirements. And I’m not blaming them for that. It’s what happens."