What if a privatized Channel 4 became even more of a Tory nightmare

What if the decision to privatize Channel 4 is the right one, albeit made for the wrong reasons? What if a privatized Channel 4 becomes an even bigger Tory nightmare?

The culture secretary Nadine Dorries is in the news again, after arguing with presenter Kirstie Allsop on Twitter. Unfortunately, I’ve been blocked by Ms Dorries, for highlighting a decade ago that her campaign to restrict abortion rights was supported and helped by a Christian fundamentalist group. Let’s just say I’m not on her Christmas card list by her.

The government wants to privatize Channel 4, most likely because they dislike it for being too lefty-liberal. Dorries may have the wrong intentions, but I can’t help but wonder if some good can come from it.

Channel 4’s remit explicitly states that it must “drive innovation and take more [creative] risks than other channels”, yet I can’t remember the last time I thought it had done anything innovative or edgy. When was the last time Channel 4 made something that got people talking? When was the last time you were shocked or even disgusted by something on Channel 4? I ask that with genuine curiosity.

That’s not to say the beloved Channel 4 hasn’t made any good programs. My colleagues point to Skins, chewing gum, Sugar Rush, It’s A Sin, BlackMirror and TopBoy as examples. But all of those shows, I suspect, would sit perfectly happily on the BBC too.

Twenty years ago, when Da Ali G Show burst onto our screens, led by a group of scantily-clad women brandishing Uzi sub-machine guns, it was scandalous, irreverent, funny, and very controversial. I can’t imagine seeing anything vaguely like that now.

It’s easy to get defensive, especially when Channel 4 News is very good. Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru-Murthy are national treasures, of course. I love Cathy Newman’s incisive questioning. But… what else is there? It’s also easy to get defensive when Nadine Dorries, of all people, is leading the charge. And, of course, the word “privatisation” rightly raises hackles with people outside the Tory faithful.

But it seems obvious that Channel 4 is in a creative rut. It’s an important part of our cultural landscape, but mostly for historical reasons. It has not produced any creative or edgy programs for years.

This might be because what Channel 4 saw as “edgy” 20 years ago is now essentially mainstream. The post-Thatcher world of a multicultural Britain, where white guys from Staines acted like “rudebwoys” from Jamaica, is no longer edgy. It’s the boring mainstream now. Where does culture go from here? What’s on the vanguard? I don’t know, but I don’t think Channel 4 is looking for that either. In a world where every series has to strain to get heard, it may not be the worst thing for Channel 4 to have to get more creative.

I’m afraid that British TV doesn’t have a good history of innovation. There are extremely talented people working at all these organisations, but they are stymied by risk-averse management.

I’ll give you a small example. Over a decade ago, I was invited to a private debate on BBC license fee renewal, where a technologist from the corporation said he was working on a project whereby anyone on the internet could easily embed very short clips from BBC programming on their website. Imagine you wanted to highlight a two-minute clip from BBC News, or a 30-second segment from Gardener’s World on your blog. You would simply go to iPlayer, search for the programme, find the clip, and be able to embed a short segment (under “fair use”) for an online discussion. It would spread BBC content much more widely.

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment, sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here

The technology was almost there, I was told, and it could happen soon. It never did, of course. Perhaps BBC managers were too worried about people stealing its content or worried about rights agreements. The point is that neither BBC iPlayer or Channel 4’s online offerings have been particularly innovative during our digital age.

Perhaps being cut off from public ownership might just give Channel 4 the push it needs to try new things more quickly. The UK’s broadcast industry – in the face of Netflix, Disney+, YouTube and TikTok (all of these compete for our attention now) – has become stale. It needs to kick up the bum.

The other thing is, Channel 4 is already in effect a private entity. It commissions private companies and has to raise revenue through advertising like other private broadcasters such as ITV. The only difference is that it has a different remit to ITV, which can be maintained.

It’s not as if Channel 4 would try to become the UK version of Fox News overnight – GB News is already trying to occupy that space, not particularly successfully. The only route for Channel may be to try, once again, to become the edgy and attention-grabbing voice of the cultural vanguard – which would be the Tory party’s worst nightmare.

That wouldn’t be so bad, now would it?


Related Posts

George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *