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Almost since Channel 4 launched 38 years ago, with the first episode of Countdown, there has been speculation that it is facing privatisation.

In January 1983, just two months after the channel launched, Kevin Goldstein-Jackson – the executive who helped launch hits like Tales of the Unexpected and who later headed the ITV franchise operator Television South West – was calling for it to be privatised.

As Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation revolution rolled on through the 1980s, the calls kept coming, often from surprising directions.

In 1987, Michael Grade, who was then managing director of BBC television and who later went on to be dubbed Britain’s ‘pornographer in chief’ when he became Channel 4’s chief executive, said “it would be a very good thing indeed for British broadcasting if that were to happen”.

Culture Secretary John Whittingdale arrives in Downing Street, London, for the final Cabinet meeting with David Cameron as Prime Minister.
Image:
The FT reported that John Whittingdale, a firm supporter of a privatisation historically, is to lead a consultation

Somehow, though, Channel 4 managed to remain state-owned. The last serious calls for the broadcaster to be privatised came after David Cameron’s 2015 general election victory, when John Whittingdale, the then Culture Secretary and Matt Hancock, the then Cabinet Office Minister, were said to be pushing for it.

A key aspect to their proposal was that it would raise up to £1bn for the government.

Now, however, privatisation talk is again in the air.

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The Financial Times reported on Friday that Channel 4 will be “steered towards privatisation” by the UK government as soon as next year. It said ministers were set to launch a formal consultation within weeks on the future of the broadcaster.

This could, according to the FT, even see an outright sale of Channel 4.

Ominously for Channel 4, which has always opposed being privatised, the FT said the consultation would be run by Mr Whittingdale himself.

There are a number of reasons why the idea has resurfaced now. The first is that, in the eyes of some in government, Channel 4’s business model is under pressure. As a free-to-air broadcaster that has few programme rights to exploit, it is unusually exposed to the vagaries of the advertising market, as has been shown during the last year.

The broadcaster reported a pre-tax loss of £26m in 2019 – Channel 4 itself has put this down to the cost of opening its new site in Leeds – but then suffered a collapse in advertising revenues when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March last year.

Channel 4's London HQ. Pic: AP
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Channel 4’s historic headquarters in London (pictured) has been watered down through a new site in Leeds. Pic: AP

For its part, Channel 4 itself has said that it expects to report a surplus for the year, with advertising having bounced back strongly in the second half of the year.

The broadcaster also shored up its finances with aggressive cuts to its budget during the pandemic and by taking out loans. One indication of its recovery to financial health was that it repaid furlough money to the Treasury as long ago as last autumn.

It is also argued that the rise of streaming platforms like Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Netflix and the continued strength of multi-channel television broadcasters like Sky, the owner of Sky News, makes Channel 4 vulnerable to a loss of viewers that would eventually hit its advertising revenues.

Channel 4 has responded by arguing that, in 2020, it actually raised its share of television viewing, not only in terms of linear television, but also via digital platforms. It said at the end of last year that digital viewing now accounted for one in every eight hours of Channel 4 viewing.

Despite all this ministers fear that, as a business, Channel 4 is unusually vulnerable.

Earlier this year, Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, vetoed the reappointment of two of Channel 4’s directors, Uzma Hasan and Fru Hazlitt, even though both Channel 4 itself and Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, were supportive.

It was reported at the time that Mr Dowden wanted the two women, both of whom come from a production background, replaced with new directors boasting more financial experience.

Culture Secretary John Whittingdale arrives in Downing Street, London, for the final Cabinet meeting with David Cameron as Prime Minister.
Image:
The FT reported that John Whittingdale, a firm supporter of a privatisation historically, is to lead a consultation

Another reason why privatisation may be back on the agenda is the public finances.

Some in Whitehall believe that a significant sum of money could still be made from a sale of Channel 4 – although most analysts who have run the numbers believe any sale proceeds would fall well short of the £1bn mooted six years ago.

It is also argued that a new owner for Channel 4, with deep pockets, might help ensure the quality of its output. The problem is that there are few obvious buyers out there for the channel.

Most of the big US buyers who might be interested are focused on other things while Channel 4’s relative lack of intellectual property rights – a big contrast with, for example, ITV – means there would be few gains to be made by a big media buyer.

Viacom-CBS, the owner of Channel 5, is seen as the likeliest buyer but it, too, is more focused currently on building its streaming service, Paramount+, as well as trying to shore up confidence among its investors after a calamitous drop in its share price earlier this year related to the collapse of the hedge fund Archegos Capital.

Investors also suspect Viacom-CBS will be looking to conserve capital to invest more in content as it battles it out with rivals like Netflix and Disney, whose Disney+ streaming service has strongly outperformed Wall Street’s expectations, rather than use it buying an asset like Channel 4.

