Kiss Channel 4 Goodbye?

The prospective privatisation of Channel Four induces in me a state of cognitive dissonance. Part of me is appalled at this wanton repetition of what the patrician Harold Macmillan way back called ‘selling off the family silver’, and another part of me answers back, but what is there worth saving? I remember, you see, what Channel Four was really like when it started, before it adopted a populist agenda in the 1990s, and I’m speaking not just as a viewer but as one of the numerous independent filmmakers who was commissioned by them. Over its first decade, C4 was truly novel, adopting unconventional and groundbreaking programme formats and bringing a whole new generation into production, in fulfilment of its public service remit, to be innovative, to inspire change, to nurture talent and to offer a platform for alternative views. 

The commercial television network had expected Channel 4 to become their second channel and give them parity with the BBC. When instead of appointing a career executive to run it the job was given to a programme maker, Jeremy Isaacs, he proceeded to give preference to the freelance sector, and in the first few years regularly commissioned some 350 different companies, many of them operating in poky offices in the West End or out of people’s kitchens. The great innovation of Channel 4 was that it didn’t make its own programmes but commissioned them from independent producers. 

But it was not the creation of Thatcherism. It had been conceived following a campaign which came from below under the preceding Labour government, with the film union, the BFI, and the Independent Filmmakers Association (which I belonged to) lobbying hard for an alternative to the mainstream. Enacted by Mrs Thatcher because it looked like a good way of promoting private enterprise and given a public service remit, it constituted an entirely new kind of television station with a novel set-up, more like a television publishing house than a traditional broadcaster, either state-owned or commercial – the French called it third generation television – and it proved a much-imitated model for many new European broadcasters when satellite television arrived. In fact the new channel was a thorn in Thatcher’s side, just as it now is in De Pfeffel’s. 

There is an apocryphal story that when Isaacs met Thatcher soon after the channel launched, and she praised him for his efforts, he muttered in reply, ‘Well, at least we’ve given a lot of jobs to unemployed filmmakers.’  The effect was to boost the whole independent sector, from established BBC programme makers who quit the corporation to go freelance, to collectives who now became unionised through what was called the Workshop Agreement. The independent sector identified with the workshops and collectives that had emerged in the 70s was given its own commissioning editor, the ever affable Alan Fountain, and its own slots, with seasons devoted to women’s history, artist’s films, marginalised voices from Northern Ireland, and films from the third world. My own first commission was for a two-part documentary on the New Latin American Cinema, preceding a season of Latin American films which I also curated. They even took on a film about the Falklands War by an exiled Argentinian filmmaker, Jorge Denti, whose message was ‘a plague on both your houses’, and put funds into films by other Latin American directors. 

Who remembers any of this? The 80s are celebrated in later accounts of C4’s history for the boost it gave to the British film industry, which had entered the 80s in what looked like terminal crisis in the face of competition from television and the growing popularity of a new competitor, the domestic VCR. The presence of political and aesthetic avant-gardes on the small screen, C4’s innovations and opening up of new debates, has been air-brushed out, an inconvenient reminder of the way the channel was subsequently dragged downmarket (after Isaacs left) and gradually ‘minority interests’ turned into ‘niche markets’. Perhaps this was inevitable, as satellite television arrived and the ecology of television changed, bringing what the media professor Brian Winston once described as the law of the ice-cream sellers: they start out at opposite ends of the beach selling different brands, and end up in the middle, selling the same thing. 

However, the channel not only changed the structures of television, it also changed the terms of employment, and in this respect, C4 became a Trojan horse for Thatcherism from the very beginning, by determining the terms of employment. I was present at an open meeting when a friend, employed as a researcher by an independent production company on a film for the Channel, complained of the exploitative terms of employment; he was told by one of the Channel’s executives, sitting next to Isaacs, that since he was not employed by the Channel, this was not the Channel’s responsibility. We were learning that freelance really meant subcontracted labour, although we didn’t yet call it precarious labour. The lesson? There is no such thing as innovation in the media which does not have contradictory effects. The proposal to privatise Channel 4 is not an innovation, however, but a regression.

In short, the Channel 4 we are now beholden to defend is not the same as the one I worked for when it started. It lost its radical edge, which ebbed away as the political climate changed, the Overton Window shifted rightwards and so did the ice-cream sellers. Around it, the values of public service broadcasting were undermined by the transformation of the structures of television, and further weakened by the arrival of streaming. The channel nevertheless held its own, kept its audience, adopted new forms of delivery, and continues to sustain independent producers. Notably, it has decentralised and nurtures a good number of smaller regional production companies. It is able to do this because, as its current boss, Alex Mahon, has pointed out, it isn’t driven by profit. ‘All of that advertising money is ploughed back into the creative sector…The profit is made by many small and medium businesses across the UK.’  This, however, is anathema to the culture secretary, a woman best known for appearing (so I’m told) in a reality TV show and as an author of pulp novels, who demonstrated her ignorance only last November, appearing before the culture select committee, when she had to be told that C4 isn’t funded by the government but by advertising. Her argument for privatisation is entirely specious – in order to be able to compete with Netflix and Amazon. But as Dorothy Byrne puts it, Channel 4 is not there to compete with Netflix and Amazon. The internet giants are entirely different animals. The culture secretary also has a record of open hostility to the BBC, which she believes to be ‘a biased left wing organisation which is seriously failing in its political representation, from the top down,’ and who thinks the licence fee is an ‘outdated concept that totally fails to take into account changes in the media environment over the past 50 years.’ Meanwhile, C4 offers an easier target to pick off than the BBC. 

Culture secretaries come and go – there have been nine of them since 2010 (and the preceding Labour government’s record wasn’t much better) – but if the intention to privatise Channel 4 shows that the Tories haven’t at all given up their neoliberal nostrums, it also demonstrates a growing authoritarianism looking for means to ensure the suppression of dissent. Their beef with the channel is hardly new, and they’ve made little secret of their antipathy. The most frequently heard line on its news programme is ‘We asked the government/ministry/cabinet office etc. for a comment but they said no-one was available.’ Which suggests that C4 News is doing a pretty good job of holding them to account, and they really don’t like it. But perhaps the move should be seen under the rubric of the ‘culture wars’, and represents the final abandonment of the Keynesian tenet, the arms-length principle by which it was deemed that government should not be seen to interfere directly with matters in a way that could be construed as censorship. 

From an economic point of view, C4’s present mode of operation is a sensible arrangement which will be upset by privatisation and profit-seeking, especially if the buyer is a foreign corporation.  The outcome would be to concentrate power back in the centre and dispense with the bother of small providers, not to mention reigning in C4 News in the interests of a quiet life. It makes no economic sense at a time when small providers are under threat in every branch of the economy, but then few politicians have any understanding of the economics of television, or the cultural sector in general. (They are only just beginning to learn about the way that music streaming works.) It isn’t even necessary to mention the damage this could do to C4’s contribution to the UK’s soft power abroad, which in any case the current crew in charge in Westminster aren’t interested in, otherwise they wouldn’t have let performing artists languish in the pandemic for lack of income, or failed to make provision for musicians to go touring in Europe after Brexit. It’s transparently obvious that what motivates the proposal to privatise Channel 4 is purely ideological, and should be opposed, but as we used to say, ‘without any illusions’. 

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