The BBC and Channel 4 may be permitted to opt out of equality laws in order to preserve editorial independence.

The Equality Bill, revealed this week by Minister for Equality Harriet Harman, will force public bodies to actively promote equality. Although some organisations are already exempt from the requirement, the two major broadcasters are not.

It is thought the new legislation could impose quotas on the broadcasters, meaning identifiers such as gender, sexual orientation and race would have to be taken into account when casting actors for shows.

However, officials at both broadcasting corporations are concerned the requirement could affect editorial independence and quality.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has confirmed it has been contacted by both the BBC and Channel 4 over the possibility of adding them to the list of exempted organisations.

In a letter to culture secretary, Andy Burnham, the Conservatives’s culture spokesman Jeremy Hunt expressed concerns.

He wrote: “Allowing broadcasters creative and intellectual freedom over the content of their programmes is vital in a free society.”

He added: “It is a real concern that the BBC and Channel 4 are not included in the list of public bodies exempt from the requirements of the bill. Both broadcasters have an important role in focusing attention on important social issues, but editorial independence must be sacrosanct.”

According to the Guardian, a DCMS spokeswoman said: “Editorial independence for broadcasters is a well-established government policy, and one we are committed to maintaining. We are fully aware of the issues referred to by Mr Hunt. We and the government Equalities Office have been in discussion with the public service broadcasters for some time about how they should be covered by the bill.

“Insofar as the Equality Duty is concerned, the full list of public bodies subject to the duty is something we are discussing further with relevant organisations. We will continue those discussions with the BBC and other public service broadcasters over the course of the next few months regarding which of their functions should be covered.”