Channel 4 has prided itself on alternative programming. Pic: AP
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Channel 4 has prided itself on alternative, original programming throughout its history. Pic: AP

Moreover, if any of the big US broadcasters were interested in acquiring a UK free-to-air broadcaster, they are far more likely to alight on ITV which, unlike Channel 4, has its own production arm in ITV Studios and far more intellectual property assets to exploit.

That might make a flotation on the stock market, which would provide Channel 4 with more access to capital, as a likelier outcome – although it has been speculated in some quarters that ITV itself might be a buyer.

Expect Channel 4 to strongly resist any attempt to privatise it.

In the past the broadcaster has been able to muster a substantial lobbying campaign, relying on members of the arts establishment, to argue that its remit to produce distinctive programming would be jeopardised by a change of ownership.

It is also likely to point to the fact that it is a major investor in British content and spends heavily with independent production companies.

That, however, is a harder argument to make when the likes of Sky and Netflix are investing record sums in British programming, when the BBC’s drama output is still scoring hits and when ITV’s production arm is in such fine fettle.

In short, a lot of the arguments Channel 4 has used to resist privatisation in the past may not be as pertinent as was once the case.

This may represent Mr Whittingdale’s best opportunity yet to push for a policy he has sought for 25 years.

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Sub-postmaster wrongly sent to prison while pregnant rejects apology from ex-Post Office boss David Smith

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Sub-postmaster wrongly sent to prison while pregnant rejects apology from ex-Post Office boss David Smith

A victim of the Post Office scandal who was wrongly jailed while pregnant has rejected an apology from a former Post Office executive – who celebrated her conviction as “brilliant news” at the time.

Former managing director David Smith made the apology to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, saying: “I would absolutely never think that it was ‘brilliant news’ for a pregnant woman to go to prison and I am hugely apologetic that my email can be read as such.”

That victim, Seema Misra – who was sentenced to 15 months in jail and served four months while pregnant – said it wasn’t good enough.

“They’re apologising now, but they missed so many chances before,” Ms Misra told Sky News.

“We had my conviction overturned, nobody came at that time to apologise. And now they just suddenly realised that when they have to appear in a public inquiry, they have to apologise.”

The inquiry is investigating who knew what and when about the faulty accounting software that ruined lives, resulted in huge debts, ill-health, ruined reputations, and led to the conviction of hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters for theft and false accounting.

The scandal received renewed attention after an ITV drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, aired early this year and brought to life how Horizon software, developed by Fujitsu, incorrectly generated financial shortfalls at Post Office branches throughout the UK.

More on Post Office Scandal

Read more:
More than £1m claimed as ‘profit’ may have come from victims
Post Office hero Bates had seemingly been preparing for this day

‘Brilliant news’

In 2010 Mr Smith emailed Post Office prosecutors, congratulating them on a job well done in jailing Ms Misra for theft.

“Brilliant news. Well done. Please pass on my thanks to the team,” he said.

The message was intended to celebrate proving Horizon was robust, Mr Smith said, rather than someone going to prison.

“Regardless of the result, I would have thanked the team for their work on the case.”

“However, seeing this email in the light of what I know now, I understand the anger and the upset that it will have caused and sincerely apologise for that,” Mr Smith’s evidence statement to the inquiry said.

“It is evident that my email would have caused Seema Misra, and her family, substantial distress to read and I would like to apologise for that.”

Ms Misra’s conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal in 2021 but the memories of her time in prison still give her nightmares, she said.

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Sub-postmistress wrongly jailed while pregnant

A ‘test case’ that added confidence in Horizon

Mr Smith told the inquiry Ms Misra had been used as a “test case”.

The success of the case led to more confidence in Horizon, he said.

He said: “I do know that from this point forward, we didn’t really think about whether we should have an inquiry [into Horizon] again while I was at the Post Office and certainly if you looked at board minutes from the month after and the month after that which had been shared with me, we’re not talking about Horizon at all.”

In response, Ms Misra told Sky News: “How can they do a test on a human being?”

“I’m a living creature,” she added.

“I heard that my case has been used as a test case before. But hearing it again and again, it’s just annoying. It makes me more and more angry, to be honest.”

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A wrongly convicted pregnant sub-postmaster has told Sky News she

Flora Page, a barrister representing some sub-postmasters, said the trial of Ms Misra was being “actively used by Post Office as part of [its] campaign to claim that Horizon was robust”.

This was denied by Mr Smith.

Ms Page questioned Mr Smith at the inquiry about what the Post Office knew before putting Ms Misra behind bars and said prosecutors were alerted to bugs in Horizon on a Friday.

