Dame Carolyn Fairbairn has joined the race to head Channel 4, the state-owned broadcaster, two years after leaving the CBI after a period of fractious ties between Britain’s biggest employers’ group and Boris Johnson’s administration.
Sky News has learnt that Dame Carolyn is among a handful of contenders shortlisted to become Channel 4’s next chairman as it tries to fend off the prospect of privatisation.
Dame Carolyn, who could not be reached for comment this weekend, is a respected business figure and experienced media industry executive.
Prior to her five-year term as the CBI’s director-general, which ended in 2020, she was group strategy and development director at ITV.
She held a similar role at the BBC, overseeing its digital strategy and the launch of Freeview in 2003.
Since stepping down from the CBI, Dame Carolyn has joined the boards of two of Britain’s biggest companies: HSBC Holdings and BAE Systems.
One person close to the search for Channel 4’s new chair said Dame Carolyn had “the ideal CV” for the post.
They acknowledged, however, that the CBI’s relationship with the government during her tenure, which was soured by the business lobbying group’s vocal opposition to Brexit, could affect her candidacy.
While Ofcom, the media regulator, is responsible for conducting the search for board members of Channel 4 under the 1990 Broadcasting Act, appointable candidates need the approval of Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary.
Ms Dorries said recently that a decision on privatisation would be reached “very shortly”, with Whitehall officials sifting through tens of thousands of submissions to a consultation on the broadcaster’s future.
The new culture secretary has already fired a salvo in the direction of the BBC, warning last weekend that the corporation faced a two-year freeze in the licence fee and that the next funding settlement would be the last of its kind.
Mr Johnson’s administration has notably appointed a string of directors with Conservative ties to regulatory roles and other bodies, while it has also sought the removal of those who have disagreed with government policy.
Charles Gurassa, Channel 4’s outgoing chair, infuriated ministers last year by mounting an outspoken attack on the potential sale of the company, saying that it “leaves us as a board deeply concerned given our statutory responsibility to deliver Channel 4’s remit”.
He accused ministers of “sleepwalking into the irreversible and risky sale of an important, successful, and much-loved, British institution.”
Channel 4’s chief executive, Alex Mahon, recently argued that its ability to invest outside London, having recently opened a national headquarters in Leeds, would be threatened by privatisation.
It recently emerged that the government had blocked the reappointment of two Channel 4 non-executive directors, leaving the broadcaster – which has a statutory diversity objective – facing the prospect of having an all-white board.
Prominent media figures including Sarah Sands, the former Today Programme editor, and Dawn Airey, a former ITV and Sky executive, have been appointed as Channel 4 directors.
Sky News reported recently that Channel 4’s board had hired a prominent team of media industry bankers to advise on alternatives to a potential government sale of the broadcaster.
The state-owned company has drafted in Alvarium, a merchant banking and wealth management firm, to draw up a blueprint of options for its future funding requirements.
The appointment of Alvarium was perceived as underlining Channel 4’s board’s determination to resist an outright sale.
The merchant bank’s work is likely to include assessing alternative revenue streams which could supplement its existing advertiser funding-led model.
Bankers from JP Morgan are providing the government with corporate finance advice on Channel 4’s remit, ownership and obligations.
Media groups including Discovery, which is in the process of merging with WarnerMedia to form Warner Bros, are reported to be interested in a takeover of Channel 4.
Opposition to the broadcaster’s privatisation has become increasingly vocal both from within Channel 4 and the independent television production sector.
A recent report by Ampere Analysis, an industry consultant, suggested that as many as 60 ‘indies’ could be forced to close if Channel 4’s commissioning budget is slashed under a new owner.
John Whittingdale, the former culture secretary, said in a speech last autumn that Channel 4 would “at some point soon…need cash” if it wanted to grow.
“Without it, Channel 4 won’t have the money to invest in technology and programming, and it won’t be able to compete with the streaming giants,” Mr Whittingdale said.
“So the next obvious question is where does that cash come from? It can either be on the back of the taxpayer, or it can come from private investment.
“And it’s our strong position – as a point of principle – that the borrowing of a commercial TV channel should not be underwritten by a granny in Stockport or in Southend. Instead, we can help it unlock that much-needed investment.”
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport declined to comment.