This week’s announcement of the privatization of Channel 4 inevitably made heads spin, cringe and eyes roll. “Straight out of Orbán’s playbook,” stammered Alastair Campbell. “Cultural vandalism”, thundered Angela Rayner. “The nursery of fascism,” said disgraced MP Claudia Webbe. My personal favorite answer came from Mark Stacey, antiques expert on Bargain huntingwho enthusiastically tweeted that “the UK is over”.
One might take these Jeremies a little more seriously if their similar predictive blowouts in the past hadn’t turned out to be duds.
There may very well be an element of revenge in the government’s decision. Regardless of Channel 4’s general anti-conservative bias (the norm for the broadcast industry and, remember, that’s not at all the same as being on the left), there have been several cases where Channel 4 bigwigs directly pushed the government – including Jon Snow shouting ‘Fuck the Tories’ at Glastonbury, then head of Channel 4 News Dorothy Byrne calling the Prime Minister a ‘notorious liar’ at the Edinburgh Television Festival (tellingly, two of the most bourgeois events on the social calendar).
But it bears repeating: historically, every time the Tories try to do something less (false) left wing it becomes Continued (false) left wing. It is because the Conservatives are not bad geniuses. In fact, they have no idea what they are doing and never have. And this can be seen from the origins of channel 4 created by the conservatives.
There is a story, possibly apocryphal, about Channel 4’s first chairman, Jeremy Isaacs, meeting then Conservative Party chairman Norman Tebbit at an industry party in the early 1980s. all those weird programs you show then?” Tebbit allegedly asked. “You told us to meet the needs of minorities,” Isaacs shot back, confused. Tebbit slammed the government talking about minority “hobbies” – like golf, sailing and fishing – “not gays and Northern Ireland!”.
These days Channel 4, like every other broadcaster, has a much smaller slice of the pie, with ratings that would have looked dire just a few years ago scoring a ‘hit’. I noticed many years ago that the fewer viewers a show or channel has, the more seriously the people involved take themselves. My first television job was on coronation street, then as now the highest rated show in the UK. I was surprised at how relaxed we all were about the seekers of Man oh man with Chris Tarrant (sort of a germline iteration of take me out), who bragged about herself building Granada with clipboards, queuing for dinner in front of Barbara Knox, and more.
I see this syndrome reflected in the current drama on Channel 4, which is watched by fewer people than any other terrestrial channel except Channel 5, and which most people are surprised to find is state-owned . who knew that Naked attraction, Famous trash monsters and Made in Chelsea were the cultural crown jewels of the nation and vital to the public interest?
The other really strange thing about bluster is the fear that Channel 4 is being overrun by right-wing propagandists. Where do these people imagine these legions of staunchly right-wing creatives are hiding? Who are they? Believe me, I looked, and in 30 years I met about five. If there’s pots of gold to be found at the end of a non-left rainbow, then me and a few others should be rolling around in Hungarian goose-down duvets, lighting Padròn cigars with banknotes of a hundred pounds.
I think the key to this overreaction is that if it was happening in 1986 – when Channel 4 was fresh, innovative, a real voice for minorities – the pessimists might well have had a point. But it’s not the 80s, and it’s silly to pretend that it is. As someone regularly accused, with some justification, of living in the past, I am stunned by this level of mental time travel.
Insisting on Article 28, privatization, waiting for the Tory-geddon that never comes – it all feels good to my generation, because it makes us feel young again. We were young then, with the smooth, rapid heartbeat of late-teen self-satisfaction, before Blair and our physical dissipation, dancing to That Petrol Emotion at the NUS bar, drinking Gold Label at 50p pop under a poster of Nelson Mandela. The silly theater of these storms blows a fleeting morsel of air into the burst paper bags of middle-aged lives.
The era of Channel 4 as a kind of vital political counterweight is long gone. In a sense, all became Channel 4, and not in a good way. The BBC and ITV newsrooms each have their own partisan ‘LGBT’ activists posing as journalists. Schedules at all levels are flooded with specialty shows and middle-class people who “help out”. The tastes of star trek and Batmanonce harmless fun for children, are now inundated with the political significance of the posture once safely confined to the likes of Bandung File.
“Who will hold the Conservatives to account now?” shouted Twitter all week. Well, the answer is the same as before this announcement: no one, because holding the Conservatives to account would mean, above all, trying to understand them well. But who is going to shout, scold and ask about conservatives now? Again, the same as before. Who the fuck is this everyone.
My message to the Campbells and Rayners? You won that particular culture war skirmish decades ago. The least you can do, for the good of all of us, is shut up and enjoy it.
Gareth Robert is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.