Channel 4 sale won’t benefit anyone but Boris Johnson | Dorothy Byrne
In 1982, the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher created Channel 4 to create an independent television production industry in the United Kingdom. Unlike the BBC or ITV, it was not to produce any of its own programmes, not even its flagship Channel 4 News. Across the UK, independent companies have sprung up to create its content. Over the next 40 years, they earned billions of pounds, not just for themselves but for Britain as well, selling their wares all over the world. And, unlike the BBC, they spoke with many voices, putting forward diverse and radical ideas that had barely been heard before in mainstream broadcasting.
Yesterday, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government announced it was selling off the channel, saying doing so would boost independent production companies. It does not mean anything. Instead of Channel 4 being a public organization pumping hundreds of millions of pounds a year into the independent sector, it is being sold off, almost certainly to a giant, possibly foreign, television production company. It will be in the company’s interest to produce as many of its own programs as possible and retain the rights to them.
Many people have never understood Channel 4’s business model, and among them is Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, the minister who announced yesterday that the sale of Channel 4 would give a boost to the independent sector. When appearing before the culture select committee last November, she said it was right for the government to assess the channel’s long-term financial viability because Channel 4 was receiving public funds. She looked embarrassed when Tory MP Damian Green underline to her that Channel 4 derives its revenue from advertising, not from public coffers. How could a woman who didn’t even know what the organization’s business model was, claim to be motivated by protecting her finances? Of course, as a public organisation, Channel 4 is not making a profit either, funneling all its income back into programming, while its new owner will rightly expect a profit.
The government says privatization is needed so Channel 4 can borrow money to compete with Netflix and Amazon. It also shows a misunderstanding of both Channel 4’s purpose and the industry. Channel 4 is not there to compete with Netflix and Amazon. It is there to provide public service programming that promotes discussion and debate. I love Bridgerton. I watched the entire first series twice, the second time on mute so I could just focus on the dresses. But I didn’t learn much from Bridgerton about the government’s race-to-the-top agenda. The magnificent people dancing in these huge ballrooms seemed unaffected by worries about how to heat them up during the energy crisis.
Suffice to say, Netflix and Amazon can’t compete with Channel 4. They have to create content that appeals to a global audience. Channel 4 makes programs for British audiences, about the specific concerns and interests of people here. What would be the public interest for Channel 4 to borrow huge sums to do costume dramas? He won all the awards for It’s a Sin. It is disturbing that this government thinks that all problems can be solved by borrowing a lot of money.
One can expect to be reassured that any new acquirer will be forced to carry serious shows like news and current affairs. But don’t be fooled when the details are announced. Channel 4 News, produced by independent company ITN, is one hour long, airs in prime time and is very expensive. About a third of his output is international, and he specializes in big, tough stories such as his investigation of Cambridge Analytica. Will the government say that the new buyer must keep this unique information program? Or will he just say that a information program should be broadcast?
Even if the rules state that Channel 4 News must be well funded and on prime time, how long will it be before a new buyer starts complaining that it’s undermining their profits? We have seen this kind of thing happen again and again in privatized companies. And what will happen to important series such as World not reported, which produce stories and insights never before seen in the UK? The higher the requirements placed on the new buyer in terms of providing high-quality public service programming, the lower the price the government can charge will be, so it has an interest in restricting the requirements.
Dorries says a significant portion of the money raised from the sale will be used to stimulate “creative training”. Currently, independent production companies making programs for Channel 4 are offering people real jobs, not ‘creative training’. Channel 4 indeed needs to develop new models to ensure its future. The success of All 4, the largest free streaming service in the UK, is a good example. But it is not a critically distressed organisation: its program budget this year tops £700million for the first time.
The sale will not benefit the independent production sector and will not benefit public service television. So who will does it benefit? One man in particular will do well: Boris Johnson. With the promise of scrapping the BBC’s license fee, he’s a nice piece of red meat to throw at his right-wing supporters, who are currently unhappy with him. These two actions combined threaten to undermine one of this country’s most successful industries and reduce the level of democratic debate. And speaking of tiers, how will this help the government’s upgrade program? Currently, two-thirds of Channel 4’s main channel content is commissioned from companies in countries and regions, and 55% of its new content spending comes from countries and regions. Are we to believe that the new owners will want to share their profits in this way across the country?