The government, whose own lens is publicly pointed at the BBC, had insisted talk of privatisation was wrong. At the Edinburgh TV Festival in August, the culture secretary, John Whittingdale, said it was not under discussion. At the Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge two weeks later, he maintained that there were "no plans" to sell Channel 4.
Back had opportunistically snapped some papers being carried into Downing Street by a junior civil servant. What he read on them made him so angry that he gave the picture to Channel 4 for free. The document said that the government is examining the options for "extracting greater public value" from Channel 4. The fact that the Department for Culture, Media & Sport subsequently blocked the reappointment of the Channel 4 chairman, Lord Burns, suggests it wasn’t that keen on his proposal to turn the broadcaster into a charitable trust.
Channel 4 was set up by the Thatcher government to stimulate the independent production sector. And stimulate it has. Last year, 70 per cent of Channel 4’s total content outlay was with UK producers. Moreover, Channel 4 works with more independent production companies than Channel 5 and ITV put together.
Whittingdale has said that any change to Channel 4’s ownership would not mean an end to its remit. But will the government realise the £1 billion being talked about if a new owner will be required to stick to its existing public-service obligations? Even if it does, that sum is barely more than a rounding error when it comes to the £1,506 billion national debt. Channel 4 currently generates £1.1 billion in GDP and supports 19,000 jobs at no cost to the taxpayer. One person I spoke to last week said the £1 billion price tag is likely to be eroded over the term of a single parliament in terms of lost contribution to the economy.
I expect that the content case for Channel 4 is going to be made pretty loudly over the next couple of years. But my concern is that the commercial case – the fact that advertisers like Channel 4’s unusual structure – could get lost in the debate. For the past 30 years, Channel 4 has helped brands get their messages across to affluent, young and light-TV viewers. Advertisers don’t need another ITV or a second Channel 5.
There are lots of things Channel 4 could do better, but the brilliant craziness of Jonathan Glazer’s films shows that the broadcaster is still doing things differently. If you care about it, too, then now is the time to speak up.