Posts Tagged ‘Dave Channel’

Channel 4 Threatened by the Tories with Privatisation… Again

February 6, 2020

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.