Channel 4 Threatened by the Tories with Privatisation… Again

The ‘Viewpoint’ column in next week’s Radio Times, for the 8th to 14th February 2020, contains an article by Maggie Brown, ‘Saving Thatcher’s baby’, about the problems confronting Channel 4. It begins

In 2020, Channel 4 is facing a number of challenges. Its staff are scattered to the winds, Channel 4 News is under attack from the Government, and the threat of privatisation looms. Is the pioneering broadcaster, which was launched in 1982 by Margaret Thatcher, facing an endgame?

She then describes how the broadcaster has moved its headquarters out of London and into Leeds, with hubs in Glasgow and Bristol with more programmes filmed in the regions, such as Manchester and Wales, and changes to the broadcasting schedules with the introduction of new programmes. One of these will be Taskmaster, taken from the Dave digital channel. Brown comments that the programme’s acquisition by Channel 4 is an attempt to boost audiences, but is also ‘a symptom of the tricky compromises and tightrope that C4 has to walk.’ She continues

It is a public service broadcaster “funded by advertising, owned by you”. It must also rally support as an alternative public service broadcaster to the BBC in the face of a hostile Conservative government that is needled by its mischievous independence and most recent mockery (that melting ice sculpture after Boris Johnson failed to show up for a climate change debate).

But relations with Conservative governments have always been tense, with liberal Channel 4 News and tough current affairs programmes such as Dispatches the lightning conductors. After the climate change debate last November, privatisation was immediately threatened again: a knee-jerk response.

She ends the piece by stating that the broadcaster’s business team will remain in London. She sees this as an indication that the broadcaster will not only confound the pessimist’s predictions of its impending demise, but will actually thrive. The business team have the Thatcherite values of self-reliance, and it’s this quality that will allow the broadcaster not only to survive but flourish.

Hm. Possibly. My own feeling is that if Channel 4’s business team manages to save the broadcaster, it won’t be because of an nebulous ethos of ‘self-reliance’, but because it will reflect the views and demands of metropolitan business. The same businesses that fund the Tory party.

She is, however, right about the Tories having a persistent distrust of the broadcaster. Thatcher set Channel 4 up in order to be an alternative to BBC 2. It was to serve communities that the Beeb channel didn’t, like ethnic minorities. It was also to excel in news coverage, as well as alternative arts and sports. By the latter, Denis Thatcher actually meant yachting. What that meant in practice was that the programme broadcast opera, as well as Indian cinema, a serial of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, a history of the madrigal, the pop show, The Tube, and a variety of comedy shows. These included Who Dares  Wins, a sketch show whose cast include Rory McGrath and Tony Robinson, the classic satirical puppet show, Spitting Image, and Desmond’s, which was set in a Black barbers, and launched a wave of Black comedian in Britain. It also had a history of Africa presented by the White afro-centric historian, Basil Davidson, and a news programme about the continent with Black presenters and reporters.  It also showed Max Headroom, which consisted of pop videos hosted by the eponymous Max, the world’s first computer-generated video jockey. Offsetting all the highbrow stuff were sexually explicit films and programmes, which was the closest teenage schoolchildren could get to viewing porn before the internet. It was the sexually explicit stuff that particularly annoyed the Daily Mail, who branded the broadcaster’s controller at the time, Michael Grade, ‘Britain’s pornographer in chief’. The Channel responded to this by broadcasting programmes for gays and lesbians. Amid the furore, one of the most sensible comments was made by the archdeacon of York. When they asked the good churchman what his view of the broadcaster showing a series about lesbians, he replied, ‘Well, who’s going to watch that if there’s Clint Eastwood on the other?’ Quite. Now I understand that one of the channels is bringing back The ‘L’ Word, a lesbian soap opera first shown at the beginning of this century. Quite apart from Channel 4’s own gay soap opera, Queer As Folk.

