Sir Roger Marsh OBE DL: Channel 4's Leeds HQ at risk if station is privatised

In an article for the Yorkshire Post, Sir Roger Marsh OBE DL argues that the privatisation of Channel 4 would be damaging to the UK’s broadcasting landscape.

In 2018 I led the team that secured Channel 4’s new, national headquarters for Leeds, beating strong competition from Manchester and Birmingham. Our campaign, Be the Spark, highlighted what makes our region so special and how Channel 4 would bring opportunities to, and benefit from, our young, creative, digitally-savvy population. 

Helping to bring Channel 4 to Leeds is one of the proudest achievements of my professional life, which has seen me working as Director General of Strategic Finance and Operations in the Cabinet Office, to the nearly four decades - including 25 years as a partner - I spent with business restructuring experts PWC, then as chair of the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership since 2013, and more recently chair of the NP11 group of Northern LEPs. 

In recent days the broadcaster has moved into its new permanent home in Leeds city centre’s state-of-the-art Majestic offices, bringing with it 200 new jobs. But this is being overshadowed by the government’s plans for privatisation and with the broadcaster’s future in our region now uncertain, we are looking to ‘Save The Spark’. 

The government says changing the ownership model of Channel 4 is necessary to reshape the broadcaster, to allow it to access capital, and give it the financial stability and agility to compete in a globalised, streaming-led future. We believe this is not necessary, and would be profoundly damaging to UK broadcasting and the creative industries. 

Emerging stronger from the pandemic

Channel 4 is in robust financial health. While advertising revenues were impacted in the early stages of the pandemic, this was not unique to Channel 4, and they bounced back strongly in the second half of the year. Channel 4 has reported its strongest ever financial results in 2020, delivering a record financial surplus and allowing it to invest more in content. 

Through its All4 platform, Channel 4 is already a UK market leader in streaming. Total views have more than doubled since 2016, with usage of the platform growing by more than half during the pandemic. Online now accounts for one in eight of its audience - ahead of other UK broadcasters - with an ambitious roadmap to double online viewership and generate 40% of revenue through digital and non-advertising by 2025. 

As an advertising-funded publisher-broadcaster, Channel 4 operates without cost to the taxpayer. This model is of enormous benefit to independent producers, allowing them to retain intellectual property rights and generate revenue from global sales, which can be reinvested in developing talent. 

Locally produced series like Ackley Bridge are available on Netflix, bringing them to a worldwide audience. In summer, Channel 4 and Sky expanded on their commercial partnership that sees All4 available on Sky’s set top boxes. 

Private ownership, which would likely look to commission and own more content produced in-house, jeopardises this interdependent operating model. 

The Spark for our region's creative sector

Channel 4 choosing Leeds has been a catalyst for our region’s important and fast-growing creative and cultural sector. On the back of the decision, some of the UK’s largest independent producers, such as The Garden and eOne, have moved to the region with others such as True North, Daisybeck and Candour expanding their presence. This is alongside over 110,000 sq. ft of new studio space and production facilities opening at the new Leeds Versa Studios and plans for more studio space in the pipeline. 

These decisions to invest in our region, alongside significant public sector financial support, have been made in good faith on the basis of Channel 4’s long-term presence and commitment to the North. We can see how this is paying wider societal dividends beyond economic growth. 

Through its Nations and Regions strategy, introduced by the government in 2017, it is required to spend half its commissioning budget outside of London and is on track to do so by the end of the year. Already, Channel 4 has contributed £105 million to the economy in the North of England, supporting 1,132 jobs. More broadly, in 2019 it contributed at least £274 million to the regional economy, as well as supporting around 3,000 jobs in the Nations and Regions. 

Moreover, this burgeoning independent production sector set alongside the production ecosystem that has developed around MediaCity following the BBC’s relocation to Salford creates a true creative Northern powerhouse. It also supports the aspirations of our young people, demonstrating that they don’t have to move down to London to build a career in the media. 

We estimate that over the next 10 years Channel 4’s presence in Leeds will add £1 billion to our economy and create a further 1,200 skilled jobs in the creative sector and supporting industries. 

This is a concrete example of levelling-up in action and the government’s commitment to better serving the North, which would be put at risk if Channel 4 were in the private sector. 

Independent analysis from EY shows that over the next decade, a privately-owned Channel 4 that is no longer a publisher-broadcaster could leave the UK creative sector £2 billion worse off, with a quarter of jobs in the independent production sector at risk. The disproportionate impact of this, it says, would be felt by the regional economy, as well as threatening the future of the UK’s internationally renowned production sector. 

A unique voice in British broadcasting

All this is possible because of Channel 4’s unique remit to take risks as a public service broadcaster, which since first coming on air in 1982, has seen it consistently showcase a diverse range of voices and points of view, and to dare to be innovative. 

It is one of the few broadcasters with a significant youth audience, tackling major issues with the ability to take risks and spark national conversations, such as Russell T Davies’ critically acclaimed AIDS-era drama It’s A Sin which aired earlier this year. 

Whether pioneering streaming, to building partnerships with the likes of Snapchat and TikTok, televising the recent Tokyo Paralympics, or working with Amazon to secure the rights to show Emma Raducanu’s historic US Open final - seen by over 9 million people - time and again, Channel 4 has proven its agility in responding to the changing media landscape. 

This true public service broadcasting ethos makes it one of the most diverse and representative broadcasters, giving voice to alternative viewpoints and marginalised communities. Indeed, this commitment to diversity both in front of and behind the camera was one of the main factors behind its decision to choose Leeds. 

A privately owned Channel 4 could not maintain this model, commitment to diverse communities or relationship to the nations and regions. There may indeed be a case for tweaking the broadcaster’s operating model in an ever-changing and hugely competitive media landscape, but privatisation is not the answer in my view: role rather than ownership. 

Sir Roger Marsh OBE DL

Chair of the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership and NP11 Group of Northern LEPs

An edited version of this article appeared in the Yorkshire Post.