A culture secretary that actually cares about culture would protect Channel 4
Tory MP Nadine Dorries' plans to privatise Channel 4 are misguided, at best. What else should we expect from someone who seems to have little to no interest in preserving the UK’s rich legacy of TV?
If you’re a Very Important Person in a Very Important Role, there’s usually an expectation that you should know what you’re doing.
A surgeon, for instance, requires up to 15 years’ medical training before they’re allowed to start poking around in people’s bodies solo. To become a barrister, you’ll need to knuckle down for five years before you get that fancy wig. And if you want to head back to school to fill the next gens’ heads with Pythagoras’ theorem and differential equations, you’re looking at four to five years of study and practical training.
Then there’s Nadine Dorries. She’s the Conservative MP who’s currently the UK’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the parliamentarian who recently decided she’d like to give the nation a birthday present in Channel 4’s 40th year and, er, privatise the station.
Yes, she was elected as the member for Mid Bedfordshire in 2005, giving her nearly 17 years of experience in parliamentary politics. But what makes her qualified to oversee strategy and policies to push the nation’s arts and culture sector forwards? Well, I suppose she did compete in I’m A Celeb in 2012. She was voted off first, though – and not before her own party decided to eliminate her with a temporary suspension, after she failed to request permission or inform the Tories’ chief whip that she’d be absent for a few weeks eating kangaroo testicles in the Australian outback.
We’re in good hands, then.
Promoted into the role by Boris Johnson last September, Dorries made a near-instant splash by making the bold, daring and original claim that the BBC was in need of a serious reform.
“They talk about lots to do with diversity but they don’t talk about kids from working class backgrounds,” she told an audience at the Conservative Party Conference in October. Gee, that rings a bell, doesn’t it? The tweets of a hundred Tory MPs desperate to get into the Prime Minister’s good books just flashed before my eyes.
And now she’s going after the nation’s other publicly-owned broadcaster, Channel 4, a move which has quite rightly sparked outrage across the British television and film industry. But Dorries has been planning this for a while. During a select committee hearing last November, she clumsily argued that “it’s right that a public service broadcaster, in the rapidly changing digital environment that we’re in at the moment, I think the future and the future and longevity of that broadcast should be brought into question – particularly when it’s in receipt of taxpayers’ money.”
Thing is, despite the fact that Channel 4 is publicly owned, it isn’t funded by taxpayer money. That’s why, unlike the BBC, it airs commercial advertisements. This was soon pointed out to her by fellow Tory MP Damian Green, to which she could only respond with: “And… so… although it’s… yeah… and…”
That professional – and very public – humiliation hasn’t deterred Dorries, though. After taking some time to build a new and (you’d hope, for her sake) legitimate case for privatisation, this week, the MP announced that she has “come to the conclusion that government ownership is holding Channel 4 back from competing against streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon”.
Now, that might initially sound like a sensible idea when you think about the rapid rise of streaming and digital media over the past decade. But if you break down the facts and figures, the picture changes dramatically. In the UK in 2020, Channel 4’s main channel reached an average of 47 million people a month, while 24 million British residents were registered on the broadcaster’s digital platform, All4. Meanwhile, Netflix ended 2021 with an estimated 14 million subscribers in the UK, just beating Amazon, which had 12.3 million.
So, Channel 4 had, give or take, twice as many viewers as the two leading streamers.
You’d think – hope – our Culture Secretary would know that, in the competition for the nation’s attention, Channel 4 has already won. And even if Dorries wasn’t keeping up to date with these figures (even though that’s, you know, part of her job), perhaps she might have thought to fact-check her assumptions before launching a campaign to bring down a beloved broadcaster. It’s almost as though her plan to privatise Channel 4 isn’t actually about protecting its finances at all. Funny, that.
Why else might a Tory MP want to dismantle Channel 4? It could have something to do with the fact that many on the right consider it to be “a leftwing Frankenstein”, as Andrew Roberts lamented in The Daily Telegraph this week. But we should have seen this coming, really. When, in November 2019, Channel 4 replaced a no-show Boris Johnson with an ice-sculpture during a climate change debate, the Conservative party straight-up threatened to review its broadcasting remit if they won the upcoming election.
The message: in Tory Britain, there is no accountability for those in power. Anyone who dares threaten that will, it seems, eventually be silenced by brute force. And/or by privatisation.
Channel 4 isn’t funded by taxpayers’ money, but Nadine Dorries’ salary is. Has she taken a moment to consider what the public actually wants? Last year, the government tried to do just that, launching a public consultation on the change of ownership of Channel 4. The official results of this are hard to find on the government’s website (again: funny, that). But according to The Thick of It and Veep creator Armando Iannuci, “90 per cent of submissions in that debate said it was a bad idea”.
Considering that, along with the fact that 78 per cent of UK residents tune into Channel 4 each month, Dorries might want to consider putting their interests first.
Putting politics aside, if we can, for a minute, it’s hard to imagine what contemporary British culture would look like without Channel 4.
Over the years since its launch in 1982, it’s aired hundreds of programmes and films that have birthed Oscar and BAFTA-winning stars: Skins, Peep Show, Black Mirror, Top Boy, The Inbetweeners, BrassEye, This Is England, Fresh Meat, to name a literal handful. And because the broadcaster is publicly owned and thus more free to take creative risks, many of these shows were groundbreaking. Pioneering ’80s music show The Tube – one of the new channel’s flagships and broadcast live weekly (and chaotically) from Newcastle – gave artists like Madonna and Frankie Goes To Hollywood their first TV breaks in the UK. In 1989, Desmond’s became Britain’s first predominantly Black situation comedy. Russell T. Davies’ heartbreaking 2021 Aids drama It’s A Sin was turned down by BBC and ITV before being picked up by 4. Last week, it received 11 BAFTA nominations.
A culture secretary that actually cared about culture would want to protect that rich legacy of programming. Instead, Dorries wants to flog it.
A privately-owned Channel 4 would likely put profits above continuing its history of commissioning bold and diverse stories. And it’s not even guaranteed to be lucrative: Netflix is currently $15.5 billion in debt. As noted by Ian Katz, Channel 4’s programming director, the shows it airs “emerge because everyone on the channel is imbued with the public service ethos, and that’s the kind of television that they’re trying to make every day, and I think there’s a real risk if you lose that, that you lose a lot of that kind of programming”.
When you look at the talent Channel 4 has nurtured over the years, from Skins’ Daniel Kaluuya to Peep Show’s Olivia Colman via basically every UK comedian that’s had a leg up on 8 Out of 10 Cats, that’s simply not a risk worth taking – whatever your political affiliations. And if, like a good Tory, you believe in the “Great” in Britain, isn’t protecting our broadcasters against deep-pocketed American tech companies and streamers, fundamentally, A Good Thing?
For sure, it’s not unreasonable to think about ways for public broadcasters to remain competitive in our ever-changing media landscape. But it’s obvious that Nadine Dorries doesn’t have the broadcaster’s or the public’s best interests in mind with this move. The British public aren’t stupid.
If only the same could be said for our ruling politicians.