Posts Tagged ‘Melvin Bragg’

Vox Political on the Part-Privatisation of Channel 4

May 10, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political has also put up a piece today about the government’s proposed partial privatisation of Channel 4 under John Whittingdale. The Torygraph has reported that the government has climbed down from privatising it fully, and instead are just looking for a ‘strategic partner’, like BT. They would also like the network to sell its offices in Westminster and move to somewhere like Birmingham. Its account should also be checked by the NAO, responsible for examining government expenditure, and they would like to change its non-profit status and see it pay a dividend to the Treasury. Mike points out that the network chiefs have taken this as stepping stone towards Channel 4’s full privatisation, and are deciding to reject it. Meanwhile, the Tories don’t want to privatise it fully, because they’ll get the same backlash from their proposals to sell off the Beeb. See Mike’s article at: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/05/10/only-part-privatisation-for-channel-4-as-tories-fear-another-bbc-style-backlash/

This is another barbarous government attack on public broadcasting in the UK. Channel 4 was set up in the 1980s to be a kind of alternative to the alternative BBC 2, and to cater for tastes and audiences that weren’t being met by the established channels. According to Quentin Letts in one of his books, Denis Thatcher thought this mean putting yachting on the sports’ coverage instead of footie, which shows the limited idea of ‘alternative’ held by Thatcher and her consort. Jeremy Isaacs, its controller, was proud of his outsider status as a Jew in the network, a status he shared with Melvin Bragg, a Northerner. He said that he wanted to put on the new, fledgling channel programmes on miner’s oral history, and performances of the great classics of Britain’s minority cultures, like the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. He also believed that people had ‘latent needs’ – there were things they wanted to see, which they didn’t yet know they did. He was widely ridiculed for his views. Private Eye gave a sneering review of the book, in which he laid out his plans and opinions, stating that all this guff about people’s ‘latent needs’ showed that he thought he knew more than they did about what people actually wanted. As for being an outsider, the Eye observed rather tartly that they were all outsiders like that now in broadcasting, swimming around endlessly repeating the same views to each other.

In fact, Isaacs was largely right. Quite often people discover that they actually enjoy different subjects and pursuits that they’re not used to, simply because they’ve never encountered them. The Daily Heil columnist, Quentin Letts, comments about the way the network has been dumbed down in one of his books, pointing out how good the networks cultural broadcasting was when it was first set up. The network was particularly good at covering the opera. I can remember they broadcast one such classical music event, which was broadcast throughout Europe, rather like the Eurovision song contest but with dinner suits, ball gowns, lutes and violins rather than pop spangle, Gothic chic, drums and electric guitars. The audiences for its opera broadcasts were below a million, but actually very good, and compared well with the other broadcasters.

As for its programmes aimed at the different ethnic minorities, I knew White lads, who used to watch the films on ‘All-India Goldies’ and the above TV adaptation of the Mahabharata. This last was also given approval by Clive James, one of the great TV critics. James noted it was slow-moving, but still considered it quality television.

The network has, like much of the rest of British broadcasting, been dumbed-down considerably since then. American imports have increased, and much of the content now looks very similar to what’s on the other terrestrial channels. The networks’ ratings have risen, but at the expense of its distinctive character and the obligation to broadcast material of cultural value, which may not be popular. Like opera, foreign language films and epics, art cinema and theatre.

Even with these changes, there’s still very much good television being produced by the network. From the beginning, Channel 4 aimed to have very good news coverage, and this has largely been fulfilled. There have been a number of times when I’ve felt that it’s actually been better than the Beeb’s. In the 1990s the Channel was the first, I believe, to screen a gay soap, Queer as Folk, created by Russell T. Davis, who went on to revive Dr Who. This has carried on with the series Banana, Cucumber, and Tofu. It also helped to bring archaeology to something like a mass audience with Time Team, now defunct. And if you look at what remains of the British film industry, you’ll find that quite often what little of it there is, is the product of either the Beeb or Channel 4 films.

And from the beginning the Right hated it with a passion. Well, it was bound to, if Denis Thatcher’s idea of alternative TV was golf and yachting, and Thatcher really wouldn’t have wanted to watch anything that validated the miners. And it was notorious for putting on explicitly sexual material late at night, as well as shows for sexual minorities, such as discussing lesbianism, when these weren’t anywhere near as acceptable as they are today. As a result, the Heil regularly used to fulminate against all this filth, and branded its controller, Michael Grade, Britain’s ‘pornographer in chief’.

And over the years, the various governments have been trying to privatise it. I think Maggie first tried it sometime in the 1980s. Then they did it again, a few years later, possibly under John Major. This surprised me, as after they privatised it the first time, I thought that was the end of it. Channel 4 had been sold off completely. It seems I was wrong. It seems these were just part privatisations. Now they want to do it again.

It struck me with the second privatisation of Channel 4 that this was an election tactic by the Tory party. Maggie had tried to create a popular, share-owning, capitalist democracy through encouraging the working class to buy shares in the privatised utilities. And for all her faults and the immense hatred she rightly engendered, Maggie was popular with certain sections of the working class. By the time the Tories wanted to privatise the Channel the second time, it struck me that they were floundering around, trying to find a popular policy. The magic had worn of the Thatcherite Revolution, Major was in trouble, and so they were trying to bring back some of the old triumphs of Thatcher’s reign, as they saw it. They needed something big and glamorous they could sell back to the voters. And so they decided to privatise Channel 4. Again.

They want to do the same now. But the fact that they’re looking for ‘a strategic partner’ tells you a lot about how things have changed in the intervening years. This is most definitely not about popular capitalism. Most of the shares held by working people were bought up long ago by the fat cats. In this area, the Thatcherite Revolution has failed, utterly, just as it has in so many others. This is all about selling more of Britain’s broadcasting industry to the Tory’s corporate backers. Much of ITV is owned by the Americans, if not all of it, and Channel 5 certainly is. What’s the odds that Channel 4 will stay British, if it too is privatised?

And so we can look forward to a further decline in public broadcasting in this country, as it more of it is bought by private, and probably foreign, media giants. Quality broadcasting, and the duty of public broadcasters to try and expand their audiences’ horizons by producing the new, the ground-breaking, alternative and unpopular, will suffer. All for the profit of the Tory party and their big business paymasters.

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