Lord Burns: Privatising Channel 4 would be very damaging

Lord Burns: Privatising Channel 4 would be very damaging

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By Words by Steve Clarke, Photos by Paul Hampartsoumian,
Wednesday, 13th January 2016
David Abraham and Lord Burns
Paul Hampartsoumian

Out-going Channel 4 chairman, Lords Burns, praised the broadcaster’s unique financial model at a valedictory RTS dinner.

Burns, who stands down from Channel 4 later this month, told an audience of senior broadcasters, MPs and producers that its not-for-profit structure continues to be successful. 

Since his appointment in 2009, when the UK economy was on its knees, Channel 4 had delivered consistent yearly growth in advertising revenue, he pointed out.  

Burns reiterated his opposition to privatising Channel 4, an option back on the Government’s agenda.

However, he said it was worth considering if the broadcaster should make a fixed financial return to the state.

The former Treasury Permanent Secretary said he had been involved in a number of privatisations in the past.

Lord Burns
Lord Burns. Pic by Paul Hampartsoumian 

There were two reasons to consider selling off a company – would the firm benefit financially and would it help the overall industry.   

“I assume there are investigations to see whether a change in ownership and the way in which Channel 4 is set up will improve public service broadcasting in this country,” Burns said. 

“It seems 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 it could possibly hope to need over the forthcoming years. 

“If you recall, it is still quite heavily into banks and other organisations.

“No doubt there is a debate to be had. I am more than happy to engage in the issue of whether or not it could improve public service broadcasting in this country. 

“My view quite clearly is that any substantial change in the ownership of Channel 4 towards an equity-based ownership would be very damaging.”

He added: “The fact is that Channel 4 is a very extraordinary invention. The notion that you should have something in the public sector with a remit from Parliament that is commercially funded, that commissions all of its programmes from independent producers has worked extraordinarily well.

“I think the secret is that it is essentially a not-for-profit business.”

Asked by his interviewer, RTS President Peter Bazalgette, if the Government was discussing privatising Channel 4 because it does not share financially in the broadcaster’s success, Burns suggested this might be the case. 

“That is something that could be debated. That is something that could be constructed,” said Burns.  

“I would be much less opposed to something which would require that we paid a fixed return than if we were owned by people who had the responsibility of returning profits to shareholders.”      

Prior to being appointed chair of Channel 4, Lords Burns was a special advisor to the then Labour Government review of the BBC’s charter in 2006-7.

As the current charter review process speeds up, some commentators have suggested BBC charter settlements should last for five years instead of the traditional ten years.

Burns opposed such a move. He said: “It would be a terrible mistake [to introduce five-year charters]. 

"Charter review is a very long drawn out process and an important issue for the BBC.

“If the BBC’s independence is to be maintained and the BBC is not spending all its time planning for the next charter, it should be ten years.”


The Lord Burns valedictory dinner was held at the House of Lords on 12 January. A full report will be published in the February edition of Television magazine.   

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Out-going Channel 4 chairman, Lords Burns, praised the broadcaster’s unique financial model at a valedictory RTS dinner.