To justify receiving any public money, Channel 4 needs to persuade the government that it is an important hub in Britain's creative industriesby Christopher Hird / 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 priva…