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6 April 2022

James Graham: privatising Channel 4 is the solution to a problem that doesn’t exist

The channel costs the taxpayer nothing, roughly breaks even, and operates the largest free-to-view streaming service in the UK. The government just doesn’t like it.

By James Graham

The government faces many challenges that are incredibly difficult to fix. So perhaps that’s why this week it has decided to make up a problem and mend that instead.

It is, though, a decision that will have a seismic and unpredictable impact on the industry that is currently one of the few current British success stories: our creative sector, easily one of the fastest growing and most internationally renowned.

Privatising Channel 4 is a solution to a problem that does not exist. The service costs the taxpayer nothing, is reported to more or less break even, operates the largest free-to-view streaming service in the UK, and in 2020, against all assumptions, increased its share of the all-important younger audience segment. This “break something to fix it” strategy doesn’t make sense – but it isn’t meant to.

The reason given by the Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, is that privatising the channel will secure its future in an admittedly shifting and competitive media environment. Let’s take that argument in good faith, briefly. I know people at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport who are passionate advocates of what culture, media and arts do for the country – financially, socially, emotionally. When theatres were forced to close, it was a relief that the government listened and understood, and offered a significant aid package to the arts sector to help with their recovery.

Perhaps Channel 4’s potential future struggles to compete with other broadcasters – so far an entirely imagined and speculative problem – are worth rushing to address. There can be no denying that broadcasting has changed: behold the glut of new subscription services from predominantly American market forces. How can Channel 4 compete with Netflix, Dorries asked?

But I’m afraid this question – if it is being asked genuinely, and, like many, I suspect it isn’t – is the wrong question. It’s like asking how a lamp can compete with a sheep. They’re not the same things, and you’re inventing a problem by yelling, “Compete!” at them.

Channel 4 is a linear television channel with a digital platform that has a public service remit to offer a mix of entertaining and educational programming. It was created to find and tell uniquely British stories, take risks, subvert and provoke, incubate talent and spread commissioning opportunities outside of London to the regions – all without the pressure of making a profit. If it does make a profit, it reinvests that back into content, jobs and new talent. It is accountable to British citizens, who can nevertheless access it all for free.

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Netflix is an international commercial entity designed to make profit for its shareholders.

And by the way, I love it. I adore the content being created by Netflix and other streamers that are run by people who are passionate about both international stories, and British talent, too. I think they add positively to the creative ecology of our country.

But Netflix isn’t going to cover your local council meeting like the news outlet of a public service broadcaster will. There’s no profit in such reporting, and that’s fine. We have the BBC or Channel 4 for that – until we don’t.

Also, as Dorries is surely aware, there are too many commercial streaming services. The choice is overwhelming. Everyone knows streaming is a bubble that will burst. It makes little to no money, and is often simply a portal that pull customers towards a company’s other revenue streams: Apple to its iPhones, Amazon to its products. Very few people will choose to subscribe to a channel they currently get for free. Either the government doesn’t know that and this is an honest mistake, or it does know that and doesn’t care. It makes no sense, but it isn’t meant to.

I have written dramas for the broadcaster (which I know may taint my defence of it, but hey-ho). The reason I write for public service broadcasters is because I believe viewers should still access some content for free. And I’m not sure anyone else would have made my Dominic Cummings-Benedict Cumberbatch film about the referendum (Brexit: The Uncivil War). Despite the controversy (and Channel 4 exists to be a controversial, independent voice), we gave voice to both the Remain and Leave sides. Ian Katz – the channel’s current chief content officer – told me frequently that the channel exists to be a “public square”; that anyone is allowed in. But he was pretty hands off – Brexit was made, like every single programme on the channel – by the independent production companies who drive the UK television market.

The breaking up of a British institution for reasons that feel ideological rather than practical isn’t even a particularly Conservative policy. But populism is rarely pragmatic; it is more frequently pettiness mixed with punishment, presented in policy form. And that’s why many Conservatives are shaking their heads in confusion at this decision and coming out against it.

It’s no secret that many senior members of the government simply do not like Channel 4. They suspect it is biased against them. They suspect it’s run by and watched by smug elites. Many find the shock at the decision quite amusing; it is annoying all the right people. They don’t believe that the state should own a TV network, despite any practical benefits.

If that is the real reason, let’s have that debate, which is valid. Or, if ministers and even viewers feel it isn’t fulfilling its remit anymore, let’s have that one too. Because this one makes no sense; it isn’t meant to.

The sale will be a short-term win; the possible £1bn raised will soon be spent, but we’ll have lost Channel 4 forever. It is a channel responsible for discovering and taking not-for-profit risks on many of our comedians, writers, directors, film-makers, journalists, technicians, designers and crew, and telling stories it’s unlikely that others would have had the guts to tell, and it cost us nothing.

It doesn’t make sense. But it isn’t meant to.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. He has written two shows for Channel 4, “Brexit: The Uncivil War” and “Coalition”.

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