Margaret Thatcher was right. When her more ideologically charged followers sought to privatise Channel 4 in the heyday of 1980s free-market capitalism, the patron saint of flogging off public assets said no: she was correctly advised that such a move would fatally undermine its public service duty and trash its standards.
It is fashionable these days to claim Boris Johnson’s Tories lean left on the economy and right on culture: their planned selloff of Channel 4 is totemic of how true blue ideology remains king on both fronts. While ministers define their patriotism by the size of the Union Jack in their living rooms, they prepare an act of gross cultural vandalism, with dozens of British TV production companies facing collapse.
You can see why Channel 4 does not sit well with Tory culture warriors. The broadcaster places representing “unheard voices” as a high priority, and it attracts young audiences who are not predisposed towards contemporary Toryism. From It’s a Sin – Russell T Davies’ searing masterpiece about the HIV/Aids epidemic – to ingenious comedy such as Mae Martin’s Feel Good and Aisling Bea’s This Way Up, and last Friday’s all-black broadcasting day, this groundbreaking content is simply not made elsewhere.
When the government highlights that Channel 4 faces serious challenges – as all broadcasters do right now – they are correct. The rise of streaming is carving off existing audiences, not least among younger people who expect to watch content at their convenience rather than on a schedule. Advertising has migrated elsewhere – above all else to Google and Facebook – which is a major problem for a channel that depends on this for 90% of its income. Ad breaks are also becoming increasingly unpopular: while Channel 4 audiences get abruptly whisked from car chase scenes to the virtues of margarine, Netflix drama is free of such interruptions. And the channel’s costs are increasing, “because US streaming companies making programmes are paying over the odds for talent, post-production and so on”, notes media expert Leo Watkins.
A public consultation put out by the government has been rigged entirely to favour privatisation as a solution. It is a nonsense: how does changing the ownership of the channel solve a problem caused by depleted advertising revenue? While the Tories argue that a new private owner will inject much-needed cash, what is instead likely is that the channel’s public service remit – catering, among other things, for woefully underrepresented minority audiences – will be sidelined in desperate attempts to maximise income. Even Thatcher understood that.
Before he was replaced by Nadine Dorries, culture secretary Oliver Dowden invoked the Thatcherite dogma of “There is no alternative” by suggesting it was privatisation or bust. “It can either come on the back of the taxpayer, or it can come from private investment,” he declared, with a populist dismissal of the current arrangement. In order to compete with Netflix, it “should not be underwritten by a granny in Stockport or Southend”. As a Stockport native I agree that grannies from my home town should not be emptying their wallets to save Channel 4. But that is hardly the only option.
The Media Reform Coalition suggests that a tax on booming Google and Facebook advertising would provide an alternative stream of revenue. Even though UK advertising spend dipped during the pandemic, at a cool £23.5bn last year is almost double what it was a decade ago. A tax of just 5% on this would raise up to £1.2bn, allowing for Channel 4 to be entirely funded without any advertising at all, while money currently wasted by the broadcaster on soliciting commercial clients could be invested in programme-making.
Yet for all the talk of “Global Britain”, the government is trashing the country’s cultural output by undermining both the BBC – punished with an ungenerous funding settlement – and Channel 4. None of this is really about what is good for broadcasting: it is simply that, as publicly run organisations, both are antithetical to the core values of our ruling party. That Channel 4 serves demographics with little love or affection for the Tories – and vice versa – has further undoubtedly damned it.
As Ofcom notes, audiences consistently rated “Channel 4 more highly than other PSB [public service broadcast] services in taking creative risks, as well as in tackling issues that other broadcasters would not.” The channel’s fate is an ideological choice, driven by market dogma and cultural spite, not by any genuine care for its future. Here is your new-look, reinvented Conservative party – going further than even Thatcher could stomach.