Rishi Sunak has pledged to push ahead with the privatization of Channel 4 if he becomes prime minister, clearing the way for the sale of the broadcaster next year.
His backing for privatization all but kills any hope that Channel 4 bosses had that a new Conservative leader might choose to drop the sale process, which is opposed by the vast majority of the British media industry.
Instead, support for privatization appears to have become an easy way for the two remaining Tory leadership candidates to signal their free market credentials to party members who will choose the next prime minister.
Liz Truss, the other remaining leadership candidate, is also believed to support the privatization of Channel 4 although her spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.
Truss is attempting to portray herself as the pro-privatisation free market heir to Margaret Thatcher – although it was the former Tory prime minister who founded Channel 4 as a publicly owned institution in the 1980s.
The sale of Channel 4 is strongly supported by the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, who is a vocal supporter of Truss.
Plans for Channel 4’s privatization had been expected to be published before parliament finished for the summer recess. However, the legislation was delayed by legal drafting issues and the defenestration of Boris Johnson. Instead it is expected to be ready when parliament returns – under a new prime minister – in the autumn.
Channel 4, which recently recorded its strongest ever financial results, insists it does not need to be privatized. It has claimed that a new commercial owner would seek to extract bigger profits and undermine the broadcaster’s commitment to reinvest profits in distinctive content. Although a significant number of Conservative MPs have concerns about privatisation, many are relatively apathetic on the issue.
A Sunak campaign spokesperson said: “Rishi will take forward Channel 4’s privatization. Channel 4 is a crucial part of British broadcasting and supports our brilliant creative industries, but a lot has changed since the 1980s when it was set up to provide viewers with more choice.
“Privatization will help Channel 4 to thrive in an age where they are also competing with Netflix, Amazon, Apple and many more – standing still is not an option.”