Private Eye seemed to regard Channel 4 back then as condescending and pretentious. Its literary reviewer sharply criticised a book by its then chief, Jeremy Isaacs, because he made it plain he wanted to bring the British public material like miner’s oral history and so on. When people complained that people didn’t want some of this, Isaacs replied that they had latent needs, needs they didn’t know they had, until someone showed them the material they’d been missing. It was this comment that particularly aroused the reviewer’s ire. But Isaac’s was right. Sometimes you don’t know if there’s a demand for a subject, until you offer people the chance of trying it. And Channel 4 really tried to expand, create and satisfy a market for culture. Oliver Letwin, the former sketchwriter for the Daily Mail and now the Times, actually praised the broadcaster for this in his book, Bog Standard Britain. The broadcaster’s programming always hit and miss. Amid the good stuff there was also much material that was rubbish. And while it had the reputation as rather left-wing, it also carried a programme of political discussion for Conservatives, Right Talk. On the other hand, its opera performances actually managed to reach a decently sized audience, showing that ordinary Brits wanted and would watch highbrow culture.

Its average audience, however, was tiny, and there was pressure on the broadcaster, like the Beeb, to produce more popular programmes to give the British public value for money. Hence the channel became much more mainstream in the 1990s. Its audience grew as expected, but the country lost out as the channel no longer tried to expand the public’s minds and tastes as it once had. And as I said, this was lamented by Letwin, among others, a supporter of the very party that had spent so much time decrying and criticising the channel for being too daring and alternative.

If I remember correctly, the Tories have privatised the channel before. There have been at least two part-privatisations, where the government has sold off some of its share in it. One was under Thatcher, when she was privatising everything. I think the other may have been under Major, who continued her programme. I have a feeling that the second privatisation may have been a cynical move by the Tories to try and work up some enthusiasm for the government. It was announced with the fanfare the Tories usually gave the privatisations, presenting them as some kind of exciting generous opportunity granted to Britain’s workers. Thatcher was trying to create a shareholder democracy, where ordinary people would own shares as participants in capitalism. That’s all died the death a long time ago. The shares given to the workers in the privatised industries have all been sold on, and are now in the hands of a few big businessmen. The council houses she sold off have been bought by private housing associations for profit, and there’s now a housing shortage. And the privatisations were never as popular as the Tories tried to make us all believe to begin with. Support for them, according to polls done at the time, never rose about fifty per cent.

Channel 4 news has a reputation for excellence. Which is undoubtedly why the Tories now despise it and are discussing privatisation again. Britain’s publicly owned broadcasters are under threat because they are obstacles to Murdoch, the Americans and the British private broadcasters, who fund the Tories, dominating British television. They also despise them because they’re supposed to be impartial, unlike the private networks, which would be free to have whatever bias their proprietors chose. And besides, as this week’s attempts to dictate to the media, who could and could not attend BoJob’s precious lobby briefings shows, the Tories want to impose ever more restrictive controls over the media. The end result of that process, if it goes on is, is the rigorous, authoritarian censorship of totalitarianism.

I dare say that if the Tories do go ahead and privatise the Beeb and/or Channel 4, it’ll be presented as some kind of great liberalisation. The British public will be freed from having to support them, and they will have to take their chances in the market place, according to the tenets of Thatcherism. But if that happens, public service broadcasting will have been destroyed along with what should have been cornerstones of media impartiality.

But considering how relentless biased the Beeb has been against Labour and in favour of the Tories, their news desk has done much to destroy that already.

