Political heat around Channel 4 deflects critical UK media issues – John McLellan
Gogglebox is great entertainment and, as a weekly snapshot of social and cultural attitudes, actually provides a valuable service, but Channel 4 ownership isn’t something that keeps me awake at night. Channel 4 News has come under heavy criticism from the right over its perceived left-wing bias, and given that Ofcom’s 2021 news consumption report showed that the flagship show only reaches 3% of the population, it’s not something that gets hot under the collar. .
But after Britain’s Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries this week confirmed plans for a sale, it quickly became a lightning rod for Boris Johnson’s many critics, including some from other parties. Despite all the heartfelt applause from Eastern Europe for the Prime Minister’s response to the Russian invasion, the knives that have been temporarily shelved remain sharp. Was it revenge for anti-Brexit coverage, Culture Committee Chairman Julian Knight asked? It was “very unconservative”, said Damian Green and, according to former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, “the opposite of a race to the top”.
Why a responsible broadcaster of Naked Attraction and Hollyoaks must remain state property at all costs is not entirely clear, but as it is fully commercially funded, Channel 4 does not cost the taxpayer a dime, so the sale proposed looks like a solution in search of a problem. Ms Dorries did not explain how state ownership, as she put it, “prevents Channel 4 from competing with streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon”, or how such a global medium would emerge if the new owners of ‘an old-fashioned linear channel must still meet public service obligations, as she has made clear.
It is optimistic to expect a buyer to pay the billion pounds the government believes it is worth if these responsibilities are to be met, while focusing on what is already a fiercely competitive market. Netflix spent $17 billion on content last year and the reward was a 25% drop in its share price when its fourth quarter results, released in January this year, revealed it had no added “only” 8.28 million subscribers against a forecast of 8.5 million.
More parochial, as part of its move out of London in 2019, the station opened a production center in the Garment Factory in Glasgow’s Merchant City, and with television production and the creative industry a rare commercial success in Glasgow, while what threatens to damage the sector should be cause for concern. But again, in the absence of details of the terms of sale, the likely effects of an assignment are only guesswork, and while veteran producer Alan Clements told The Herald newspaper “it’s not good news no matter what,” he admitted it was “a bit early to say definitively.” If a streaming giant did emerge on the banks of the Clyde, that would obviously be a good thing.
The Scottish Government’s record of monumental public spending failures is built…
Amidst the political turmoil, perhaps the most laughable was that of Glasgow Council SNP leader Susan Aitken, who scoffed at ‘Why put Nadine Dories, a minister who didn’t even have the slightest idea of how Channel 4 works, in charge of the case?” as if Ms Aitken were an expert in street cleaning and waste disposal and host of other services for which she is responsible and that she does not Clearly fails to deliver. Scottish Culture Secretary Angus Robertson has suggested that “privatization will dilute Channel 4’s focus on creativity and the public good, substituting that for a focus on commercial shareholders”.
Make your choice. If you don’t like Boris and Nadine it’s a bad idea but the vast majority don’t care. From this perspective, it is a curious political decision to include something in the Queen’s Speech for which there is no demand and only limited immediate benefit. It will not be a bargain “Tell Sid” British Gas.
What is troubling is that there are many things that Mrs Dorries could include on the legislative agenda for which there is both a demand and a pressing need, without which a department set up by her predecessor Oliver Dowden would be an expensive white elephant.
The Digital Markets Unit was created last year under the Competition and Markets Authority specifically to ensure that tech giants Facebook and Google, but also Amazon and Netflix, did not use not their vast scale to crush competition and destroy independent producers. . Legislation to give it the statutory basis on which to act was to be included in the Queen’s Speech, but now there have been reports of a delay which has both confused and appalled the whole of the UK media industry, broadcasters (including Channel 4), radio producers, news editors and magazines. “We welcome the government’s efforts to date on this vital issue, but our sectors cannot afford to delay this critical legislation any longer,” they said in a letter to Mr Johnson last week.
As these are reserved for Westminster, it is easy for the SNP to have a pop, but the Scottish Government’s recent record on the media issues for which it is responsible is nothing to brag about. A report on the sustainability of Scottish public interest journalism was commissioned in late 2020 under then Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop and submitted to her successor, Mr Robertson, five months ago. Since then, nothing has been heard other than a promise to carefully consider the recommendations.
Both the UK and Scottish governments say they are committed to a healthy, diverse and independent media sector, so now is the time for both to show they really mean it. Tell Nadine and Angus that Channel 4’s big sell-out can wait, but the rest of the UK media can’t.
John McLellan is a Conservative councilor in Edinburgh and director of the Scottish Newspaper Society