CAST your mind back to June 2015, when life was so much simpler. David Cameron was at the height of his powers, the smooth succession of George Osborne in a couple of years in the run-up to a May 2020 General Election was starting to be arranged. London Mayor Boris Johnson was looking bewildered on the back benches as the new MP for Uxbridge. Theresa May was practising her scowls at the Home Office. On Labour’s side Harriet Harman was easing herself in to her second stint as acting leader and developing a firebrand policy of abstention on new government business. Ed Miliband was growing a beard to look more like a loon. An actual unkempt bearded loon was seen muttering to himself on the back benches while being ignored by everybody, well, everybody decent.
It was in this heady atmosphere of the Conservatives’ surprise victory that I first wrote about privatising Channel 4. Well, it is almost seven years later and the government has finally announced its proposals.
The usual suspects are up in arms. Miss Commie Right-On thunders about the idea of the state disposing of one of its two national broadcasters as ‘fascism’. Gavin Steelworks in his gruff Northern drawl moans about ‘warmed-over Thatcherism’ and promises ‘disaster’. Cecily Snowflake plaintively squeaks that the UK is following the Orban playbook (Hungary’s PM is in the news for winning an election). Steve Barricade agitates about censorship and suppression and mutters darkly about the Conservatives’ ‘master plan’. Diana Ubiquitous proclaims it all as the work of ‘traitors’. You get the idea.
Their worst fear may be that if Channel 4 has to compete in the media marketplace and make a profit for its new owners, it will do so by descending into the gutter, producing game shows based on full-frontal nudity, ‘documentaries’ featuring hard-core pornography and panel shows where comedians compete in vulgarity. Channel 4 plc may pander to the public’s base fantasies by producing dramas imagining the murder of serving politicians, the hanging of paedophiles and the kidnap of members of the Royal Family. They might even dramatise the concept of a Conservative Prime Minister looking suspiciously like David Cameron having sex with a live pig on television as a way to secure the release of a hostage.
Or maybe not. All that has already happened.
The worst fear of all the media luvvies and their hangers-on and chancers is not that Channel 4 will decline and lose its distinctiveness as a broadcaster providing minority representation, because the Internet has done that already. The station started life when the barrier to entry to producing programmes was immense, and the BBC’s Open Door public access programme was not seen as sufficient to provide a voice for non-mainstream audiences. Nowadays it is possible for anyone to start their own channel on YouTube using the video camera of their mobile telephone and little else. Edgy comedy has disappeared from mainstream broadcast and is now available only online. Inclusion quotas dictate the content and participation in dramas and control the targets of popular humour. Stand-up comedy is now so bad that Eddie Izzard has given up trying to be funny, now calls himself a woman, and campaigns for the Labour Party.
No, the greatest fear of the mediacracy is that Channel 4 plc will be a great success. The objective of the privatisation is not for the government to silence a television channel that broadcasts a barrage of criticism against conservatives in general and the government in particular. It is to allow the channel to raise capital and grow its position in the British media marketplace. At present Channel 4 chunters along using the business model of selling the advertising space it provides between its shows. This method of relying on linear broadcast and a smattering of catch-up television is on its way out, as people abandon aerials and satellite dishes and start using internet connections to watch television at a time of their choosing.
Numerous new players have emerged in the last two decades due to the advance of technology and have made a success. Netflix used to rent out DVDs by post, but transformed itself into a media colossus to rival established movie studios. Disney saw the writing on the wall and upgraded its own television channels into a unified offer, snapping up numerous creative properties as it does so, not least 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm, the makers of Star Wars. The marketplace is not saturated and Channel 4, as a domestic provider, has a great opportunity here. But you will not hear that from the media professionals, because there is a much larger vested interest in play that no one talks about.
The biggest critics of the privatising of Channel 4 do not actually fear its failure as a profit-making business, they instead strongly desire the privatisation to fail. Just as I wrote seven years ago, should Channel 4 make a success of privatisation, the BBC has to be next. This is the real reason for all the protests. The media darlings see Channel 4 as a buffer state bordering on the monolithic authoritarian BBC run by media oligarchs. This BBC nomenklatura fears the extension of the private sector into what it sees as its sphere of interest.
The successful privatisation of the BBC would neatly solve the charter issue and permit the smooth abolition of the licence fee. But it would require a change of editorial focus to respond to market sentiment, rather like replacing a dictatorship with a properly representative democracy that provides for freedom of speech. This would be all too much for the Politburo of Portland Place. So they will start massing at the border. Expect a prolonged dirty fight over the future of Channel 4.