Government officials have asked Channel 4 to remove parts of the annual report ‘disagreeing’ with privatization

Email exchanges between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Channel 4 published under freedom of information laws reveal that government officials requested a total of ten changes to the annual report, including the removal of three separate references to the “long-term sustainability” of the diffuser.

The released emails reveal that the department’s top official, Permanent Secretary Sarah Healey, was aware of the attempt to make changes. The DCMS has not responded whether Culture Secretary Ms Dorries or other ministers were aware of the issue at this stage or when they became aware of it.

The government is seeking to sell Channel 4 in a move that could fetch more than £1billion on the grounds that it would be better for the broadcaster’s long-term future. Currently, the public channel is financed by advertising revenue.

Changes to Channel 4’s annual report have been requested by officials from Nadine Dorries’ Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

In April, Ms Dorries said she believed ‘government ownership prevented Channel 4 from competing with streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon’ and added that privatization would give Channel 4 ‘the tools and the freedom to s ‘thrive and prosper as a public service broadcaster for a long time’. the future”.

A freedom of information request from the Yorkshire Post has now revealed that on June 9 a senior DCMS official sent an email to Channel 4 setting out a series of suggested changes to the wording of the report.

The email, from an official whose name was redacted in the FoI response but whose job title is Deputy Director of Television Policy, reads: “Having now reviewed the project, I would like to raise a few concerns about the substance of the report.

‘As you know, in April we set out the Government’s position that the time has come for a change of ownership of Channel 4, and after that it was announced in the Queen’s Speech that a legislation would be introduced to facilitate the sale.

“Some of the language used in the report appears to contradict the government’s clear position and the assurances we have received from the board and management that you are willing to work with us.

“I have attached a table setting out our specific areas of concern and suggested changes. Until these issues are resolved I am afraid I will not be able to submit the report to ministers and therefore cannot commit to any a publication schedule.

Ten different changes sought in government’s ‘suggested actions’ chart

The attached chart contained 10 changes that DCMS wanted to make to the report, along with “suggested actions” that the department felt were appropriate.

The first change sought was to the opening title of the report, which read ‘More than one side to every story’ above a photo of Channel 4 chairman Sir Ian Cheshire and the start of his introductory statement .

The government memo read: “Although it does not explicitly refer to what ‘history’ is, given the ongoing discussions around privatization, this can be interpreted to mean that the president is not not entirely in favor of the government’s decision. Suggest changing the title.

Two references in Sir Ian’s statement on Channel 4’s long-term sustainability were also highlighted.

In both cases, the government memo read: “Suggest deleting the highlighted sentence: the government has clearly expressed its position on the long-term sustainability of C4.”

Regarding another reference in the financial review section of the report which stated that the balance sheet improvements “only serve to underline the long-term viability of Channel 4”, the government memo reads: “Remove highlighted text, government position on long-term sustainability has been clarified.”

Another requested change to Sir Ian’s statement was a reference to the “lengthy” legislative privatization process. The government memo read: “Suggest deleting the highlighted word: there is no evidence that the legislative process will be long.”

DCMS also requested the removal of a later reference in the report’s notes that the legislative process was “lengthy.”

Substantial changes were also requested in relation to the statement by the Chief Executive Officer, Ms Mahon.

A passage from Ms Mahon which the DCMS wanted to remove was: “In our engagement with the Government, we put forward a vision for the next 40 years of Channel 4 which we were confident would allow us to build on the successes of the first 40. This vision was rooted in continued public ownership and built on the enormous public value our model has delivered to date – and the potential to deliver so much more in the future.

The government memo read: ‘Factually incorrect, no vision for the next 40 years was offered – The next installment was a 10 year plan. Suggest deleting the highlighted sentences, the government’s decision has been made. »

When the Next Episode document was published by Channel 4 in May 2022, he had in fact said that it was an outline of proposals to “ensure that Channel 4 can thrive over the next 40 years”.

