At my BBC leaving party, a drunken executive came up to me and said: “I don’t know how you stood it for so long when, every time your name is mentioned among the bosses, it’s prefaced by the words ‘that fucking Leninist bastard…’”
The next day I joined Channel 4, on a better salary and with considerably greater freedom to do journalism. From the first hour, it felt like someone had switched off a secret policeman inside my head.
That had nothing to do with the politics of the management, or of ITN, the news organisation that makes the channel’s news. They were exactly the same kind of people as at the BBC: Oxbridge-educated, small-l liberals, just as well connected to the security service, the monarchy and Tory HQ as their BBC counterparts.
The difference was in the remit. Here was a public service broadcaster directly accountable to the broadcast regulator Ofcom, not to a politically appointed board. Here was a news organisation run by journalists, not managers calculating whether a story is going to breach some rule, annoy some rival, step on some other bureaucrat’s toes, or harm their careers.
When a colleague stepped into the office bearing leaked intelligence originating from the Edward Snowden revelations, Channel 4’s management did not panic: they organised computers and secure sites so that we could responsibly report what was in the public interest. That’s why, year in year out, they win globally significant awards.
Never once did I hear them kill a story with the stock BBC management putdown: “you sound like somebody with an agenda”. In fact, their only limitation was money: by September, in most of the years I worked there, they had run out of it.
Despite that, Channel 4 News remains the jewel in the crown of British broadcast journalism. The BBC is good at breadth, depth and authority – and has played a blinder during the Ukraine war. But Channel 4 News is good at immediacy, challenge, the unflinching gaze at truth.
I have no doubt whatsoever that it is the news and current affairs output – not Gogglebox or the award-winning drama series It’s A Sin – that has prompted the Conservative government to privatise the channel. It’s part of the creeping Orbánisation of British politics.
You stuff the BBC board and management with conservatives; some of them wage public campaigns against editorial appointments who might be critical of the government. You publicly harass the BBC, as Rishi Sunak’s spokespeople did over his catastrophic PR following the Spring Statement. Meanwhile, you fawn over right-wing populist news channels with zero audience – such as GB News – awarding them prime status at Covid press conferences.
You already have the right-wing newspapers in your pocket, and a burgeoning industry of right-wing populist talk networks. But you criminalise effective protest, gerrymander the electoral map and suppress voting through electoral ID legislation for good measure. Government becomes the property of a corrupt coterie of civil servants and crony capitalists.
Channel 4 is being privatised because, from top to bottom, it contains executives and creatives prepared to hold this emergent, corrupt authoritarianism up to scrutiny.
What can we do about it? Actually, quite a lot. The terms of the channel’s takeover depend entirely on the regulatory regime it has to follow in private hands. That will be set by parliament and can be reset by any future government.
At present Channel 4 is obliged to provide an hour of high-quality news and current affairs daily. It is obliged to cater for cultural diversity. It is obliged to commission high-quality films. It is obliged to target older children and young adults and above all to promote alternative views, new perspectives and challenging ideas.
It struggles to do this, first, because young people are ditching TV, including TV news, for content shared via social media and that originates on digital-only networks (eg Netflix, YouTube, Disney). Second, because Covid and the digital media revolution have destabilised the broadcast advertising market on which Channel 4 relies. Third, because, as a publicly-owned body forced to live off its commercial revenue, it’s hard to make investments.
If Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish and Welsh governments were to say, today, that they support an enhanced public service remit for Channel 4 post-privatisation, most potential investors would run a mile from any deal. Even better, if the opposition parties were to commit to renationalisation, it could kill the Tory plan stone dead.
But that doesn’t solve Channel 4’s basic problem, which is money and audiences. It has kept its head above water by growing its streaming service, All 4, to which 80 per cent of all young adults in Britain are signed up. But at just under £1bn in turnover, the channel is dangerously reliant on a volatile “linear” traditional advertising market and can neither buy nor make blockbuster entertainment.
If we want in Britain a public service broadcaster that can hold a critical mirror up to society; that has confident, independent executives, morally committed to holding government to account; that makes high-quality films and drama series; and that revels in diversity, it’s going to need bigger resources than Channel 4 currently has.
Its bosses are forced, day after day, to fill airtime with the kind of content the Tory peer Daniel Hannan read out in the Lords, inviting derision: poverty porn, property porn, celebrity chefs and quizzes. I know, because I’ve worked with them, that what they really care about are the films, the dramas, the news and documentaries and serving the young, multi-ethnic, digitally-focused audience. But in its current form, Channel 4 can only afford these on thin rations.
So while the first task is to stop privatisation, if we really want to equip it to take on the Netflix and YouTube challenge, it’s going to need access to public finance. I’ve long favoured “top-slicing” the BBC licence fee, to give a portion of the money direct to independent media producers whose content would never get through the BBC’s internal policing system.
Maybe Channel 4 should get some of that.