Do you remember when Channel 4 organised a leaders’ debate on the climate crisis during the 2019 election campaign? Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon, Jo Swinson and the rest of the party leaders all turned up to betoken some interest in this transcendent issue – except for Boris Johnson, who, true to form, ducked the challenge (as he did with Andrew Neil’s open offer of an interview on the BBC).
Instead, Channel 4 plonked a big block of ice on the podium reserved for the leader of the Conservatives, where it melted during the programme (they did the same for Nigel Farage, who also signalled his views on the subject and the channel with a boycott). Symbolically, the ice was carved into a globe. Maybe it was supposed to be like when Roy Hattersley pulled out of an episode of Have I Got News For You? and was replaced by a tub of lard but at any rate the Tories were angered.
Then, in a ridiculous further stunt, Michael Gove and a film crew attempted to gatecrash the event, unsuccessfully. The Channel 4 bosses wanted to treat the leaders of all the parties equally, and not accept deputies or substitutes, or make a fuss, but that didn’t suit the Conservatives. The Tories cried foul, complained of bias to Ofcom (which cleared Channel 4) and made vindictive noises about reviewing Channel 4’s remit and future.
And so it has come to pass, to no one’s great surprise, that ministers are pushing for Channel 4 to be privatised. It is an exquisite act of torture as revenge, an act of spite sadistically executed by the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden. Rather than just getting on with it, Dowden insists that this all being done to protect and strengthen Channel 4, because it needs the money to make shows. Of course, the truth is that it has managed reasonably well without such probate finance in its near 40-year history and that commercial pressures could simply turn the channel into a less-good version of ITV. In due course, it would be bought up and hollowed out. But all that will take time.
Of course, the truth is that privatisation and commercialisation would destroy Channel 4’s ethos and purpose, ironically set for it by a Conservative government. These are not values that – in my view – commend themselves to today’s Tory party – far from it: To champion unheard voices; to innovate and take bold creative risks; to inspire change in the way we lead our lives and to stand up for diversity across the UK.
Soon all of that will be chucked in the cultural skip and another part of the media ecosystem will be exterminated for no good reason other than childish pique. The Conservatives have long been suspicious of Channel 4 News and the channel’s documentary makers for no better reason that they have challenged authority and provided a space for those different voices to be heard. The channel isn’t biased, in exactly the same way that the BBC, ITV and Sky’s News and current affairs output aren’t biased towards anything other than the truth. It is a myth, and a dangerous one, believed by too many people and it has spawned the pitiful GB News.
Sadly, Channel 4 News is only one of the independent institutions that the government is seeking to neuter. The BBC, the Supreme Court, the Electoral Commission, the House of Lords, universities, charities such as the National Trust, regulators, devolved governments and local authorities – all have stood up to Johnson’s excesses in recent years and all now are going to be made to pay the price for doing so.
Instead of a plural society with checks and balances on executive power, we have one where everyone is being pushed into supporting the Tory party’s notion of democracy and patriotism, forced to hug the flag and parrot some new anthem about “Strong Britain” that Gavin Williamson has just come up with. Far from “One Nation”, Johnson is fomenting constant culture wars about yachts and statues to set us against one another, and shredding national cohesion in the process.