Leslie Griffiths on the need to encourage the success story that is Channel Four
I start my tenure within the Shadow DCMS team with a debate on the future of Channel Four – a future that should be a matter of concern for all of us.
Since being set up in 1982, Channel Four has become part of a brilliantly conceived system of free-to-air provision which allows for as broad a diversity of programming as can be devised or imagined. That’s why it always seemed difficult to understand why ministers set their hearts on selling it off. And when the Lords Communication Committee turned their expertise to this subject they showed a similar disbelief.
Just two years ago, Channel Four was granted a new ten-year license and it is bewildering, so soon into that new mandate, to seek what would virtually amount to a dismantling.
Perhaps a failure to meet objectives was the reason for the government’s desired privatisation? Not according to the Committee, which found that most of the objectives were being addressed responsibly. They also found that the business was viable, with considerable sums spent on commissioning new programmes.
Mercifully, wiser heads in the government saw the error of its ways and earlier this year dropped their interest in privatisation. But the government’s main piece of advice – something that has a feel of a command about it – has become the need for Channel Four to work much harder at serving the UK’s nations and regions.
Now, nobody can be against that – a bit like breathing I’d say. But the barely disguised suggestion is that the relocation of a significant part of Channel Four’s core business, if not all of it, should up sticks and move out of London to another part of the country.
Culture Secretary Karen Bradley announced both the u-turn on privatisation and the pivot toward regionalisation from the heart of Salford’s Media City. Indeed, she offered Greater Manchester as an example of what was being done for the industry by those prepared to move out of the capital. We should however, be careful about facile comparisons.
I just happened to be working with the BBC in a peripheral way when, during the 1990s, some departments were being decanted from London to Manchester. The existence of an already vibrant BBC activity there, together with the eventual presence of ITV, allowed these relocated departments the possibility of achieving critical mass as the bold new venture was developed. No similar place is beckoning the Channel Four operation.
Like the government’s approach to devolution it takes more than warm words and catchphrases to bring about change. Everything would have to begin several steps back from what happened back then.
Nor should we forget that the BBC did most of its work in house in those, producing its own programmes. Channel Four doesn’t work that way, commissioning from outside bodies. Its entrepreneurial success in creating vast networks of programme makers in the regions and nations, well beyond the capital, cries out to be listened to.
That said, it would be interesting to look more closely at where the terrestrial broadcasters as a whole currently commission their programmes, to make sure that independent producers in all of our nations and regions get the chance to tell their stories and broadcast their ideas about the world, from their perspective. This is not just a Channel Four issue – other public service broadcasters such as BBC and ITV should also be asked to defend commissioning policies. A key feature of our terrestrial TV system is that it is a complex inter-related ecology where the channels compete on quality and diversity so that audiences receive the best service possible.
A new Chief Executive Officer, Alex Mahon will take up post at Channel Four in November – the first woman CEO of a national broadcasting company. She is very aware of the nature of this discussion and fully committed to producing bold and substantial plans for increasing Channel Four’s contribution to the nations and regions. All of this suggests we should make haste slowly and help it become an even more successful company than it already is.
Lord Leslie Griffiths of Burry Port is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords
Published 17th October 2017