On the following Monday Ms Misra’s trial began, the inquiry heard.

Documentation submitted to the inquiry showed a Fujitsu witness in Ms Misra’s case was present at a pre-trial meeting where bugs in Horizon were being discussed, Ms Page said.

The meeting “made it perfectly plain that Fujitsu had the power to remotely alter branch accounts”, as the option was put forward as a way to resolve the receipts and payments mismatch bug in Horizon, she added.

At the time, Mr Smith said, he was unaware of the meeting and documents.

Former managing director of Post Office Ltd David Smith, arrives to give evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry.
Pic: PA
Image:
Former managing director of Post Office Ltd David Smith, arrives to give evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry.
Pic: PA

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‘Inherent risks’ in Post Office prosecuting

The Post Office was allowed to investigate and bring prosecutions itself and did not require Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) involvement.

Reflecting on how prosecutions were carried out, Mr Smith told the inquiry there are “risks” within the system.

In-house prosecution “can lead you to a position where you might not think as independently as you should do about the quality of the information”, he said.

None of these issues occurred to Mr Smith during his tenure.

He said: “I cannot recall thinking that any risk or compliance issues arose from [the Post Office] undertaking this role, but with the benefit of hindsight, and in light of the wrongful prosecutions, I can see the inherent risks in the prosecutions taking place ‘in house’ and not by an independent enforcement authority.”

At the time the organisation was too focused on other issues, such as the Post Office separating from Royal Mail, the new coalition government, and the need to refinance the business, he said.

The company board was “pre-occupied” with investment from the government, his witness statement said.

“Therefore, although we were aware of the case, at board level we were not heavily focused on it as our attention was on keeping the business running,” he added.

It was down to “institutional bias” that led executives not to interrogate what was being said by sub-postmasters and the public about Horizon, he added.

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Port Talbot steelworkers vote to strike over proposed furnace closures

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Port Talbot steelworkers vote to strike over proposed furnace closures

Hundreds of steelworkers are set to go on strike over the proposed closure of Port Talbot’s blast furnaces.

Unite the Union announced the result of its strike ballot on Thursday but walkout dates are yet to be confirmed.

Around 1,500 workers based in Port Talbot and Newport voted in favour of strikes.

It will be the first time in more than 40 years that Port Talbot steelworkers have gone on strike.

Thousands of jobs could be lost in the South Wales town should Tata Steel proceed with proposals to shut both blast furnaces.

Unions are warning that a total of up to 2,800 jobs could be lost if Tata’s plans go ahead.

Unite’s general secretary Sharon Graham described the ballot result as a “historic vote”.

“Unite will be at the forefront of the fight to save steelmaking in Wales,” she added.

“We will support steel by all and every means.”

‘Competitive and greener’

The proposals were officially confirmed in January, with Tata boss TV Narendran telling MPs the decision was “pretty much” a done deal.

Tata said the move will mark the beginning of a new way of steelmaking which is “competitive and greener”.

But there are concerns in Port Talbot about its impact on the local economy, with the plant’s workforce currently accounting for 12% of the town’s population.

Unite argues that other European countries are transitioning to ensure a “bright future” for the steel industry.

It says the blast furnaces at the Tata plant in the Netherlands are being kept open and that in Germany more steel is being produced at a single plant than by the entire UK industry.

Unite Wales regional secretary Peter Hughes said its members would “not be intimidated into standing by”.

“Our members have their union’s absolute support in striking to stop these cuts – Unite is backing them every step of the way,” he added.

The Community union is currently balloting its members at Tata for industrial action.

Read more from Ed Conway:
Why British steel is on brink of extinction

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A Tata Steel spokesperson said the company was “naturally disappointed” by the decision.

The spokesperson added that Tata was engaged in a consultation process with the unions on its proposals.

They said the consultation “continues in an open, collaborative and constructive fashion”.

The firm says it has written twice to Unite during the ballot process to “notify them of significant irregularities in the ballot process they have undertaken”.

“While the £1.25bn commitment with the UK government will ensure a long-term viable future for low-CO2 steelmaking in the UK, our current business is unsustainable, reporting losses of more than £1m a day,” the spokesperson added.

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Sub-postmaster wrongly sent to prison while pregnant rejects apology from ex-Post Office boss David Smith

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Sub-postmaster wrongly sent to prison while pregnant rejects apology from ex-Post Office boss David Smith

A victim of the Post Office scandal who was wrongly jailed while pregnant has rejected an apology from a former Post Office executive – who celebrated her conviction as “brilliant news” at the time.

Former managing director David Smith made the apology to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, saying: “I would absolutely never think that it was ‘brilliant news’ for a pregnant woman to go to prison and I am hugely apologetic that my email can be read as such.”

