The former Culture Secretary's plans for privatisation of the self-funding public service broadcaster have already cost £2m, but they appear to be based on a mountain of misunderstandings
Boris Johnson seems determined to offer former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries a seat in the House of Lords. She was always one of his most loyal supporters and is even reported to be writing a book defending his three tumultuous years at No 10. Now it appears he intends to reward her.
But should he? Is she really a suitable candidate to spend the rest of her days on the red benches?
A recent report from the all-party Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee suggests not. It indicates that she misled the committee when she claimed that Channel 4 used actors to pose as ordinary people in a reality documentary series in which she took part.
The series was called Tower Block of Commons and was broadcast in October 2010. She was one of several MPs who were invited to live with families on inner-city housing estates, and she was sent to the South Acton estate in West London.
Twelve years later she complained to the Select Committee, without evidence, that some of the participants, far from being genuine residents of a deprived estate, were in fact actors. The conclusions of the Committee’s investigation, published last month, were highly critical:
“We do not find [her] claims … to be credible… We are concerned Ms Dorries appears to have taken an opportunity, under the protection of privilege, to traduce the reputation of Channel 4.”
One committee member, Scottish National Party MP John Nicolson, is unequivocal: “I don’t think she’s fit to be an MP, I don’t think she’s fit to be a Cabinet Minister, and I certainly don’t think she’s fit for elevation to the House of Lords.”
But Dorries’ questionable recollection of Tower Block of Commons is not an isolated incident. She has long had difficulty with the facts when it comes to her views on broadcasting, particularly, it seems, Channel 4.
This is particularly worrying because for several years she and her government have been pursuing a controversial policy of privatising the channel. Her repeated propensity to mislead could have weakened public confidence in the existing Channel 4 model, and therefore advanced the controversial privatisation cause that she championed.
Irritating the Right People
Nadine Dorries was appointed Culture Secretary by Boris Johnson in September 2021, to the surprise of many in the world of the arts, media and sport. But others, in their own way, were supportive. Stewart Jackson, the former Peterborough MP and friend of Dorries, said of her appointment “Boris must have thought he was getting two for one. A loyal and diligent cabinet minister and it will irritate all the right people.”
Privatisation of Channel 4 has been on the Tory radar since the 1990s, and the new Culture Secretary embraced the idea with enthusiasm. However, it quickly became apparent that she had little understanding of some of the channel’s key principles.
At a hearing of the Culture Select Committee in November 2021, she appeared to have misunderstood how it is funded. She told the committee: “To say that just because Channel 4 has been established as a public service broadcaster and just because it is in receipt of public money, we should never audit the future of Channel 4… and whether or not it is a sustainable and viable model. It is quite right that the Government should do that.”
Committee member and former Tory Cabinet Minister Damian Green corrected her, pointing out that “Channel 4 is not like the BBC in that it is not in receipt of licence fee money and makes its money from its commercial operations.“
Dorries’ expression in response to this firm but gentle rebuke was akin to that of a barrister who had risen to give a summing-up speech and just realised they’d forgotten to put any trousers on. “And… so… though it’s…. yeah and… that…” (sic), she stuttered, then looked in desperation towards Sarah Healey, the DCMS Permanent Secretary beside her, silently pleading for her to interrupt and somehow offer a rescue.
Despite this humiliation, plans for privatisation were put out for public consultation, and, worryingly for the Government, 96% of respondents said they were against it, whilst a mere 2% were in favour.
Apparently undeterred, Ms Dorries continued to press the case at her next Select Committee hearing in April 2022. But when asked what percentage of respondents were in favour, she insisted that 96% had supported privatisation, rather than the other way round.
As the ever-loyal Sarah Healey passed her helpful briefing notes, Ms Dorries tried to take refuge in a different argument. She pointed out that just under three-quarters of responses were organised by a campaigning group called 38 Degrees, who, according to her, “rewrote the original question in a far more leading way.” But was this assertion entirely true?
In their words, 38 Degrees “supports campaigns to create a fairer and more respectful country.” They certainly organised a campaign against privatisation, rewrote the survey questions for clarity, and suggested possible responses. But had their version of the Government’s key question been “far more leading” as Ms Dorries claimed?
The Goverment’s version was:
Do you agree that there are challenges in the current TV broadcasting market that present barriers to a sustainable Channel 4 in public ownership?
This wording offers a proposition: that there are indeed “challenges” for Channel 4 and that these could “present barriers” which could render a publicly-owned Channel 4 not “sustainable.” The public is invited to “agree”.
38 Degrees’ version, which they offered alongside the original, was the simpler and arguably more neutral:
Do you think Channel 4 should be privatised?
38 Degrees insist they were simply “putting it into plain English and cutting through to the crux of the consultation’s jargon-laden, leading questions.”
But there was another awkward point for Nadine Dorries: Even if all the responses coordinated by 38 Degrees were discounted, the government survey still suggested that 89% of people opposed privatisation, whilst a mere 5% supported it.
Having wandered into the minefield of the Government consultation and almost blown herself up, Ms Dorries now tried another diversion. But this one was perhaps even less successful. “What I think is a more important figure actually,” she told the committee, “is that 53% of the public were not aware that Channel 4 was state-owned, and they thought it was already owned by a private company.”
But this argument only served to highlight her own failure several months previously to understand how the channel was funded. Committee member John Nicolson duly reminded her: “Yes I think that’s quite a vulnerable issue for you, as my colleague had to explain that to you at the last session”.
Once again, Nadine Dorries had mislaid her trousers.
