To justify receiving any public money, Channel 4 needs to persuade the government that it is an important hub in Britain's creative industriesby / December 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
In this column in August, I reported that the option of privatising Channel 4 was being aired in Whitehall and that, in my view, it was a very bad idea. A new book published by the BFI, Maggie Brown’s A Licence to be Different: The Story of Channel 4, confirms that this rumour had been “put about by a faction among Brown’s treasury advisers who sought to test the water.” Within weeks of my piece appearing, the new culture secretary, James Purnell, had said unequivocally that he was opposed to privatisation. (No necessary connection between the two events.)
But this does not mean that Channel 4’s future is completely settled. The channel is now engaged in a campaign to demonstrate that it fulfils an important and distinctive role as a public service broadcaster in an attempt to get up to £100m a year of public money. (At present, Channel 4 gets no public money and is funded by advertising income.) This plan is not without risks, especially as Channel 4 does not seem to have any plan B if the request for £100m fails.
In November, Channel 4 held a series of roundtable discussions to get ideas on what the channel’s purpose as a public service broadcaster should be; it is expected to produce a statement on this early in the new year. It is remarkable how the phrase “public service broadcasting” has come back into respectable conversation (see David Cox’s essay “Impartiality imperilled,” Prospect September 2007). Seven years ago, Channel 4’s then chief executive, Michael Jackson, said in a valedictory speech that “public service broadcasting is now drained of all purpose and meaning… as any useful guide for living, [it] has ceased to be.” The current head of Channel 4 is former Unilever marketing man Andy Duncan. He has had a mixed time so far—and an even more mixed press—but he has been committed from the start to the idea of Channel 4 as a public service broadcaster. One of his first acts was to put a stop to the idea of merging with the privately owned Five—a plan cooked up by his predecessor Mark Thompson and Clive Hollick, a big shareholder in Five.
Finding a definition of public service broadcasting that meets widespread approval and has some substantive meaning is not easy, but Duncan is building a case on his claim that the channel commissions, “in strength and breadth,” programmes that are innovative and distinctive, fulfil an educative purpose and add to the diversity and plurality of British television programming. He claims that these programmes, in line with the requirements of the regulator, Ofcom, help us “understand the world, make us aware of alternative viewpoints, stimulate interest in ideas and reflect Britain’s cultural identity and diversity.” The Channel 4 argument is that, with the declining advertising revenues which are the result of the digital age, it is going to be impossible for them to make these sorts of programmes in volume in future. That’s why they need £100m a year from the public purse. But already there are doubts—not least inside Channel 4—about whether this is the right way to go about things.
At the moment, although Channel 4 does attract the attention of politicians, compared with the BBC it gets an easy ride. But if it starts to receive public money, it is hard to believe this will continue: once beholden directly to the government, the government may well want something in return. There is another objection, however: is the government likely to cough up the money? Some people believe it is a dangerous fantasy to think that Gordon Brown will give that amount of money to support a television channel like Channel 4.
To win the argument and secure taxpayers’ support, Channel 4 needs a more ambitious idea. Part of its difficulty is that the Ofcom remit only applies to its main channel: the company therefore needs to persuade Ofcom (and the government) that its public service credentials should be judged across all its channels and activities. At the same time, it needs to demonstrate that it plays an important role in the wider creative economy. The government’s forthcoming green paper on the creative industries may give it that chance.
The creative industries—which include television—now employ 1.8m people, directly and indirectly, in Britain. Fifty per cent of graduates looking to start a business want to start one in this sector. In the ten years to 2005, almost half of the growth in the creative industries was accounted for by start-up businesses. But, as the green paper points out, the creative sector is populated mainly by small, undercapitalised companies that lack the opportunity to improve their business development skills. Despite the recent consolidation in the industry, this is especially true of television.
The green paper also stresses the potential for productive interaction between the public and private sectors in the creative industries—and here there is a real opportunity for Channel 4. It should nurture new talent much more than it currently does, and improve business competence in the television and film sectors. It should do more to find new funding sources for its films and programmes—although Film Four and, to a lesser extent, its British Documentary Film Foundation already do this (I am chair of the latter, so I am biased). And it should be forging more partnerships with private and third-sector organisations to increase the funds for its programmes. This strategy would remove the need for government money—at least on the scale being talked of. And it could be the beginning of Channel 4’s plan B.