That victim, Seema Misra – who was sentenced to 15 months in jail and served four months while pregnant – said it wasn’t good enough.

“They’re apologising now, but they missed so many chances before,” Ms Misra told Sky News.

“We had my conviction overturned, nobody came at that time to apologise. And now they just suddenly realised that when they have to appear in a public inquiry, they have to apologise.”

The inquiry is investigating who knew what and when about the faulty accounting software that ruined lives, resulted in huge debts, ill-health, ruined reputations, and led to the conviction of hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters for theft and false accounting.

The scandal received renewed attention after an ITV drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, aired early this year and brought to life how Horizon software, developed by Fujitsu, incorrectly generated financial shortfalls at Post Office branches throughout the UK.

More on Post Office Scandal

Read more:
More than £1m claimed as ‘profit’ may have come from victims
Post Office hero Bates had seemingly been preparing for this day

‘Brilliant news’

In 2010 Mr Smith emailed Post Office prosecutors, congratulating them on a job well done in jailing Ms Misra for theft.

“Brilliant news. Well done. Please pass on my thanks to the team,” he said.

The message was intended to celebrate proving Horizon was robust, Mr Smith said, rather than someone going to prison.

“Regardless of the result, I would have thanked the team for their work on the case.”

“However, seeing this email in the light of what I know now, I understand the anger and the upset that it will have caused and sincerely apologise for that,” Mr Smith’s evidence statement to the inquiry said.

“It is evident that my email would have caused Seema Misra, and her family, substantial distress to read and I would like to apologise for that.”

Ms Misra’s conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal in 2021 but the memories of her time in prison still give her nightmares, she said.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Sub-postmistress wrongly jailed while pregnant

A ‘test case’ that added confidence in Horizon

Mr Smith told the inquiry Ms Misra had been used as a “test case”.

The success of the case led to more confidence in Horizon, he said.

He said: “I do know that from this point forward, we didn’t really think about whether we should have an inquiry [into Horizon] again while I was at the Post Office and certainly if you looked at board minutes from the month after and the month after that which had been shared with me, we’re not talking about Horizon at all.”

In response, Ms Misra told Sky News: “How can they do a test on a human being?”

“I’m a living creature,” she added.

“I heard that my case has been used as a test case before. But hearing it again and again, it’s just annoying. It makes me more and more angry, to be honest.”

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

A wrongly convicted pregnant sub-postmaster has told Sky News she

Flora Page, a barrister representing some sub-postmasters, said the trial of Ms Misra was being “actively used by Post Office as part of [its] campaign to claim that Horizon was robust”.

This was denied by Mr Smith.

Ms Page questioned Mr Smith at the inquiry about what the Post Office knew before putting Ms Misra behind bars and said prosecutors were alerted to bugs in Horizon on a Friday.

On the following Monday Ms Misra’s trial began, the inquiry heard.

Documentation submitted to the inquiry showed a Fujitsu witness in Ms Misra’s case was present at a pre-trial meeting where bugs in Horizon were being discussed, Ms Page said.

The meeting “made it perfectly plain that Fujitsu had the power to remotely alter branch accounts”, as the option was put forward as a way to resolve the receipts and payments mismatch bug in Horizon, she added.

At the time, Mr Smith said, he was unaware of the meeting and documents.

Former managing director of Post Office Ltd David Smith, arrives to give evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry.
Pic: PA
Image:
Former managing director of Post Office Ltd David Smith, arrives to give evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry.
Pic: PA

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Keep up with all the latest news from the UK and around the world by following Sky News

Tap here

‘Inherent risks’ in Post Office prosecuting

The Post Office was allowed to investigate and bring prosecutions itself and did not require Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) involvement.

Reflecting on how prosecutions were carried out, Mr Smith told the inquiry there are “risks” within the system.

In-house prosecution “can lead you to a position where you might not think as independently as you should do about the quality of the information”, he said.

None of these issues occurred to Mr Smith during his tenure.

He said: “I cannot recall thinking that any risk or compliance issues arose from [the Post Office] undertaking this role, but with the benefit of hindsight, and in light of the wrongful prosecutions, I can see the inherent risks in the prosecutions taking place ‘in house’ and not by an independent enforcement authority.”

At the time the organisation was too focused on other issues, such as the Post Office separating from Royal Mail, the new coalition government, and the need to refinance the business, he said.

The company board was “pre-occupied” with investment from the government, his witness statement said.

“Therefore, although we were aware of the case, at board level we were not heavily focused on it as our attention was on keeping the business running,” he added.

It was down to “institutional bias” that led executives not to interrogate what was being said by sub-postmasters and the public about Horizon, he added.

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