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.