The sale of Channel 4 is yet another missed opportunity to drive real change

5 Apr

The decision to sell off Channel 4 looks like it will play out the same way as most of the Government’s other vaguely culture war-y stuff: generate lots of sound and fury, and change very little.

Yes, the broadcaster’s supporters are predictably furious that the move might, in the words of the Daily Telegraph, “commission independent, unproven programmes and keep a Left-of-centre news approach.”

But in truth it isn’t obvious that privatisation will change all that much. Unlike the BBC, whose modus operandi is built around its unique status, Channel 4 is a commercial entity and, if we’re honest, its content largely reflects that.

There’s on need to take a Tory’s word for it. David Elstein, a former Director of Programmes for ITV, wrote on Open Democracy in 2017 about the state of its output:

“…Channel 4’s flagging commitment to education delivered just nine hours of programmes at a cost of £2 million, down even on 2015’s paltry sixteen hours and £5 millions.

“Yet, despite the evident absurdity of the claim, Channel 4 continues to boast (admittedly on page 168 of a 176-page report) of showing 2,795 hours of programming that was “educative in nature”.

He goes on, at fairly damning length – a view which perhaps explains why he is less fearful than others about the impact of privatisation on the broadcaster’s operations. And some with first-hand experience of working with it claim that today is largely coasts on the reputation it earned in the 80s and 90s.

But turn the lense away from Channel 4 and onto the Government, and this is still perhaps a disappointing decision, or at least one which doesn’t say much good about the current state of the right in Britain.

This thought does not arise from the sort of reheated Thatcher worship offered by Damian Green; it’s perfectly reasonable for ministers to decide not to prop up a ‘business’ whose operators have decided they quite like being propped up.

Rather, it’s simply the poverty of imagination behind the move. A straight sale is simply a different form of reflexive Thatcherism; it gives the impression of action, and raises some cash, without ministers having to make any substantial decisions about how public service broadcasting should work or what it should compass.

Elstein’s charge sheet against Channel 4’s commissioning and educational record could have formed the basis for a root-and-branch reappraisal of how we fund public-service television. But it isn’t. One might expect a government with a cultural agenda might have been able to find a use for a state-owned broadcaster. But not this one.

The same problem plagues the Government’s approach to the BBC. Without doing the intellectual heavy lifting and coming up with a positive, pro-active centre-right vision for public sector broadcasting, ministers are reduced to speaking loudly and carrying a small stick.

All of this means that it looks increasingly likely that when Labour eventually oust the Conservatives, they will inherit an institutional landscape which largely resembles the one they left behind in 2010. The Government has cringed away from court reform, made scant headway on quangos, done nothing bold to restructure public sector broadcasting, and may even be gently winding back the bolder elements of Micheal Gove’s school reforms.

The sale of Channel 4 is basically fine, but uninspiring. It does not warrant the pearl-clutching response, certainly not from Tories who can’t grasp that a bold and worthwhile innovation in the media landscape of 1980 may not be especially relevant to that of 2022. But it is another missed opportunity to use the historic 2019 majority to do something historic.

Karen Bradley: The Government should think twice about privatising Channel 4

13 Jan

Karen Bradley is a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and is MP for Staffordshire Moorlands.

It may not be the highest-profile job in the cabinet but, in terms of the breadth of the issues it covers, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is one of the biggest.

From broadband to broadcasting, from print media to social media, from opera to football, from castles to libraries, DCMS has a role in some of the most important and life-enhancing elements of British life. Every incoming Secretary of State has to set their own priorities whilst also inheriting a huge set of pressing decisions from their predecessors. That was true for me when I was given the job in 2016, and it’s true for Nadine Dorries now.

One issue which was handed to me when I entered the department, and which has been left on Nadine’s plate too, is the future of Channel 4.

Then, as now, that was an open question, with privatisation a live option which I seriously considered. The case for privatisation of Channel 4 has been made repeatedly over the years, ever since its creation by Margaret Thatcher in 1982 as a publicly-owned but self-funding free-to-air public service broadcaster – a vital addition to the media landscape which has more than justified its existence over almost four decades.

It is a case that has to be listened to – and I did listen to it, as I know Nadine will. But in the end, I decided that while Channel 4 needed some quite significant changes to the way it was run, its ownership model was not part of the problem.

What is unique about Channel 4? Unlike other public service broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 5, and unlike paid-for streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime, Channel 4 produces none of its own programming: it is what is called a publisher-broadcaster.

