In 1982, the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher created Channel 4 to create an independent television production industry in the UK. Unlike the BBC or ITV, it was not to produce any of its own programmes, not even its flagship Channel 4 News. Across the UK, independent companies have sprung up to create its content. Over the next 40 years, they earned billions of pounds, not just for themselves but for Britain as well, selling their wares all over the world. And, unlike the BBC, they spoke with many voices, putting forward diverse and radical ideas that had barely been heard before in mainstream broadcasting.
Yesterday, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government announced it was selling off the channel, saying doing so would boost independent production companies. It does not mean anything. Instead of Channel 4 being a public organization pumping hundreds of millions of pounds a year into the independent sector, it is being sold off, almost certainly to a giant, possibly foreign, television production company. It will be in the company’s interest to produce as many of its own programs as possible and retain the rights to them.
Many people have never understood Channel 4’s business model, and among them is Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, the minister who announced yesterday that the sale of Channel 4 would give a boost to the independent sector. When appearing before the culture select committee last November, she said it was right for the government to assess the channel’s long-term financial viability because Channel 4 was receiving public funds. She looked embarrassed when Tory MP Damian Green underline to her that Channel 4 derives its revenue from advertising, not from public coffers. How could a woman who didn’t even know what the organization’s business model was, claim to be motivated by protecting her finances? Of course, as a public organisation, Channel 4 is not making a profit either, funneling all its income back into programming, while its new owner will rightly expect a profit.