Channel 4 has served the public well – don’t privatise it

Channel 4 HQ with its big 4 logo prominently displayed
Channel 4 headquarters in London Photo Credit: Martin

The sudden announcement by Nadine Dorries that Channel 4 is to be privatised, just after the mother of parliaments entered the Easter recess, came out of the blue for most of us. A groundswell of hostile opinion during the life of this government has indicated that a healthy debate on the future of Channel 4 might be engaged on this particular issue.

Not so! Never an item in the Conservative Party manifesto, which amounted little more than the vapid “Get Brexit done!”, this particular privatisation reeks of  vindictiveness. No sooner had the celebrated chunk of ice melted onto the studio floor of the Channel 4 climate debate in 2019 – after Boris Johnson, declined to take part – than righteous Conservative indignation festered. As Lord Dacre had withdrawn from the race, Lord Grade was parachuted into Ofcom, and another Conservative contact, Sir John Cheshire, was finally appointed to chair Ch4.

Publicly funded? Sorry, no minister

Like a cornered stoat against the onslaught of some field mice, Nadine Dorries, our spectacularly inept culture secretary, only recently learnt from Damien Green that Ch4 is not publicly funded.  Undeterred, she mounts the crumbling barricades like an Anglo-Saxon Marianne, ululating the Conservative battle cry to its ever-complicit right-wing sycophants. Let them eat cake!

As Jacob Rees-Mogg commented in relation to the ongoing Partygate scandal, “fundamentally trivial”, here was the Conservative Party blowing Ch4 chaff in our direction while neglecting human rights obligations to thousands of Ukrainian refugees denied safety in this country because of the heartless bureaucracy of our Home Office. And that’s to say nothing of the existential threat of climate change, food and fuel poverty allied to rampant inflation and swingeing taxation.

Giant killer with a creative touch

Dorries makes the absurd assertion that Ch4 could compete with Netflix. Ch4 deploys no algorithms to replicate previous successes and, as a publisher, has the guts to fail on many an occasion but can slay Goliath with some truly innovative and creative output. Furthermore, as Menzies Campbell (and others) pointed out, Netflix lacks any obligation to air news:  “Netflix is a complete red herring. How many journalists and how many camera crews has Netflix sent to the Ukraine?” In comparison, Ch4’s gritty and sparsely-resourced news service remains a vital contributor to what is left of free press in the world.

Inside the Channel 4 newsroom. It is empty in this shot, but a camera points to the desk where newsreaders sit.
Channel 4 news: a flagship programme Photo Credit: James Box

For my part, I was trained at the BBC with its high standards but cocooned in its blinkered and arrogant ways. So spreading my wings and working on the infant Brookside, among other productions, in a nascent Channel 4 was a revelation. Strict budgets engendered a resourceful creativity that served me well throughout a long freelance broadcasting career. With the advent of Ch4, the creative film and TV industry changed overnight.

Production companies throughout the UK entered the Ch4 pool as minnows; some emerged as formidable players, others perished. A non-metropolitan hotbed of talent and opportunities spread: a true levelling-up. More4 boasts an impressive archive free-to-air, yet providing vital revenue. Can this free market melting-pot, enabled by Margaret Thatcher herself, survive the wrath of a supremely uncreative government, blind to any opportunities other than its own survival?

A broken promise revealed

Fortunately covering fire is provided by the great and good on all sides of the political spectrum. Michael Attenborough’s letter to Michael Grade is heartfelt and could hardly be better informed: “Perhaps Lord Grade [who now supports privatisation] needs reminding of the promise he gave my father, Lord Attenborough, when he was running Channel 4 and my father was its chairman. Namely that he ‘would die in a ditch’ before he’d see Channel 4 privatised or its public service commitment in any way diminished.”

Analysis of well-informed argument, not restricted to the partisan press, is overwhelmingly hostile to the issue of Ch4 privatisation.

Give us the tools and we will finish the job.” May our collective cry of pain and outrage actually sink this Churchill-manqué Johnson’s ship of fools.

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