Tuesday 5 April 2022

Privatising Channel 4

Reflecting on the government's consultation over the mooted privatisation of Channel 4, Armando Iannucci wrote "90% of submissions ... said it was a bad idea. But still they go ahead. Why do they want to make the UK’s great TV industry worse? Why? It makes no business, economic or even patriotic sense." Tory celebrity Kirstie Allsopp called it a "load of twaddle", and adding for good measure "Any Tory MP who votes for this is a traitor to their party & country." Blimey. Others have chimed in with more thoughtful pieces attacking the stupidity of Nadine Dorries's decision. James Ball in the New Statesman typifies this, laying out the position C4 occupies in the British media ecosystem and the role it has supporting tens of thousands of private sector jobs - the ones, the Tories used to tell us, we ought to properly value.

It's a hoot seeing the chickens coming home to roost for enthusiastic Conservative backers and liberals who, when the time came, preferred authoritarian Toryism to a mild dose of social democracy. But it goes without saying that the privatisation of C4 should be opposed for all the straightforward reasons described, despite being a thoroughly neoliberal institution and bulk purveyor of trash television. And there are good socialist reasons too. Here's why.

For one, the Tories are always casting around for ways to shift the balance of wealth further towards the wealthy. With the Covid gravy train parked up in sidings ready for scrappage, C4 is easy pickings for the next transfer of public wealth into private hands. Dorries promises proceeds from the sale would shower a creative dividend on TV production, but she's more interested in the dividends a privatised channel would funnel to institutional investors and media firms: key Tory allies and props. The columnists of the right wing press might be hesitant about the sell off, but their proprietors will prove less sanguine when the share issue comes. And with C4 out the way, yet more ground is laid for the creeping privatisation of the real prize: the BBC.

Then we have the Tory disdain for the arts and creative industries generally. In the Conservative Party's imagination, C4 is a bastion of the liberal elite and its programming is partly responsible for licentiousness and the irreverence British people, particularly younger people, show their social betters. In its own way, C4 has been a vehicle for ground breaking programming that has driven forward the socially liberal agenda and undermined traditional values. Now in the 21st century, there is the woke agenda to do battle with, and let's see how C4 works as a vehicle for this pernicious ideology once there are cadres of share holders to answer to.

Lastly, there's good old fashioned authoritarianism. Dorries is notoriously thin-skinned and the popular opinion among the Tories is that C4 News is particularly left wing and anti-them. As the Tory raison d'etre is the preservation of class relations above all else, ths means keeping an eye out for anything that might present a challenge to their hegemony, or offer some sort of cultural resource for opposing their rule and the legitimacy of the system itself. C4 is hardly an organisation infested with Bolshevist sympathisers, but its news gathering operation significantly departs from the tame gruel served up by the BBC and ITV (ironically, also supplied by ITN). Showing up the messy complexity of the social world, including the consequences of Tory policy, and occasionally allowing marginalised voices their own space to speak is potentially dangerous. Even if the channel is commercially successful. The Tories hope the market will direct C4 into becoming another Channel 5, thereby removing another "oppositional" institution and making politics even easier for them.

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Phil said...

Obviously this is a disgusting proposal which has to be staunchly opposed, but I've got to say that Channel Four would be easier to defend if its output was any good. According to Wikipedia the channel switched from "margins of society" to "edgy" after the IBA was abolished in 1993, and the remit imposed on it by the Communications Act 2003 came partly in response to the new "populist" direction, but this doesn't quite match my experience. I know for a fact that Channel Four was running historical and biographical documentaries in prime time as late as 2003 (e.g. the "Secret History" and "The Real..." strands), and that its Website hosted multiple pages of background reading to support them - I know, because I wrote several of them. (All gone now, of course.)

There are two distinct periods of change in C4's programme content - and of declining quality, let's be honest: from "The Bandung File" in the 80s to the channel that ran "What Not To Wear" alongside "The Secret History of the Storozhevoy" and "The Real Erich von Däniken"* in the early 00s; and from that period to the C4 of "Naked Attraction" and "Celebrity Crystal Maze". I don't know what accounts for the second one, other than "commercial pressures" (a.k.a. market forces). I do know that, if you're old enough to remember C4 in its heyday, the current channel isn't so much a shadow of its former self as a shadow of a shadow.

It needs to stay in public hands, of course, but we should also be thinking about ways to bring non-commercial pressures to bear on its decision-making processes.

*I didn't say they were all good documentaries! That one in particular had a jokey commentary voiced by Dave Lamb (he of Come Dine With Me), which in retrospect was a sign of the way things were going.

Johnny Appleseed. said...

Yes Phil,
Fair commen t.
C4 is no longer the public service prize it is believed to be.
Its news coverage backed the Establishment against Corbyn.
It doesn't do insightful documentaries any more.
The popular choice of radical hero, Jon Snow, ceased being radical when he was booted out of Liverpool University, early Seventies.
Since then he has fitted his traditional position as son of a bishop, and grandson of a general.

Nothing radical left on C4.