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Undeterred by such setbacks, she formally announced in April 2022 that Channel 4 would be privatised. “We have to enable Channel 4… to be set free to raise investment to continue to make the amazing and distinctive British content …that it does,” she told the House of Commons. But the channel disagreed and responded: “Channel 4 is in excellent financial health and does not want or need to raise outside capital to fund its future plans.”
This controversial policy needed an adept saleswoman, but as she attempted to step up to the role, once again she displayed a slightly less-than-complete understanding of the ownership and funding of British television. In late April she asserted on LBC radio that Britain’s Channel 5 set an example for how the privatisation of Channel 4 could work: "If you look at the amount of investment Channel 5 puts into the regions and how well Channel 5 has done since it was privatised, I think that's a model."
An interesting argument, except that it was untrue. Channel 5 has always been a private company. It has never been publicly-owned, so it could never have been privatised.
Benjamin Cohen, the CEO of Pink News, was one of a number of media players who noticed the gaffe and tweeted: “I love how Nadine Dorries justifies privatising Channel 4 by claiming that Channel 5 was privatised... Channel 5 launched in 1997 as a private business as a result of a franchise auction, but I guess you couldn’t expect the Culture Secretary to know this.”
In response, Ms Dorries offered no apology for her misunderstanding, and instead went on the offensive, saying she merely “misspoke” but “the substance of my point remains the same”, and accused Cohen of “nit-pick[ing]”
It was only a few weeks later that she made her unfounded claims about participants in Channel 4’s Tower Block of Commons. In May she told the DCMS Select Committee that some of the people featured weren’t really impoverished members of the public at all. “The parents of some of the boys in that programme contacted me and came here to have lunch to tell me that the boys were in acting school,” she said, “…They were not real. They were actually actors… There was a pharmacist I went to see who prepared food; she was also a paid actor.”
This was a very serious accusation to level at any broadcaster, especially one that she was trying to privatise in the face of public opposition. Channel 4 denied her allegations and conducted an investigation which found that there was no evidence to support them.
In July Committee Chair Julian Knight wrote to Ms Dorries, asking her to either provide corroboration or to correct the record. This was her chance to climb down with minimal loss of face, but it was an offer she declined, and instead, she doubled down, replying: “I set out my experiences on taking part in the programme in my comments during the Select Committee and stand by those remarks.“
Knight responded that the committee had seen Channel 4’s internal investigation which suggested that “your recollection of the show is flawed.” He added that the committee had to decide whether her claims were “now not an inadvertent mistake but a deliberate attempt to mislead.” But he also gave her one last chance to correct the record.
Ms Dorries responded in early October, offering to “lay out again, for the sake of clarity what took place”. Her response offered anything but clarity. The version of events she now offered was different to her original testimony:
“One of the young men from the ‘homeless young men’ section of the programme called my office manager and asked if he could visit Parliament,” she wrote. “My office manager thinks it may actually have been his mother who called to ask, and I vaguely remember speaking to her on the phone. However, not enough to recall the conversation, only the request. He came, did the tour and my office manager and I had lunch with him afterwards in Portcullis House. He told us during lunch that he had not in fact been homeless at all, was an actor, that other boys in the section were too, and that he lived at home in North London with his mother. She had also been in the programme and prepared food in a small section towards the end and worked in a pharmacy in North London.“
So, according to this new version, it wasn’t the parents of the boys who had initially called her, it was one of the boys himself, although there now appeared to be some confusion about whether this boy’s mother might also have called. And now it wasn’t the parents who came, had lunch with Ms Dorries and told her the boys were actors, it was the boy instead.
What was also interesting was that, despite this fog of confusion, this boy had clearly made an impression on Ms Dorries, as she now recalled that he was “well-dressed, articulate and well-educated”. There was another oddity: The pharmacist who, in the original testimony, had “prepared food” and “was also a paid actor” now appeared to be the mother of the boy.
In October, the month after she was replaced as Culture Secretary, the committee published their verdict. It was utterly devastating for Nadine Dorries:
“We do not find either the original claims or the clarifications to be credible and have seen no corroboration that Channel 4 … used actors in a reality television show. In contrast, the detailed investigation carried out by Channel 4 gives us confidence that her claims are groundless. We are concerned Ms Dorries appears to have taken an opportunity, under the protection of privilege, to traduce the reputation of Channel 4. Had Ms Dorries remained Secretary of State, driving a policy of selling the channel, we may have sought a referral to the Privileges Committee but, as her claims have not inhibited the work of the Committee and she no longer has a position of power over the future of Channel 4, we are, instead, publishing this Report to enable the House, and its Members, to draw their own conclusions.”
So what now for Ms Dorries in the face of such devastating findings about her difficulty with the facts relating to the integrity of a broadcaster she was hoping to privatise?
She may no longer be Culture Secretary, but she remains MP for mid-Bedfordshire, at least until the next election, when Boris Johnson intends to nominate her for a seat in the Lords. But would such a move be acceptable after the revelations in the report? DCMS Committee member John Nicolson thinks not: “You cannot find yourself in a position where someone intentionally and deliberately misleads a select committee … you cannot have a cabinet minister who does that, who is then on the receiving end of an excoriating and unanimous all-party report… and they then get sent on to the House of Lords. It’s utterly preposterous.”
And what now for Channel 4? Last week we learned that the policy of privatisation has already cost the Government £2m. Now the official line is that new Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan is “reviewing the business case” for selling off the channel.
We may find out soon whether that is, in fact, code for trying to extract the Government from a policy that could prove damaging to British broadcasting, and that few members of the public ever wanted.
Nadine Dorries has been repeatedly contacted by Bylines Times but has yet to respond.
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