In the pre-show room in the Charlotte Hotel, before the press screening of the new Channel 4 drama The Undeclared War, I found myself talking to Bristol East MP Kerry McCarthy. And the subject of the future of Channel 4 came up. Recently, Conservative Government Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries MP announced a new government policy to privatise Channel 4, the commercial-but-publicly-owned TV station, as well as its offshoots, the streaming service All 4, and film production company Film 4. And in a question and answer session that followed the screening, Kerry McCarthy MP asked about this very issue.
Peter Kosminsky, writer and director of The Undeclared War, as well as writer/director of The State, The Promise and The Government Inspector, and director of Wolf Hall, The Project and Warriors, spoke first and condemned the action. While acknowledging "the gale that's blowing through our industry" he stated that the government is not preparing any suitable solution given that Channel 4 as a station creates British shows for British people, without having to worry about a foreign audience, and a commercial sell-off would switch that focus. "Instead this proposal, which to me is nothing less than cultural vandalism, is being proposed in my view for narrow political reasons and to appease a particular base or lobby. There's no real support for this even amongst most of the Conservative party. There certainly isn't a financial case for it, and there will be a catastrophic creative impact if it goes through. That's my personal view, I'm not speaking on behalf of Channel 4 or NBC, I'm a freelance, I'm not an employee of any of them. That's my own personal view based on 40 years in broadcasting."
Producer Sir Colin Nigel Callender followed. He also has an impressive resume, founder of Primetime Television, the first independent producer for Channel Four with The Life And Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, producer of The Last Resort, an executive producer of HBO in the USA, as it moved into original programming with HBO Showcase, President of HBO Films, and theatre producer including the stage production of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child. He had a lot to say, and talked more widely about the landscape of British and American television, including what happened the last time the government interfered in such a fashion with ITV.
"To this day, British television programs remain the benchmark by which the global television industry judges itself. Today, they still remain the finest programming made around the world and that grows out of an eccentric set of circumstances that have protected programme-makers to do their best work. The BBC is the first subscription television network, that's what it is, and when I was at HBO, we were sort of inventing HBO as we went along, we looked at the BBC and understood that the license, the subscription, allowed the BBC to take creative risks that weren't a function of "will a show make money, will a show hit the ratings". They were able to take creative risks across the slate."
"The idea of a commercial network made up of 15 individual stations, that each had an advertising monopoly in their own region, that each had a guaranteed access to prime time for a number of slots, was an extraordinary delicate enterprise that created some of the finest British television. And when Maggie Thatcher decided to restructure that and reconfigure it in the Broadcasting Act, it took years for ITV to recover its footing and create the sort of programming that had been made before the Broadcasting Act. Channel 4 is another wonderfully weird unique enterprise, as Peter just described. A government-owned broadcaster funded by advertising, and it's making significant money, but the most important thing about Channel 4 was that it had two very specific briefs at the very beginning. One was to stimulate a British independent production sector, and two, to speak to audiences that weren't being spoken to by the BBC and ITV. And what Channel 4 understood early on was, if you want to speak to different audiences, you have to find different sorts of programme-makers to make programmes that will speak to those audiences."
"That created the British independence production sector in the UK, and I was one of the very early beneficiaries of that back in 1979, or whatever a year it was, with Nicolas Nickelby. It was Jeremy Isaacs and a man called Paul Bonner and they had an office at the IBA on the Brompton Road and one secretary. No one then would have commissioned me, a complete novice producer… I'd put shows together, I'd been in the business, but I had never produced anything… the idea of producing a nine-hour adaptation of a stage show and turning it into a television series, no one else in the UK would have done it. I'm not even sure they would do it now, but certainly, if it was not for Channel Four, it would never be made."
"And there are a slew of really brilliantly talented programme writers, directors, producers, production designers – I can go through the list, actors who owe their careers to Channel 4." At this point, Simon Pegg raised his hand. "Faces and experiences who, if not for Channel 4, would never have seen or had access to mainstream television. So the notion of unravelling that, for reasons that seem spurious at best, and I'm not even sure frankly, aside from the people in Downing Street, who the constituents, for whom is this being done, I don't know who. I don't know what the political game is in the country at large to deconstruct the Channel 4 model. But there's no question, it's not even a debate. If Channel 4 becomes privatized, it will have a desperate and devastating attack impact on the independent production sector in the UK, the sorts of choices that Caroline (Caroline Hollick, Head Of Drama) and Gwawr (Gwawr Martha Lloyd, Drama Commissioning Editor) can make now, editorially, will not be choices that will be made by their replacements, if and when the channel becomes privatised, because the imperatives and the things that will drive the channel will be fundamentally different. You only have to look at the utter mess the US television industry is in right now, with the mess Netflix is in, and the knock-on effect that it's had across the whole of the industry in the US. You only need to look at that to understand the danger of making Channel 4 a privatized commercial enterprise that's driven by shareholder value and the bottom line."
"It's just tragic to watch this happening and it doesn't seem that logic is at play. It seems that it's emotion at play and I think our focus needs to be on those other Conservative politicians in the party who can somehow see beyond the sort of short-term political gains, such as it is, because I don't quite understand what the political gain is. And recognize this is a wrecking ball that is about to hit British television that will have a devastating impact across the whole of the industry."
There was, as you might expect, applause from the whole room at this. Channel 4 was established by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government in 1982, as Britain's fourth national television broadcaster with a public service commitment to encourage minority and unserved voices and audiences, and to break the creative stranglehold that the BBC and ITV had on their own productions. It has remained a profitable enterprise for the country while launching all manner of cultural milestones over the past four decades. Simon Pegg, co-star of The Undeclared War, got his big break with Spaced on Channel 4 back in the day. Shows such as Comic Strip Presents, The Tube, The Snowman, Flowers, The Word, Saturday Live, Shameless, Whose Line Is It Anyway, Vic Reeves Big Night Out, Desmonds, Bremner Bird And Fortune, Brass Eye, Nightingales, Peep Show, Absolutely, The Inbetweeners, Green Wing, The Eleven O'Clock Show, Ali G, Misfits, Black Mirror, This Is England, Derry Girls, Gogglebox, Teachers, Phoenix Nights, Friday Night Dinner, Nathan Barley, TV Offal, PhoneShop, The Big Fat Quiz Of The Year, Father Ted, Black Books, Utopia, Drop The Dead Donkey, Armstrong And Miller, Top Boy, Humans, Trigger Happy TV, Queer As Folk, Sugar Rush, Lock Stock, Ultraviolet, No Offence, The Armando Iamnnucci Shows, The Awful Truth, Fonejacker, Lipstick On Your Collar, GBH, The Mark Thomas Comedy Product, Eurotrash, Garth Merenghi's Darkplace, We Are Lady Parts, It's A Sin are monumentally huge in my own cultural psyche and the nation as a whole, Hell, I even got to write for Smack The Pony. From The Big Breakfast to Big Brother – and yes even Naked Attraction – Channel 4 has changed the way we see each other and helped redefine the nation, always pushing at the edges until they become the mainstream. Channel 4 does not seem to be broken, I am very wary of such attempts to "fix" it.