Artillery Row

Channel 4 is not worth conserving

You can’t build a nation on Dr Who, Gin and publicly-owned TV networks

To read media reactions, you’d think the government had proposed reintroducing the ritual slaughter of children to appease Moloch: “short sighted and destructive”, “cultural vandalism”, “a wanton assault on a valued British institution”. Tim Farron, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, saw the move as almost anti-British. How dare “some folks who call themselves conservatives and patriots, seem utterly determined to dismantle those cherished British institutions that give us cause to be patriotic”.

The actual cause of this outrage was proposing the sell-off of Channel 4 from public to private hands. If this seems like an oddly small thing to get worked up about, it’s worth remembering the rule of thumb that the level of media attention given to a policy proposal is directly proportional to the degree to which it affects the media. It is therefore also inversely related to actual public feeling on the matter.

Where is there left for your patriotism to reside but in the state?

Even so, watching commentators who are themselves in the private sector, insisting any sell-off would spell doom for a British icon, made for a fascinating display of cognitive dissonance.

Very few of the complaints spelled out what they feared would happen. Can it really be the case that, shorn of an obligation to public service, there will no longer be a home for such cutting edge products as Made in Chelsea, The Big Bang Theory or Married at First Sight Australia? Will we be forced to make do with the levels of creativity seen in American television, and its sloppy outputs like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Stranger Things or The Sopranos?

The surface level of a complaint is rarely indicative of the grievance driving it. An alternative cause may be post-war Britain’s belief that if something is worth doing, it is worth being done by the state. While British people love the effects of a vibrant private sector (Netflix, Amazon delivery, Spotify), they also don’t entirely trust it.

Profit, as a motive, is unseemly. And just imagine how much better services could be without it! Just look at our world-leading NHS, underperforming only on the minor metric of “health care outcomes”.

Perhaps Channel 4 must stay in the hands of the state because people believe it is valuable. While the idea holds an appeal, I don’t think we can fairly attribute resistance entirely to distrust of capital. For my money, Tim Farron’s complaint gets closest to the root of the matter.

Claiming that dislike of Channel 4 is effectively unpatriotic is deeply revealing about the concept of state and nation held by some outside the conservative movement. Think, briefly, about things you love about Britain. Why would your patriotism hinge on whether they were in private or public hands?

If you are the inheritor of a project predicated on the destruction of institutions, norms and taboos in order to liberate mankind; welcome immigration and associated cultural change; and have reduced “British values” to general statements about liberalism, where is there left for your patriotism to reside but in the state? Placing it in cultural aspects not universally shared is not compatible with the utopia you intend to create. Civic religion is all you have left.

From one perspective, the last century of British history is marked by the dismantling of our previous institutional structures, whether social or formal, and their replacement with new versions. If you asked a Briton in 1900 what they were proud and patriotic about, the answer might run something like “the Empire, the armed forces, the monarchy, the Church of England, national history, literature”.

Liberalism has proven its ability to demolish what came before

Today, two of these are probably viewed as bad, three as irrelevant, and one as rather past its best. It doesn’t really matter which elements of 1920 Britain you pick; we’ve diverged so far on social issues and governance that there is unlikely to be a great deal of overlap.

If you substantially change the identity of a nation and previous icons become irrelevant, you need to provide something in turn for people to rally around. Civic nationalism needs its quasi-religious elements (pomp, circumstance, ritual, venerated figures and institutions) to function. British liberalism has proven its ability to demolish what came before. It’s not yet proven that it can provide anything in its place.

The Channel 4 debate provokes such strength of feeling because it approaches this issue obliquely. Those to the centre-left of British politics are effectively asking the right why it isn’t patriotic about the institutions it values, without really appreciating that (despite the channel’s Thatcherite roots), it never received full buy-in from the other side.

It’s a little like a conservative asking someone on the left why they don’t feel patriotic about the Great British Institution of Eton. It doesn’t matter how culturally and historically important it is; it’s not something they were ever going to feel emotionally attached to.

The strange place occupied by British publicly-owned services in national life is a direct consequence of their central role in one faction’s patriotism. The NHS as giver (and not infrequently taker) of life is the most obvious example, but it is far from the only one.

This is harmful not only because it prevents difficult conversations about how effective these services are, but also because it sets them up as a point of constant conflict between those who invest them with patriotic significance, and those who do not.

How you get out of this situation and place faith in a shared set of institutions and values, is not entirely clear. Statebuilding in a twenty-first century western democracy is an understudied subject. But if we really want to make a go of bridging our divides we will probably need to do better than “non-public-funded-public-broadcaster”.

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