As the government announces plans to sell Channel 4, is this just another loss for culture in the face of capitalism?
Set up by the Thatcher government in 1982, (one of her better ideas) Channel 4 was created as a cultural alternative to the already popular BBC One, BBC Two, and ITV.
Today, it is the backbone for independent producers from across the UK, which is likely to change if it is sold.
Arguably its biggest competitor, the BBC, is publicly funded (you know, by the TV license fee we all pay) – whereas Channel 4 gets most of its money from advertising. So, although it’s owned by the government, it receives no public funding.
The government’s plan to privatise has just been confirmed as part of the wider reforms to public service broadcasting, which will involve selling Channel 4.
This is not exactly a new idea, but previous governments ultimately decided it would be too much of a loss to British culture to surrender the broadcaster into private hands.
Current culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, says the network is being held back from competing against Netflix and Amazon. But this is hardly a reason to sell it, especially because Channel 4’s aim has never been to make a profit.
Personally, I know what I get from each channel or streaming platform. I wouldn’t argue any is superior; each one brings us unique and incomparable content. For the global, big-budget series that will leave you out of conversations for weeks if you don’t watch them, you go to Netflix. If you’re looking for a never-ending library of things to watch, there’s Amazon. These platforms are huge and reach worldwide audiences.
It wouldn’t be right to compare them to Channel 4 or the BBC, who are catering to people in the UK.
And even those two can’t be compared. The BBC has an everlasting love affair with the mainstream audience who “like what they like”. But if you want to see some diversity, some comforting reality tv, or a hard-hitting indie drama, Channel 4 is most certainly your guy. And he comes free of charge.
In other words, they aren’t in competition. They’re an equally deserving group of winners in completely different categories.
The government’s decision to sell comes with the condition that whoever buys it will have to continue to support the independent TV industry – something Channel 4 has been doing since it was formed. But with new owners, there’s no real guarantee of what will happen.
If it becomes about money, which is certain if privately owned, then smaller, independent companies will stand no chance against the larger producers when bidding for airtime. This could foster quite a divide in the creative sector and could reverse a lot of the good work Channel 4 has done for the independent players.
It’s also important to note that the more demands the government puts on potential buyers, the less they’ll be able to sell it for. I mean, what’s attractive about a network that is bound to a rigid brief set by its previous owner? Frankly, selling it off may sacrifice Channel 4’s diverse and innovative image that we all know and love.
So, what’s it really about?
Key public service content, such as the news, risk being scrapped (or at least changed) under new ownership, due to the lack of profit they make. This seems to be fuelling the idea suggested by Tory MP, Julian Knight, that this could be the government’s ‘revenge’ for the channel’s biased coverage during Brexit.
With support flailing for Johnson after partygate, others are saying it’s his attempt to get back in right-wing good books (we all know they can’t resist a bit of privatisation.)
However petty the reason, is this a mutually beneficial move that we as a nation will not even notice? Or are we, yet again, losing the essence of something authentic to profit-making and capitalism?