New U.K. Culture Secretary Makes First Public Statements on Future of BBC License Fee, Channel 4: ‘We’re Looking at the Business Case’

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The U.K.’s new culture secretary, Michelle Donelan, has made her first public statements about the potential sale of public broadcaster Channel 4 and the future of the BBC license fee.

“We’re looking at the business case for the sale of Channel 4 and making sure we still agree with that decision and that’s what I’m doing,” she said of selling the advertising-funded PSB.

Of the BBC, Donelan said: “It’s no secret that I have been a sceptic for a long time of the license fee but as I said before, the approach I take on all policies is one to base my decisions on evidence and to also listen. So I’m only two weeks in the job, I’m not going to make policy on the hoof, I’m going to look at this properly.”

Donelan was appointed secretary of state for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the evening of Sept. 6, just two days before Queen Elizabeth II died. Among the department’s varied responsibilities, DCMS were responsible for much of the organization around the Queen’s funeral, including the week-long, five-mile queue to see her coffin lying in state at Westminster Hall.

Donelan took over the department from Nadine Dorries, who was understood to have been liked within the DCMS but widely unpopular in the television industry, partly because of her apparent commitment to privatizing Channel 4 and abolishing the BBC license fee.

Donelan, who worked briefly for broadcaster Sky, was appointed by Liz Truss, herself voted in by the Conservative Party as their new leader only two weeks ago. While Donelan has previously described the license fee as an “unfair tax,” in her first public comments as culture secretary she was careful not to make any definitive statements about her plans for either the BBC or Channel 4.

“I’m the type of politician that bases their decisions on evidence, that bases their decisions on listening, and that’s what I will be doing over the coming weeks,” she said on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program on Tuesday morning. “I will take that approach when it comes to Channel 4 and every aspect of my brief.”

When asked about the BBC, particularly following their coverage of the Queen’s death and funeral, Donelan said: “I think the BBC have done a tremendous job in the last few days and nobody could fault them. I went to see their operation and it was phenomenal and required everybody to really get their heads down and prioritize public service throughout this period and they did that, spot on, it was incredible. And it just showed the true value of the BBC.”

“But for me that means it’s even more important that we make sure that the BBC is sustainable in the long term,” she said. “When you look at platforms like Amazon, like Netflix and other things, it does make you question whether in the long term, in a modern age, when the media landscape is changing so remarkably, then is it sustainable? And I think we need to ask that question.”

When “Today” host Justin Webb pointed out that neither Amazon nor Netflix had covered the Queen’s death, Donelan replied: “Well we saw great work by a number of broadcasters but yes, the work that the BBC did was unique. But as I said a moment ago, we do need to make sure the BBC is sustainable in the long term, but also that we prioritize giving people choice, which I think is fundamental in a modern society. The Prime Minister spoke in the campaign about the importance of decriminalising not paying the license fee. We know that it particularly impacts women, we know the ramifications of that, these are big, big issues that we should be questioning and looking at again. I think that’s right to do.”

Some U.K. reporters took Donelan’s comments to suggest she may not be as bullish as Dorries over either public broadcaster. “Listening to new culture secretary Michelle Donelan on ‘Today’ and it sounds very much like the Channel 4 sale is getting kicked into the long grass,” tweeted Financial Times journalist Matthew Garrahan. The Economist’s Anne Mcelvoy replied: “Agree – with some review of licence fee – in other words, the usual.”

The U.K. television industry has widely condemned the sale of Channel 4, with over 700 producers signing a letter to Liz Truss asking for her to scrap the policy.