Ministers are reviewing the decisions to privatise Channel 4 and to scrap the BBC licence fee, the new culture secretary has said, saying she is “re-examining the business case”.
Michelle Donelan said that as culture secretary she would look at the BBC licence fee “in the round” but declined to say whether it could be scrapped. Donelan also said she was revisiting the online harms bill and the provisions around “legal but harmful” speech.
All of those policies were major announcements under her predecessor, Nadine Dorries, who declined an offer to serve as culture secretary under Liz Truss.
Donelan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that she would take a fresh look at the benefits and costs of privatising Channel 4 – which the broadcaster and others have argued would hurt the many small production companies it works with.
“As the prime minister said, we do need to re-examine the business case and that’s certainly what I’m doing. We are … making sure we still agree with that decision and that’s what I’m doing,” she said.
“I’m the type of politician that bases their decisions on evidence, on listening and that’s what I will be doing over the coming weeks. I will take that approach when it comes to Channel 4 and every aspect of my brief.”
Donelan said she would also look again at the BBC licence fee, after Dorries had previously announced the next licence fee deal “would be the last”.
“It is no secret that I have been a long-term sceptic of the licence fee and that we need to make sure that the BBC is sustainable in the long term. So I’m looking at this in the round,” Donelan said.
“I’m somebody that listens, I’m somebody that decides policy based on evidence and that’s what I will be doing over the coming weeks.”
She declined to say outright whether she still believed the licence fee should be scrapped but said rival TV services from Netflix and Amazon raised questions about whether “the current model that the BBC uses is actually sustainable in the long term and is providing that choice element to the general public”.
Earlier, Donelan praised the BBC’s coverage of the Queen’s funeral and acknowledged that streaming services could not provide that kind of live broadcast.
“I think the BBC have done a tremendous job in the last few days and nobody could fault them. I went to see the operation and it was phenomenal and required everyone to get their heads down and prioritise public service through the period and they did that, spot on,” she said.
“It showed the true value of the BBC but for me that means it’s even more important that we make sure the BBC is sustainable in the long-term.”
Donelan said that the government would be bringing the online safety bill back to the Commons “as soon as we possibly can”, but she admitted there was new work being done on the bill relevant to free speech concerns about a provision for “legal but harmful speech”.
She said there would be no watering down of the protection the bill creates for what children can view online.
“We will be bringing it back to the house as soon as we possibly can. It does require a little bit of work, not in relation to protecting children online. Absolutely not,” she told Sky News.
“We’re not changing any of that, but we want to make sure that we’ve got the balance right in terms of free speech in relation to adults.”
John McVay, chief executive of Pact, the trade body for independent TV and film production companies, said: “The new prime minister has made it clear her priority is to drive growth. Privatising Channel 4 would do the opposite, endangering the future of thousands of British production companies and endangering the future prospects of a thriving industry which has a presence right across the country.
“It literally makes no sense to try and find a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist and that is why I am delighted that the new culture secretary has committed to re-examining the business case for privatising Channel 4.”