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David Puttnam

Abraham hits back at Whittingdale's privatisation plans

Abraham hits back at Whittingdale's privatisation plans

21 March, 2016


Abraham hits back at Whittingdale's privatisation plans

David Abraham has hit back at claims from culture secretary John Whittingdale that privatisation would liberate the broadcaster and redefine its “fuzzy” remit.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Whittingdale dismissed speculation he had gone off the idea of a sale and said C4 was “restrained” by its current model.  

But speaking at an event held for the Future for Public Service Television Inquiry in Westminster last night [14 March], the Channel 4 chief executive said he was “puzzled” by the remarks and claimed the culture secretary was basing “a huge decision” on “a vague existential threat of dangers unproven”.

“It does not feel fuzzy to me,” Abraham added. “C4 is more distinctive than other broadcasters - it’s taking more risks, it doesn’t feel particularly vague to me.”

He drew on his seven years at US broadcaster Discovery Networks, which included a four-year stint as general manager of Discovery UK, to argue that commercial interests would always trump public service commitments for broadcasters.

“My job at Discovery was to maximise the profit line of the channel I was running,” he said.

“That would mean working with fewer production companies. I would do more entertainment, I would cut news, I would cut film and I wouldn’t do comedy. I would cut back on original drama. When you’re running a commercial broadcaster there are places you don’t go but there is nowhere C4 wouldn’t go in the public interest.”

He went on to question the credibility of Whittingdale’s pledge to protect C4’s remit, arguing that privatising the broadcaster and maintain its current remit intact was unfeasible.

“If I look back at my time working in America, one of my jobs was to lobby for the reduction of the remit I signed up to one day one and relieve myself of those promises I made,” he said.

Fuzzy remit

Conservative peer Lord Inglewood, a former chair of the Lords communications committee, criticised Whittingdale’s recent claim that “the reason for doing this is not because George [Osborne] wants some money.”

Inglewood said: “I was reminded of King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. I’m sure that King Henry didn’t terribly care for the monks. He was more interested in the assets they had that he could distribute to his friends.”

He argued that a “fuzzy” remit was no bad thing and actually facilitated creative freedom. He agreed with the C4 boss that privatisation would inevitably put it under pressure.

“What’s wrong with a fuzzy remit? The National Gallery isn’t full of paintings by numbers. C4 is a cultural phenomenon in this country. It’s not just a TV company, it’s more like a parallel arts council. It’s not about the remit being specific, it’s about the output.” 

He added: “If you as a shareholder put money into something then you want money to be generated. That’s perfectly reasonable but it will put pressure on the remit.”

Abraham repeated his criticism of the government’s handling of the issue, stating that he had found the entire process “immensely confusing”.

“First we were told privatisation was not an option, then there was the leak, then there was silence. We were told we’d have an answer by January. Now it’s March. We’re just waiting to get some clarity.”

Written by Miranda Blazeby, Broadcast