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Paul T Horgan: Sell off Channel 4 as a dry run for privatising the BBC

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Okay, we are into the third week of the new all-Tory government. The Queen’s Speech has been read and the nation has been rightly shocked not to hear the traditional address by Dennis Skinner. Already attention is focusing on the non-event of the exclusion of the manifesto commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act from the Most Gracious Speech. Harold Wilson has been proved correct. No-one now remembers the appointment of the highly experienced John Whittingdale as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport the day after David Cameron gained his majority. If the BBC have their way that would be permanently the case.

The Tories have long memories and they have form when it comes to taking terrible revenge on any group that has damaged the party’s interests. Just as the unions, especially the NUM, can vouch for this. This time around, the Tories have the BBC firmly in their sights. This is not without reason. The BBC has not been friends to the Conservative party. This has not necessarily been due to bias, but simply because there is a definite absence of anyone to present Conservative thinking at any level in the corporation. There has been some kind of purge of conservatism in the BBC.

The vast majority of the BBC’s recruitment advertisements are placed in The Guardian. Apart from Andrew Neil and Nick Robinson, it is hard to think of anyone who does not hail from the left in the BBC’s news-making.  Having a news-reader intone a song from the ‘Wizard of Oz’ every 15 minutes on the weekend after the passing of Margaret Thatcher is not the way to endear a broadcaster to the Tories.  The creative arts are well-known for being left-leaning and this certainly informs BBC dramas and comedies. I could catalogue this, but it is self-evident that this has been the case for at least three decades.

But the BBC is not the only British state broadcaster. Everybody has forgotten about Channel 4. This is rather natural, as whereas the BBC’s impartiality is regulated by the BBC Trust and is also subject to regular complaint by aggrieved parties, Channel 4, although subject to its own rules of impartiality, is in reality left to its own devices.  The Tories have always viewed Channel 4 as a lost cause as regards balance and fairness.  But it is also highly open to question exactly why it remains in state ownership.

To understand the existence of Channel 4, it is necessary to understand the state of British television broadcasting in the 1970s. The BBC had just two television channels, the mass-viewership BBC1 and the more intellectual BBC2. To understand the difference, BBC1 would show ‘Dad’s Army’, a sitcom featuring the antics of the Home Guard in World War II, ‘Tomorrow’s World’, a magazine programme about technology and science and ‘Top of the Pops’ which featured bands miming to chart singles. BBC2 would show ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’, an intellectually surreal sketch show that pushed the limits of taste, ‘Horizon’, a science programme that focused on single topics in detail and ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’, where bands would have to perform live and their inclusion was not dictated by the singles chart, but by whether they were actually any good.

The third channel was run by ITV, a group of regional broadcasting companies that monopolised commercial television and thus advertising in their areas, effectively giving them a licence to print money. The consequence of this was that the only way for ITV to maximise revenue was to give the viewing public exactly what they wanted, subject to the prevailing broadcasting standards. Indeed, although a state broadcaster, the BBC was much racier in its content, perhaps because it had no commercial relationship with the people who could withdraw their patronage if offended. True, the ITV programmes that attracted the mass audiences did in a small way subsidise programmes that were not mainstream, but there were way more episodes of ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘On the Buses’ than there were of ‘The Avengers’ and  ‘The Sandbaggers’. Audience figures were huge for shows broadcast at peak time. Christmas specials on BBC1 or ITV would routinely attract up to twenty million viewers or more.

Minority broadcasting was rare to the point of invisible. There was none on ITV and Welsh and Asian-language programmes were at unpopular hours on BBC2. This, then was the prevailing situation when Channel 4 was proposed; homogenised television being broadcast to an increasingly heterogenous audience.

Channel 4 was able to hit the ground running to experiment and build an audience from an eclectic mix of alternative programming thanks to a funding arrangement with the ITV companies, who were obliged to provide a percentage of the aggregate advertising revenue while being able to sell all the advertising for the new channel. Thus the adverts played to the audience of ‘Emmerdale Farm’ subsidised the broadcast of the unlikely sounding ‘P’tang, Yang, Kipperbang’ or the latest offering from Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Channel 4 has always played more to Islington than to Ilkley.

It has always been iconoclastic and alternative for the sake of being alternative. The inevitable consequence of this is that it has espoused an awful lot of causes that the Left in this country hold dear. There have been fictional dramas depicting the trial of Tony Blair, the assassination of George W Bush, the kidnapping of Prince Harry in Afghanistan, the execution of Gary Glitter and an imagined Ukip government, and that is only in the last six years or so. There was a series of satirical shows entitled ’10 o’clock Live’ whose prime function seemed to be to act as a TV version of the New Statesman magazine complete with over-regular appearances by Mehdi Hasan. At one stage the programme accused David Cameron of plotting to invade Libya on absolutely no evidence.

With the advent of digital television, the channel has expanded from its original remit to become the prime repository of imported US comedies on terrestrial television. It has made programmes on buying, selling and renovating expensive property. It is the place to watch horse-racing. There have been documentaries and dramatisations of the major events of World War II from a British perspective. But it also produced a gay soap opera. It broadcast ‘Big Brother’.

However the channel is an inefficient broadcaster compared to the BBC. It has three basic channels, two more that appear to broadcast repeats of Channel 4’s food and property strands, documentaries and reality programming. In addition it has three more channels that are just timeshifts by one hour. It also has a channel devoted to broadcasting music videos and reality shows from the USA. It is not making as good a use of its channels as the BBC and probably broadcasts many more repeats.

The credit crunch has not been kind to the channel, which was on the verge of expanding into a radio station and it had to receive a state grant from a sympathetic Labour government in 2007. To say that the channel has lost focus is a slight understatement. Its minority programming is now itself the minority and its iconoclasm and popularisation of alternatives has become as mainstream as Dennis Skinner’s interjections on the advent of Black Rod in the Commons.

While a subsidised arts, social and cultural channel for minority interests made sense in the era of analogue television, this is no longer the case. The only real beneficiaries of the channel from a minority perspective may be those that are unable to receive programming from one of the hundreds of video sources from the internet or cable and satellite television. There is now a broadcaster for every kind of audience. Channel 4’s raison d’etre is increasingly outdated in the Netflix age.

The last accounts are for 2013 and show a loss of £15 million on revenues of £908 million. However Channel 4 now pays ITV as its advertising revenue and audience share are now above the agreed threshold and it is now competing against its fellow commercial broadcaster. ITV is already describing it as ‘Channel Three and a Half’ due its highly populist programming.

A business that is losing money on revenues of close to a billion pounds may not realise much if it is sold off. However, Channel 4 has clearly lost its way and does not make much sense in the digital era. It seems to be on the verge of resuming profitability, but only at the price of becoming more mainstream with vestiges of radicalism put out as window-dressing to satisfy regulators.

Privatising Channel 4 may provide it with revenue to allow it to return to its original remit of innovative alternative broadcasting as well as providing some needed focus by cutting away the waste and halting the drift.  It will also provide some money to a Treasury that has been bailing it out for some time.

It can provide John Whittingdale and his department with a taste of how a state broadcaster is privatised, so that after the hors d’oeuvre of Channel 4, he could proceed to the main course with some easily-gained experience.

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Paul T Horgan
Paul T Horgan works in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.

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