We, the public, own Channel 4. And this sell-off isn’t a done deal | Armando Iannucci

The news of Channel 4’s privatisation was greeted with the weird reaction that’s sadly become the UK television industry’s response to most decisions the government makes about the media – a simultaneous mix of shock and lack of surprise. Shock because (and this was the theme of the vast majority of respondents to the government’s request for submissions to the “debate” it was keen to have about the network) the channel was a financial and creative success, and still costs the taxpayer absolutely nothing. Over 40 years, it’s proven its worth, bringing exciting new and creative voices to UK television, raising our game internationally, committing itself to independent journalism, and launching the growth of independent production and employment across all the regions.

The lack of surprise was because we’ve learned that when the government says it’s keen to have a debate on public service broadcasting, we know it’s keen to have no such thing. At least with Channel 4, the government was polite enough to allow the industry to spend a year and a lot of its time and energy mounting a defence of itself before putting out its pre-decided decision yesterday. The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, has been much more efficient with the BBC, getting her decision out early in a tweet announcing the licence fee will be ending but before any discussions have been led or any solutions arrived at, thus putting us all into our misery a lot sooner.

Why do they do this? Why do they want to take a thriving, successful British industry, one that puts billions into the economy, and promotes British culture and values internationally – and cut it down? It doesn’t make any business sense, and it’s certainly not patriotic. I regularly get asked by international broadcasters why the UK government has such a destructive agenda against the country’s main television networks.

Dorries tweeted yesterday that “government ownership is holding Channel 4 back”, which perhaps explains part of the problem, that she sees the network as some manifestation of the Big State. This certainly was her view when she told the culture select committee last year, wrongly, that the channel benefited from public money. The truth is, though, it’s not the government that owns Channel 4: we, the public, do. Better still, we get it for free. It’s paid for by ad revenue. Channel 4 was brought in under Margaret Thatcher, and it’s arguably a Thatcherite success story. But again and again, the government takes one look at our public service broadcasting, something of which we should be proud, and jabs away at it, cutting it here, attacking it there, talking about “reining it in”, asking it to “watch out”, as it would a surly child, rather than the rather tremendous economic and cultural achievement it actually is.

Yes, the streamers like Netflix and Amazon Prime are on the rise, and yes, we need to think about how our public service broadcasting competes, but the solution cannot be to sell a decent part of it overseas. Why? Why, time and time again, does the government want to make our TV worse?

The debate on Channel 4 isn’t over. A troublesome passage through parliament awaits a complex bill. Perhaps in keeping with the new tradition of making the conclusion first and only then having the debate, we should see the next year or so as the time in which real questions get asked. Journalists and broadcasters will have time to question ministers, and the crucial questions are: what proportion of the submissions from the industry said privatisation would be a bad idea? Can you lay out the benefits and in some detail? Did any submissions detail disadvantages and can you share them now? How exactly are you going to preserve the channel’s editorial independence and commitment to originality and talent across all the regions, given it will be bought by a business, most likely foreign, with separate commercial commitments to its own shareholders?

These are the questions broadcasters need to keep asking. Unfortunately, it comes at a time when any broadcaster asking them could be in receipt of a warning that they’re next.

  • Armando Iannucci is, unless told otherwise, a vice-president of the Royal Television Society, and a film and TV writer whose credits include The Thick of It, In The Loop and Veep

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