This means that it relies more than anyone else on independent production companies for its content, therefore commissioning work from a wide range of UK businesses, large and small, and playing a crucial role in helping them get started and stay viable.

Indeed, around 15 independents a year get their first ever TV commission – their first break – from Channel 4. This makes Channel 4 perhaps the most important start-up incubator in the TV production industry.

That doesn’t mean that nothing ever needs to change. The media industry has always had a London-centric bias, and Channel 4 has been no exception. That’s why, along with deciding against privatisation, I encouraged Channel 4 to build a major presence outside London – and I’m delighted that its new Leeds HQ opened in September 2021.

Leeds represents not just a symbolic move, but a real shift in Channel 4’s focus, creating jobs and opportunities outside the capital and helping to make sure that a national broadcaster has a national mission that benefits the whole of the UK. Its new regional sales and creative hubs in Manchester, Glasgow and Bristol are making a major contribution to that too. Channel 4 has committed to commission at least 50 per cent of its content outside the M25 by 2023 – far more than the 35 per cent it is required to commission, and far further than any other public service broadcaster. That is levelling up in action.

I don’t believe that the move to Leeds – which Channel 4 initially resisted – could, or would, have happened under a private ownership model. I don’t believe that a private owner would freely choose to commission from as diverse a range of independents as Channel 4 does. The incentives for a new owner to move production – including out-of-London production that meets Channel 4’s Nations and Regions quota – to in-house studios, for the sake of economies of scale and rights retention, will be very strong, and I worry about the knock-on effect in terms of lost commissions for independents, especially small and regional ones.

Any conditions placed on a sale – such as a requirement to keep the HQ in Leeds, or imposing a higher regional quota on Channel 4 than on anyone else – would reduce the attractiveness and price to a potential buyer. A far simpler solution is to keep Channel 4 where it is.

As a Conservative, I have no instinctive preference for public ownership. However, when it comes to thinking about broadcasting and our world-leading creative industries as a whole, the Channel 4 ownership question has to be about the best way of supporting private enterprise and promoting Global Britain. It is also especially important to consider what is best for start-up companies in the TV and film production sector all around the UK. That was Margaret Thatcher’s vision, and I hope it will be Nadine Dorries’ vision too.

Will GB News turn out to just be a very expensive way to launch a YouTube channel?

17 Sep

This week’s papers bore the news that Andrew Neil is to abandon his role at GB News. His regular show, which aired just eight episodes before he took a break from the channel, will not be coming back, although he will continue to appear as a talking head.

This seems to mark the end of an internal power struggle over the direction of the station, which I examined back in July. Highbrow, relatively conventional right-wing TV journalism, of the sort Neil has offered in the past, is out. American-style ‘shock-jock’ programming is in.

It therefore seems likely that we will see more departures over the coming weeks and months. Several producers also left this week, and media reports suggest that other veteran journalists, including Simon McCoy and Kirsty Gallacher, are growing frustrated with the new direction. The departure in July of Neil McAndrew, the director of news and programming, also reportedly “dismayed some senior hires“.

The money

One commentator foresaw all of this. Writing all the way back in May, Matt Deegan made the following prediction:

“The resonating stuff will be all the right-wing malarkey and six months in they’ll have a mini re-launch and it’ll be all blowhards, all the time. The BBC imports will be moved to the edges. Andrew Neil will start to be a bit uncomfortable with the company he’s keeping and will end up doing a weekly show as he’ll say he needs to spend more time with his business interests and that this was always the plan.”

According to Deegan, there is a straightforward commercial reason for leaning in to the Nigel Farage-type content: pushing the channel’s most committed supporters into a £5-per-month subscription model. This was first reported by the Financial Times, which saw a pitch document which aimed to have a fifth of GB News’ fifth-year revenue of £40 million coming from 134,000 paying subscribers. However, there is no sign of this paid-for service yet.

But it does dovetail with comments from insiders about the difficulty of competing with the major channels, “which chronicle news and have superior production budgets”.

Leaning into the Fox-style content thus serves multiple purposes: keeping production costs down whilst generating good social media engagement and catering to GB News’ relatively narrow viewer base – and, perhaps, converting as many of them as possible into paying subscribers of one sort or another.

It may also simply be that the money wasn’t available to do what several sources suggested to me that the channel do back in July, namely have a proper shutdown, redesign the set, and try and relaunch as a proper news channel.

