The rewriting of Channel 4’s history by its modern supporters in their battle to avoid privatisation continues.
For those of us who remember Channel 4 in the 80s, it may be something of a surprise to hear it now being described as a “Thatcherite” creation.
Of course, it was a creation of Mrs Thatcher’s first government. But it was not Thatcherite in any meaningful sense. Not in its creation, its structure or its output.
Rather its structure owed much to Mrs Thatcher’s Home Secretary and deputy Willie Whitelaw. He was not a Thatcherite by inclination although he was always fiercely loyal to her.
But in the areas where Mrs Thatcher wasn’t so interested – like broadcasting during her early days in office – Whitelaw could be his own man.
Channel 4 in its original form was very much an inspired compromise. Somewhere between an ITV 2 – as favoured by the Conservatives – and the Open Broadcasting Authority which some within the industry and the Labour Party wanted. But it was not Thatcherite.
It was very much part of the system of “independent television” and designed to complement ITV rather than compete with it.
ITV paid for the new channel through a subscription to the IBA. Free marketeers and the advertising industry wanted a mainstream channel in direct competition with ITV to help drive down prices. Channel 4 preserved ITV’s commercial monopoly.
It was not Thatcherite. It was a pragmatic creation by a home secretary who wasn’t driven by ideology.
As for some of its programmes in the 80s – well, how many were accused of left wing bias? How many attempted to give a voice to views and minorities who felt marginalised? How many caused offence to Middle England?
Thatcherism as an ideology only started to emerge as the 1980s progressed.
First the government turned on the BBC, setting up a committee to explore alternative means of funding.
Then came the 1988 White Paper on broadcasting which led to the deregulation of commercial TV and the ITV franchise auction.
The mantra was of the market driving up standards and providing greater consumer choice.
Mrs Thatcher took the view that public service broadcasting was essentially about satisfying the interests of the producer and not the consumer. She was not impressed.
What is perhaps more Thatcherite was the creation of a significant independent production sector by Channel 4. Many of these certainly showed Mrs Thatcher’s values of enterprise and initiative while Channel 4’s commissioning system could be called a free market of ideas.
But remember many of these indies made little money and weren’t producing commercial programming.
So why is Channel 4 in the 80s being described as Thatcherite? Is it because some are so unaware of its history?
Or is it a desperate attempt to persuade some on the right (some of whom believe the channel today to be institutionally left wing) that privatisation would destroy their party’s great creation?
PICTURED: 1980s Channel 4 ident. COPYRIGHT: Channel 4 Television Corporation.