In another part of Ms Mahon’s comments, the government memo highlighted two sentences it considered contentious.

The first read: ‘But ultimately Channel 4 is owned by the government to propose and Parliament to decide.’

The second, which was part of a longer sentence, read: ‘Our job is to deliver what Parliament asks us to do, and if or when that changes…’.

The comments read: “Suggest deleting the highlighted sentences, the government’s decision has been made. The president is committed that C4 will cooperate with the government in preparation for the sale.”

DCMS also wanted the deletion of a sentence in the section on strategic and financial outlook and sustainability of the report which read: “Following the Government’s White Paper published in April 2022, setting out its intention to proceed with the privatization of Channel 4 , management’s focus remains on the implementation of the Future4 strategy and our public service mission.

The government’s comments on this sentence read: “This could imply that C4 will not cooperate with the privatization. Suggest either deleting a sentence or adding an addition to say that “management’s focus remains on engaging with government and implementing the Future4 strategy and our public service mission”.

On June 15, after the deputy director of DCMS emailed Channel 4 asking if the comments on the annual report had been considered, a reply was sent stating that the matter was with the director general and the President for review.

On June 23, the Deputy Director of DCMS said: “We haven’t heard from you regarding our suggestions for changes to the annual report, but as I’m sure you too, we’re keen to publish it before the summer holidays. summer.

“So in the interest of time, we’re just laying it down as is, with no changes.”

Details of the attempted amendments were made public in July when Ms Mahon gave evidence to MPs on the DCMS Select Committee, where she reminded them that Channel 4 is an independent statutory body which is “fully accountable to Parliament but totally independent of the government”. “.

Regarding the requests for changes requested by DCMS, she said: “This is the first time that I know of in 40 years that there have been questions about the annual report.”

She also told the hearing that the view on the sustainability of the broadcaster in its current form was shared by the Independent Auditor. Deloitte was appointed to verify the report, with DCMS approval.

Auditor Deloitte said Channel 4’s report was a “true and fair view” of the state of the organisation’s finances.

Ms Mahon told MPs: ‘It is normal in an annual report for independent auditors to talk about the sustainability of the organization, an ongoing operating position, whether you assume the organization continue to. The auditors had a strong opinion on that, as did we. As you know, government policy is to ask whether Channel 4 is financially viable. It is the difference of opinion.

Following Ms Mahon’s appearance in Parliament, the DCMS admitted they had asked for changes, but played down the significance of their attempted involvement.

A DCMS spokesman said today that the new details made public did not change that position. “These documents only confirm what we have already said publicly, namely that during the normal process of discussion, we have pointed out that certain terms in the Channel 4 report could be interpreted as going against the company’s commitment, given to civil servants and ministers, to refrain from campaigning against privatization.

“As owners of Channel 4, the government has full right to comment on the content of its annual report. It is the government’s job to take a long-term view on how best to secure the future the more successful Channel 4 in a rapidly changing media landscape and we believe that private ownership will give the broadcaster the tools to innovate and grow at its own pace.”

Channel 4 declined to comment.

Copy of senior department official in key email

The top official in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been briefed on the attempts to make changes, FoI’s response says.

Two hours before the table of planned changes was sent to Channel 4 on the evening of June 9, an email from a redacted DCMS representative was sent to a Channel 4 employee. The name of that person had also been redacted but appears to be the broadcaster’s chairman, Sir Ian Cheshire.

The email, titled “Next Steps”, has been largely redacted by DCMS, but shows that the department’s permanent secretary, who is Sarah Healey, has been copied.

The section of text that has not been redacted reads: “I mentioned to you on the phone the text in your and Alex’s updates. We believe this continues to argue against the government’s position d ‘in a way that is not in the spirit of the commitments we have made to each other’.

He adds: “I think people are discussing specific changes we’d like to see in there, so happy to continue if it can’t be resolved otherwise.”

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