The Guardian view on privatising Channel 4: it makes no economic sense

The arguments put forward for selling the broadcaster don’t add up. The impetus is ideological – and wrong-headed

Last modified on Wed 23 Jun 2021 13.44 EDT

To sensible Conservatives, Channel 4 should seem a bargain. Owned by the state, it costs the taxpayer precisely nothing. It generates income from advertising – both from linear TV and streaming – that it ploughs back into Britain’s lively independent production sector, without the need for it to make a profit for shareholders. It was Margaret Thatcher’s government that brought it to fruition, after the seeds of the channel were sown by Lord Annan’s 1977 report into the future of broadcasting. It was designed to stimulate independent production beyond the BBC and ITV, reflecting the full diversity of Britain’s talent – and so it did. Some would say it has lost much of the iconoclastic spirit that animated it in the 1980s, when it commissioned artists from Peter Greenaway to John Akromfrah and put out pioneering shows such as Brookside. Kinder critics might say that the radicalism is still there, even if it is harder to detect amid the commercial programming that supports its more cutting-edge work. Certainly, Channel 4 remains the originator of brilliant television: it is the channel of the Paralympics, of Russell T Davies’s excellent drama It’s A Sin, of Nida Manzoor’s innovative comedy about young Muslim women, We Are Lady Parts, of the lockdown cultural triumph Grayson’s Art Club.

Now the government – having considered, and rejected, the proposition as recently as 2016 – is talking of privatising Channel 4. The ostensible reason is to help it achieve greater scale in a broadcasting world increasingly dominated by the giant US streaming services. But this argument is weak and wrong-headed. For a start it is unclear what, exactly, the government would be selling. Channel 4 is a publisher of broadcast material; it does not own its shows and is not some asset-rich operation whose sale would raise significant amounts for the public purse. Privatisation is certainly not the kind of “help” that those running Channel 4 desire, or say they need – especially after a pandemic year in which it defied doom-laden predictions. In the process of establishing a secondary headquarters in Leeds, the channel says it is likely to hit its target of spending half its budget outside London in 2021, two years ahead of schedule. The broadcaster is, then, achieving some of the government’s stated policy of spreading investment beyond London. But its regional hubs would almost certainly look indulgently expensive to a putative buyer. The government says it wants to protect what Channel 4 does. But the way to preserve the quiddities of a very particular British institution is certainly not to allow it to be subsumed into an international media company such as ViacomCBS or WarnerMedia, or even into, say, ITV.

The renewed impetus for privatisation seems to come from two tendencies among the Conservatives. One is an unshakeable commitment to the market as a good in itself, as personified by the media minister, John Whittingdale. The other is the peculiar zealotry directed against cultural organisations condemned as “woke”, a proclivity most obviously discernible in the culture secretary Oliver Dowden. Neither of these positions has much relationship with the supposed mainstream common sense of a Conservative party focused on British success stories and “levelling up”.

An intriguing contrast is presented by the government’s attitude to science and its announcement this week of a centralised body, the Science and Technology Council, charged with “setting bold visions, acting with speed and taking risks”. Reframe Channel 4 in broadly analogous terms and you could easily see it as a smart, low-cost form of venture capital fund, an incubator for the next generation of British production talent. What Channel 4 needs from the government is not a pointless, ideologically driven privatisation, but encouragement to become yet more innovative and radical in its experimentation with the form, craft and content of television.

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