Channel 4 – to privatise, or not? Looking at my incoming emails, my sense is that this touches a nerve in Cambridge, just like attacks on the BBC. Listening to the Government, you might think that it is just a technical matter, how best to make sure that a successful TV channel can continue to prosper in a changing world. The fact that the case is being made by Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries probably doesn’t do much to reassure many Cambridge people, who may well feel that there is a little more to this than meets the eye! Like many, I felt sick to my stomach when I first heard that she had been appointed to a ministerial role, and when she was made Culture Secretary, it was a fairly obvious two fingers from Boris Johnson to places like Cambridge – and not in the Churchillian sense he might crave! She has certainly repaid the favour – her loyalty to Johnson through the last few months almost draws admiration, were it not so sickeningly slavish. So yes, there is more to this than just Channel 4, it is part of the visceral culture war that Johnson and his gang have been running for a long time. The charge sheet is long: illegally proroguing Parliament; expelling opponents from their own party including Churchill’s grandson and former chancellors Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond; handing out contracts in such a lax way that even their own Minister couldn’t abide the fraud any longer; and, of course, partying in Downing Street while telling others to ‘stay home’. This may sound like I have an axe to grind – well, I have: I find them loathsome, and I hate what they’ve done and are doing to the country.
The irony is that it was similar feelings that brought me into politics in the first place – and so even more ironic that it was Margaret Thatcher who set up Channel 4. I can remember sitting in a little cottage in Caldecote watching the opening programmes on our old portable TV, and loving Channel 4 News. Initially the promise was that films wouldn’t be interrupted by adverts – that lasted about a week, I think, as early Channel 4 optimism collided with commercial reality. But first Peter Sissons, then of course Jon Snow became regular features in our lives. Plenty of Channel 4 output didn’t appeal to me particularly, but as with any channel, it was catering for a wide range of tastes. From Big Brother to Brookside, and forays into the vaguely absurd like Naked Attraction, Channel 4 has stuck to its remit to be different. Which brings us to today – and the current debate.
I quite understand that media is changing, and that it is hard for established broadcasters to compete. But Channel 4 thinks the model works, and it doesn’t cost the government any money. And for all the promises about protecting independence, ultimately I suspect they are worthless. We saw the same with Cambridge tech giant ARM – plenty of promises a few years ago, which evaporate once new buyers appear. And who you have in your living room on the screen in the corner really makes a difference. When Stuart White from Look East retired a few months ago I was struck by just how many felt they had really lost a friend. In a fast-changing world, these things matter – privatising Channel 4 is an act of cultural vandalism all too typical of this Government, and will be fought every inch of the way.