Why is there so much anger over the sale of Channel 4? Tonnes of slebs are very cross and have signed a petition. But there’s no guarantee it will actually happen now that some Tory backbenchers have expressed their misgivings. If I were a Tory and cared at all about this issue — which, to be clear, you shouldn’t — I’d be mindful of the Prime Minister’s track record when it comes to matters requiring a backbone. Grassroots and instinctive Tories bear the brunt of his laziness and disloyalty. It is, after all, the things they care about – the things they love and hate and believe in and fear – that are sidelined by a Prime Minister who doesn’t govern like a conservative for the wholly legitimate reason that he isn’t one.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. It’s good for those of us who oppose conservative outcomes that the Conservative party keeps winning elections in this country. The down side is that, every now and then, someone in Number 10 remembers Tory voters exist and that it might be a good idea to say or do something Toryish to keep them on side. One month before the local elections is as good a time as any. So the latest wheeze is that the government is going to sell the state-owned but privately-funded Channel 4.
As red meat goes, it’s a measly sliver. The government that once pledged to decriminalise non-payment of the BBC licence fee then backed down, wants its core vote to believe sticking a price tag on Channel 4 is some great blow against the left. In fact, if the channel is sold but Parliament stipulates that news funding be ring-fenced and editorial independence safeguarded, the right’s bete noire, Channel 4 News, will be unaffected.
You’d think watching right-wingers being taken for a ride would be cracking fun for liberals but instead we’ve gone to the barricades for what is, when all is said and done, Channel 5 for arts graduates. When the Thatcher government legislated for what was then known as the Fourth Channel, its remit was ‘to appeal to tastes and interests not generally catered for by ITV’, ‘to ensure that a suitable proportion of the programmes are of an educational nature’, ‘to encourage innovation and experiment in the form and content of programmes’ and ‘generally to give the Fourth Channel a distinctive character of its own’. That schedule of responsibilities has broadly endured, with increasing emphasis on the quality and range of programming and the culturally diverse society the channel is meant to serve.
For the first decade or so of its existence, Channel 4 took that remit and ran with it, usually head-first into anything ‘controversial’, ‘alternative’, or ‘groundbreaking’. It talked about homosexuality, AIDS, racism, police brutality, the government’s undermining of trade unionism and embraced every radical and revolutionary around the globe. It took any opportunity to trash the United States, capitalism, the Tories and the blandly bourgeois and conventional. Simply put, if the Daily Express was against it, Channel 4 was for it.
As such, there is a lot of liberal nostalgia attached to Channel 4. People of a certain vintage still tend to think of it as the bringer of The Tube and My Beautiful Laundrette, the avant-garde films of The Eleventh Hour and the smart-casual high-brow talk of After Dark. It felt at the time like a retreat for political and cultural enlightenment during the harsh, tacky, proudly anti-intellectual Thatcher decade. But by the mid-Nineties market and audience realities led the channel from ‘alternative’ to semi-mainstream posing as alternative. Political and social provocation was dialled down in favour of US sitcom imports. Tabloid-baiting content about sex and sexuality, exploitative reality formats and phoney-quirky celebrity programming soon became the channel’s bread and butter.
A digital channel, More4, arrived in 2005. Having pitched itself in terms similar to the original channel, after a few years the meatier news programming, documentaries, arts strands and smart discussion shows were ditched in favour of the same sitcoms and docusoaps available on the main channel. Which brings us to where we are today: an edgy, alternative channel that fills its schedule with Married at First Sight Australia, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares USA, Celebrity Gogglebox, and 24 Hours in A&E. It’s hardly Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, is it?
Let’s be honest: Channel 4 is middle-class trash TV, a glutinous diet of property, holiday and other aspiration porn. It used to at least affect an air of irony about all this so viewers could feel they were in on some post-modern cultural joke, like how the Guardian used to cover celeb scandals via sneery-clever ‘analysis’ pieces on tabloid news values. It doesn’t even bother sticking its tongue in its cheek anymore.
The Channel 4 of today is flaccid, consumerist, politically inert and culturally basic. Its occasional feints in the direction of progressive identitarianism only underline how ideologically bereft it has become. True, it still does the odd good thing. The documentary strand Unreported World is better than anything the Beeb does and Channel 4 News is still the best news programme in Britain. (Yes, I know it’s hilariously biased, but it’s one hour a day when all the academics, civil servants and third-sector executives are distracted and that’s got to be a good thing.)
The hysteria of the tweeting classes about the sale of Channel 4 is indicative of the potency of Boris Derangement Syndrome. It turns everything, even a proposal to divest of such cultural gems as Open House: The Great Sex Experiment and Celebrity Coach Trip, into a war of first principles between democracy and fascism. Britain will suffer no great intellectual, artistic or creative loss from changing the ownership of Channel 4 and nor will the handcart hasten its journey hellwards if Boris bottles it. All is positioning with this Prime Minister — politically empty, philosophically hollow positioning. He believes in nothing but himself and so everything he says, everything he does is just that: nothing.
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