2023 has begun with some rare positive news coming from Westminster, with the decision by Culture Secretary Michelle Donnellan not to recommend that Channel 4 be privatised in the upcoming Media Bill. This is very good news for anyone who cares about the channel and public media: it was clear that privatisation would have minimal benefits and huge downsides, with less money being spent on vital news and investigations, less money on content from around the UK, and more generic reality TV. It is also a huge relief to those of us working with the media reform, as we will now be able to deal with the other issues likely to be in the Media Bill (e.g. around prominence and changes to the definition of public service) in a less febrile atmosphere.
Victories can be hard to claim in the sphere, so it’s worth recapping on how we got here. In the summer of 2021, the government announced that it would be consulting on a ‘change of ownership’ for Channel 4. We knew from polling that this was hugely unpopular, but also anticipated that the government would care little about public opinion, so there was a need to coordinate and amplify the public’s voice. The Media Reform Coalition worked with We Own It to bring together a range of civil society groups including Voice of the Listener and Viewer, British Broadcasting Challenge and 38 Degrees to plan how to mobilise people. MRC played our part by producing a briefing to help people answer the relatively obscure questions in the consultation. The total number of replies was huge, with 56,000 people submitting responses – particularly impressive given that the consultation was largely open during the summer holidays.
This high volume of responses took a long time to be processed, and it was six months before the government published the public’s answers (96% opposing privatisation) and its own plans (we are going to do it anyway). But even though then Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries didn’t seem to care what anyone else thought, it was important that the public opposition was so obvious and unequivocal. That six months also bought valuable time – time for industry lobbying, protests, petitions and writing to MPs. By the time the Media Bill was due to be tabled in summer 2022 the Johnson government had collapsed, and Truss’ 44 days in office was so chaotic the Media Bill didn’t get a look in. So another six months passed, with more time for opposition to make itself known from industry, celebrities, unions and dedicated citizens, in particular members of We Own It.
Which brings us to 2023 and the welcome news that Channel 4 privatisation will no longer be pursued – probably less because of Sunak’s commitment to public services than an unwillingness to expend scarce political capital on such an unpopular decision. And because the Bill hadn’t even appeared in Parliament yet, the Conservatives could reverse their plans without losing much face or allowing opponents to claim as much of a victory.
All of which is to say: even though there seem so few avenues for civil society to have a meaningful voice in decision-making at present, even though the government of the year ago pretty much dismissed all 40,000 respondents via 38 Degrees, even though it looks until very recently like a massive mobilisation of opposition was going to be ignored – our tactics actually worked. Coordinated action by a range of civil society organisations, combined with lobbying from unions and the media industry, prevented a terrible attack on our public infrastructure, or at least staved it off a few years.
The forces we are up against will rarely give us credit for our successes, so it’s important we chart and remember them ourselves. And yet, after all that, our achievement is to be back where we started – and where we started was with a Channel 4 that is far from ideal. A Channel 4 that does produce unique content about underrepresented UK communities (We Are Lady Parts, Derry Girls) but also some seriously harmful programmes like Benefits Street or The Truth About Traveller Crime. A channel which commissions most of its programmes from a handful of huge US-owned production companies, and where most of its content is barely distinguishable from its commercial rivals. A channel that isn’t in the financial trouble the government claimed, but is facing long-term challenges of declining audience share and reducing relevance.
As we engaged in the fight against privatisation, MRC always tried to acknowledge these systemic problems and advocate for a positive vision for the future, not just maintaining the status quo. This vision – outlined in our Manifesto for a People’s Media – is for a devolved and democratised ‘People’s Channel 4’. This would have a renewed remit to serve young people and minorities, and offer new avenues for participation and accountability. Rather than trying to compete with Netflix on the terrain reality TV or generic dramas, where it will always be outspent, a People’s Channel 4 could do something totally unique. It could pioneer new ways for its audiences to get involved and tell their own stories, make the most of the opportunities provided by digital technologies to go beyond one-to-many broadcasting, and reinvent what public service media should be for the 21st-century.
This is an ambitious vision – but no more ambitious than the founding of Channel 4 back in 1982. And a campaign to reimagine what the institution could be, and offering genuine change, would be so much more inspiring than yet another defensive battle where success looks like landing back at square one. The outpouring of support for Channel 4 over the past 18 months has been heartening, especially in contrast to the ambivalent feelings many people seem to hold about the BBC. The challenge now is to take some of that collective energy that we summoned to fight the fire, and redirect it towards the struggle for a People’s Channel 4.