If Channel 4 is sold off, we'll all be poorer for it

The Conservatives must think again about their plans to sell off Channel 4.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

When it comes to great British assets, you could be forgiven for thinking that if it’s not nailed down, it’s up for sale to anyone, from anywhere, for the highest bid.

That fear now hangs over Channel 4.

But the Tories are wrong to privatise Channel 4 and that’s not just because we all love First Dates and Gogglebox (although sweet Lord we do!) Channel 4 is one of the things that stands out about our British cultural life.

Yes,the BBC is a global brand and is a cultural icon steeped in history, but Channel 4 is undoubtedly one of the things that makes us British in a quintessentially contemporary way. It’s part of brand Britain.

Its edginess, its startling zeitgeist, its at times maddening controversy (Benefits Street and Big Brother), its cheekiness and its enduring ability to surprise, educate and humanise us – Channel 4 News, Undateables, the Paralympics, Dispatches, Unreported World, The King in the Car Park, Humans, not to mention its films from the Oscar winning 12 Years A Slave to this the hotly Bafta-tipped Carol]

If the BBC is Marks and Spencer, Channel 4 is Alexander McQueen. We know the BBC is at risk of being severely weakened post Charter review which is of great concern, but people often forget that Channel 4 is the other great bastion of public service broadcasting.

If it were to go private, Britain’s cultural landscape would be a poorer place despite the potential of a one off boost to the exchequer.

Why do public service broadcasters matter in this age of a booming commercial sector? Why do we need them?

For a start, they are the cornerstone of the creative economy. Channel 4 was originally set up to commission all its programmes from independent producers – and that remains a key feature of how the Channel operates today. It doesn’t make any of its own programmes, instead commissioning all its content from the amazing success story that is the UK’s production sector. On top of that Channel 4 is governed by certain rules which say they have to make sure that a certain proportion of programming is done by production companies from outside London. That means Ch 4 (& the BBC) support an eco-system of small creative companies across the Nations and regions which is so important to the creative industries which themselves are a commercial powerhouse and are growing three times as fast as the rest of the economy. It also means the programmes it makes aren’t made by and for an audience which largely resides within in the M25.

Another thing that people don’t realise about Channel 4 is that although it generates all its own money, mostly from advertising, it does not make a penny of profit. So all the money it makes is ploughed right back into making programmes and films. It’s effectively a public intervention doing an important capitalist job – making money in the market and spending it back out into the market through production companies.

If it were sold and Channel 4 suddenly had shareholders, it would have to fundamentally change the way it was run. It would inevitably stop outsourcing production to all these small production companies around the country and bring it in house as this would be a way of earning a new revenue stream. Obviously this would be a no brainer for shareholder value but would seriously damage programme makers across the regions and how does that help rebalance the economy away from London?

There would also be less creative risk taking. Would shareholders pursuing value really be happy with Channel 4 taking a risk on a bonkers idea about a TV show that filmed people… erm… watching other TV shows…..You try getting the pitch for Gogglebox past a hard core investor relations meeting, especially when the initial viewing figures were pretty thin.

Think of the risks taken on the Paralympic Games and the programming and marketing weight that was thrown behind it to make it a success with shows like the Last Leg. Think of the risks that Film 4 has taken over the years supporting and sticking by diverse talent like Steve McQueen who went on to be the first black director to win an Oscar with 12 Years A Slave.

There are also sound financial reasons why we shouldn’t sell Channel 4 off. Yes, there might be a one off windfall for the Treasury, but what you’d gain would soon be wiped out by the loss to audiences and the creative industries. If the government is saying that it would expect any new owner of Channel 4 to continue to deliver its important public service obligations – such as diverse programmes and outsourcing production – this is not going make the broadcaster that attractive a commercial proposition which means people would want to pay less for it – which defeats the whole point of selling it in the first place. The government is facing in two ways on this.

And finally there is a cultural and unashamed patriotic reason we should not shy away from. I don’t want Channel 4 – the unapologetic enfant terrible of modern British culture – to go the way of other media companies and end up being bought by some monolithic American giant that reduces creative content to the lowest common denominator, focus grouped to within an inch of its life.

I used to work at EMI – the last big iconic British music company – and once it was sold to owners whose sole concern was to wring every last penny of profit out of it, it was not long for this world.

Let’s not see the same thing happen to Channel 4.

My message to David Cameron, John Whittingdale and the Tories is this.

Don’t forget that the birth of Channel 4 occurred under Margaret Thatcher. It represented then, as it does now, a plural, diverse and modern Britain. What will its destruction say about today’s Conservative party?

Don’t sell off all the family silver for a quick buck. Let’s be proud of our British broadcasting and the unique mix of commercial and public service because we will miss it when it’s gone – and you can’t put a price on that. Brand Britain would be poorer for it.

Ayesha Hazarika is a former special adviser to Harriet Harman