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7 Responses to “Channel 4 Threatened by the Tories with Privatisation… Again”

  1. trev Says:

    TV is not what it used to be, from black & white tv with only 3 channels in my childhood to zillions of freeview channels today, and catchup facilities etc. if you have a posh telly with internet. I’m still using an old analogue telly, a big heavy one, not flat screen, plugged into a freeview box, but I’m still watching all the great tv shows of my childhood that are now repeated on freeview; Randall & Hopkirk, Land of the Giants, original Star Trek, MASH, The Persuaders, Lost in Space, Catweazle, etc. etc. have all been shown again in recent years (I’m still waiting for them to re-show The Champions, and others such as Danger Man, and I’d like to see The Munsters again). But Channel 4 used to show some of that old stuff too, and I enjoy the repeats of Father Ted on 4, and Dad’s Army on BBC. Apart from that though I do watch a lot of freeview, American Pickers is good, and Pawn Stars, and any documentaries about ancient history, Stonehenge, Ancient Egypt, archaeology. Time Team was brilliant. Tried watching a film on freeview though and it was ruined by the adverts, the film was Easyrider , the sort of movie you need to immerse yourself in, but with ad breaks every 10 minutes it was awful. There’s more choice now but a lot of rubbish too. I do remember The Tube on Channel 4, and one episode in particular when the live studio was invaded by Anarchists from the 1 in 12 Club in Bradford, people I know!

    • beastrabban Says:

      I’m a bit younger than you, but I remember Lost in Space, Danger Man, Catweazle and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).I don’t remember the Tube being invaded by Anarchists, but I can’t say I was viewer. I do remember Muriel Gray interviewing Alice Cooper. He told her that his favourite film was the Ed Woods epic, ‘Glen/ Glenda or I Changed My Sex’. She replied, ‘You’re a strange boy, Alice’. I do remember watching the Munsters and the Addams Family, as well as the original Star Trek.I also remember the Beeb classics Porridge, The Two Ronnies and the Dick Emery Show. I dare say that Emery is now terribly dated, but the Two Ronnies and Porridge remain classics.

      • trev Says:

        I used to like The Worker with Charlie Drake going to the Labour Exchange every week and Henry McGee as the dole clerk, if only I’d known that would become my life experience too! Many other greats too, Steptoe & Son, and I loved The Avengers which has been shown a lot in recent years on freeview. There’s also a lot of UFO documentaries on all the time too, and I still watch them even though I’ve seen them all before and am familiar with all the major cases they cover; Roswell, Rendlesham, Travis Walton, Betty & Barney Hill, PC Alan Godfrey in Todmorden, the Cosford Incident, the Dechmont Woods encounter, the Cumbrian Spaceman photo, etc. but I’m often amazed to meet people that have never heard of any of them. In a similar vein though there are shows like Ancient Aliens which drives me mad it’s such a ridiculous load of tripe. And the paranormal /haunting shows with so-called “Mediums” who resort to using their mobile phones to communicate with the dead via EVPs ! Oh dear.

      • beastrabban Says:

        I don’t remember ‘The Worker’, but I do recall something similar at the tail end of the ’70s/ early ’80s with Hywel Bennett as a dole scrounger. And I also have fond memories of Steptoe and Son. Talking about UFOs, in the early ’80s there was also a comedy on ITV, Kinvig, about a man, who meets a female alien who warns him about an alien invasion. I’m familiar with some of the UFO cases you mention but don’t know anything about the Cosford Incident and Dechmont Woods. I’d have to look them up. I also get exasperated with the ancient aliens nonsense. And I know genuine psychic investigators with very strong views about aliens and EVP.

      • trev Says:

        I don’t remember Kinvig at all, that must have passed me by, but I remember Mork & Mindy!
        A Medium at the Spiritualist Church told me that ‘Aliens’ are what she described as “higher-frequency Beings”.

  2. Martin Odoni Says:

    If I recall correctly, the ‘computer graphics’ in Max Headroom were really just hand-drawn animation. A little like the Book-graphics in the TV version of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy a few years earlier, everyone thought they were real, even though they were *too* convincing to be done with the technology available at the time, and had to be done the old-fashioned cartoon way.

    • beastrabban Says:

      That’s interesting, as I thought they were the only thing on Headroom that was actually computer generated. I was really disappointed when I found out that Headroom himself was not the result of computer graphics, but was Matt Frewer in makeup.

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