Mediatel Logo original-file's-desc Mediatel Logo Connected: Display Connected: Media Landscape Connected: Regional Connected: AV Consumer Surveys Connected: Direct LinkedIn LinkedIn logo icon Twitter Twitter logo icon Youtube Youtube logo icon Flickr Flickr logo icon Instagram Instagram logo icon Mail Mail icon Down arrow

John Whittingdale is no friend of ours

30 Sep 2015  |  Raymond Snoddy 
John Whittingdale is no friend of ours

Anyone who values British broadcasting should be opposed to the ideas of the Culture Secretary, writes Raymond Snoddy.

Less than two weeks ago John Whittingdale, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport told the Royal Television Society: "The ownership of Channel 4 is not currently under debate."

Naturally he did not rule out all circumstances in future - but it was definitely not "currently under debate."

Then a week ago a dozy DCMS offical virtually held up her privatisation document for the happy snappers of Downing Street to get their lens on.

The little photographic coup has been executed so many times outside Number 10 that you begin to wonder whether deliberate ploys to leak are involved as a way of gently launching a controversial policy.

The fact remains that on 17 September Whittingdale said that privatisation was not currently under debate and by 24 September the date on the photographically leaked document, it was a completely different story.

"Work should proceed to examine the options of extracting greater public value from the Channel 4 corporation, focusing on privatisation options in particular."

Anyone who knows the typical speed of work in preparing a policy document for Number 10 would realise that it stretches credulity to suggest that there was no debate about privatisation in DCMS on 17 September, yet a formal document on such an explosive issue was on display seven days later.

Whittingdale came perilously close to delivering what Churchill famously called "a terminological inexactitude," a term invented to avoid the Parliamentary ban on using more direct words such as "lying."

As we are not talking Parliamentary debating rules here, you might consider using the blunter term.

There have been several attempts to privatise Channel 4 in the past but in the face of greater wisdom they have always failed.

There is little sign that John Whittingdale has that greater wisdom, and unless a greater sense of history is displayed by his betters in the Cabinet, Channel 4 will slide down the privatisation route and around £1 billion will move into the Treasury coffers.

The next Channel 4 chairman will be a Rona Fairhead-like figure, who interpreted her role chairing the BBC Trust in her first public address, to include calling for the body to be abolished."

It needs to be repeated endlessly that Channel 4 was the wonderful, imaginative creation of that one nation Tory and deputy Prime Minister Lord Willie Whitelaw.

It would be truly bizarre if Willie Whitelaw's enduring work should be dynamited by Whittingdale, a man not fit to touch the hem of the late grandee's three-piece suit.

Whitelaw's creation still stands as a unique channel in the broadcasting world - a public service channel funded entirely by advertising.

Another straw in the wind pointing firmly in the direction of privatisation is the impending departure of the Channel 4 chairman Lord Burns at the end of his second term in January.

The channel had been asking for a one-year extension so that the former Treasury mandarin could explore an alternative to privatisation - turning the state corporation into a mutually owned not-for-profit company.

Mutualisation - ownership by the industry, including independent producers and possibly even viewers - would be one feasible way of protecting its remit and its editorial independence.

The fatal flaw, of course, is that the Treasury would not get £1 billion.

Clearly that is not the way Whittingdale is facing and he had no desire to have an anti-privatisation chairman standing in his way.

Now communications regulator Ofcom has to find a replacement for Lord Burns and doubtless they will be wholly independent in their approach.

Yet by a mysterious process of osmosis, the will of the Government will somehow be reflected in the choice. You can be sure that the next chairman of Channel 4 will not be someone vehemently opposed to privatisation.

It will be a Rona Fairhead-like figure, who interpreted her role chairing the BBC Trust in her first public address, to include calling for the body to be abolished.

In fact Fairhead would be an ideal appointment for the Channel 4 job. She will soon need a new job anyway and would probably be entirely sincere in implementing the channel's privatisation.

Just to be sure Whittingdale could also set up an advisory panel made up entirely of US broadcasters to provide some independent views to inform his Channel 4 decision.

Another phrase from the hapless DCMS civil servant's leaked document is worth parsing.

The aim of looking at privatisation options "in particular" for Channel 4 would be to extract "greater public value."

Here public value is clearly being defined both in purely financial terms and that the money should go to the Treasury.

There will be little regard for the enormous public value already being extracted from Channel 4 through its key role at the heart of the independent production industry and the benefits that brings for one of those rare industries where the UK has a leading international role.

There is also the value that is extracted for the public day-in-day-out by being able to broadcast Channel 4 News every day and the diversity of a less-then wholly commercial schedule.

If you sell Channel 4 with no special remit beyond that of ITV and Channel 5 you would maximise the financial gain but that would effectively end the culture of Channel 4 as developed over 33 years.

The more you tie the sale to a "non-commercial" remit, the less money you get.

A fire-sale would probably be too much even for this right-wing Conservative government.

You are then into the almost impossible task of first designing, and then enforcing, a remit that requires a for-profit broadcaster to be innovative and serve under-served minorities.

If ratings disappoint and advertising falls short the transformation will happen show-by-show and so gradually that you will barely notice it happening.

Put Channel 4 up for sale and you will probably get an American owner.

It is not wild speculation then to see Channel 4, Channel 5 and before too long ITV, all owned by US global broadcasters, with only the BBC, itself likely to be savaged by Whittingdale, under British control.

Not the end of the world perhaps but a significant cultural change nonetheless.

The strangest thing of all is that very few are waking up to the longer-term implications of what is happening before our eyes - and how malevolent Whittingdale's ideological intentions are.

At a meeting of the Media Society this week to consider a decent book on the BBC - The BBC Today: Future Uncertain - there was no trace or passion - or anger even - from the platform interviewee James Purnell, the BBC's director of strategy and digital.

Whittingdale was even referred to as "John" as if he was a close family friend.

Everyone who values British broadcasting as an industry and a positive culture phenomenon should be warned that "John" is no such thing and someone whose ideas should be opposed rather than complacently accepted.

Connected Modules
To understand more about the fast moving connected marketplace, Mediatel Connected features the latest market data, consumer surveys and analysis to keep you ahead.
Find out more
Leave a comment

Thank you for your comment - a copy has now been sent to the Mediatel Newsline team who will review it shortly. Please note that the editor may edit your comment before publication.

Dan, Comms Manager, MEC on 1 Oct 2015
“This article doesn't articulate what the author perceives to be the negative aspects of privatisation very well. So what if Channel 4 ends up being owned by foreign shareholders? So what if it doesn't have a specific remit?

By being privatised it would benefit from better investment and better access to programming, and be driven by profit, thus catering to what consumers want rather than what the govt thinks they should watch.

I don't see the point of a TV channel being owned by the state when it could be run much more efficiently by the free market.”
Matt Huntingford, Client Partner, Carat on 30 Sep 2015
“Great to see somebody standing up and calling out the ideologically driven vandalism of one of our few remaining distinctive industries. This is at least partly a result of cronyism and personal acquisitiveness from Rupert's mates (maybe he has something on them?). Keep up the good work Ray.”
Michael DAmbrosio, APAC Media Director, Videology on 30 Sep 2015
“A Freudian typo? " - a pubic service channel funded entirely by advertising."”