That would have been very capital intensive, and with a leaner model built into the pitch made to GB News’ original investors the cash may simply not have been there. Nor might it have seemed wise to try, given that Rupert Murdoch, with all the resources of News Corporation at his disposal and first-hand experience operating Fox News, couldn’t get his own attempt to launch a British TV station off the ground.

The future

However, all this does leave open the question of what future GB News has as an actual TV station. If it isn’t going to invest in the substantial crews and package-production that a full news channel requires, and especially if it sidelines or loses more traditional journalists from its presenting line-up, what is going to distinguish it from successful but much lower-budget right-wing commentary offerings such as TalkRADIO?

This is especially significant since Rupert Murdoch is reportedly teeing up another crack at a right-wing TV station – and the publicity seems to be aimed squarely at GB News. According to the Press Gazette, ‘TalkTV’ will “will feature “proper” hourly news bulletins, sports and entertainment shows as well as current affairs, debate, opinion and documentaries, News UK said.” In other words, exactly the sort of broad-spectrum offer some of GB News’ backers expected.

TalkTV may backfire. Murdoch’s list bid at such a channel eventually boiled down to what the FT describes as “a few low-budget chat shows, streamed online”, and these are apparently nested under the brands of its newspaper and radio offerings. But News UK is a big player with lots of experience getting this sort of project right, and this play suggests they both think there is a market for such a station and that GB News isn’t catering to it.

If veterans such as Neil do end up getting replaced by right-wing YouTube personalities such as Mahyar Tousi, then even without the competition GB News may end up being a very expensive, old-media way to launch what turns out to be quite a conventional new-media product – and one which, unlike the promise of a proper centre-right TV station, already exists in the UK market.

It is perhaps significant that it is these new-media angles that Tim Montgomerie highlighted in his column yesterday: “the station’s YouTube videos are beginning to go gangbusters”, and “it is already building a considerable following within ‘our big and small ‘C’ conservative family’”.

This may be true, but a national television news network can’t content itself with an audience comprising “fellow pundits, a handful of MPs, a few think tank folk, readers of this wonderful site and assorted friends from home in Salisbury”. And it isn’t obvious that a specialised product for active conservatives justifies the effort and expense of being run as if it were a national television news network.

The arts bailout: a reminder not to underestimate Dowden

6 Jul

In recent weeks, it’s fair to say that Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, hasn’t been particularly popular with the arts sector. After the industry was badly affected by the Coronavirus crisis and the mass closures of theatres, cinemas and the rest, many accused him of not doing enough.

Indeed, when he announced a five-stage roadmap to help businesses recover, people took this as evidence of a man who’s all talk and no action. “If you and your government have no desire to invest in and save theatre, then you should at least announce that decision as soon as possible”, posted one individual on Twitter, very much encompassing the general attitude.

With that being said, yesterday the culture secretary forced everyone to reconsider their perceptions of him after he managed to negotiate £1.57 million in funding for the industry. As The Times put it: “The phrase ‘from zero to hero’ may be overused, but what better words describe Oliver Dowden today?” It was an achievement that will not only transform the future of the arts sector, but that of Dowden within the political sphere, who is experiencing his first real arrival on the public stage – the same way Rishi Sunak did when appointed Chancellor.

Dowden’s announcement speaks, first, of his ability as a PR man. Despite the fact that Sunak is announcing a series of measures on Wednesday – including stamp duty scrapped for first-time buyers and an investment in green jobs – the culture secretary managed to get his own statement a centre stage slot over the weekend.

The announcement is not only impressive in its pledges – which includes £120 million capital infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England, among others – but the list of illustrious names who’ve added their support to it, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sir Simon Rattle and Alex Beard, the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House.

There’s also the fact, of course, that Dowden negotiated such an enormous bailout in the first place. It indicates that he has great influence in Downing Street, which he’s been developing for years, having started out as a specialist adviser and as David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff. Now the political networking is paying off.

Although the package is not perfect – there have been complaints about whether it can support smaller venues and freelancers – it has received an overwhelmingly positive response. It is a real vindication that we have been listened to“, Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, told Times Radio; Sir Nicholas Hytner, once Artistic Director of the National Theatre, said it was a better plan than anyone expected.

Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, Dowden has pledged to sort out an investment for the arts – even if no one believed him – so the fact that he has not so much succeeded, but exceeded all expectations, bodes well for his future in the party – though not perhaps for the BBC, which he has previously argued needs an ideological shake-up. And, as Sunday’s news shows, Dowden is a man who means business.