Farrukh Dhondy | Bid to ‘privatise’ UK’s Channel 4 puts free speech in some danger

Channel 4 avidly and rapidly established itself as the voice of critical, even impertinent, free speech

“Did you look at the sea O Bachchoo

And ask from whence these waters came?

Did you stare at the wooded mountains

And ask if a Creator was to blame?

Or did you accept that day and night

That sand and sea, disease and blight

Were part of His eternal game?”

— From Kabhi Kabhi Merey Ghar Mey Polees Aa Jaatha Hai, by Bachchoo

The British government intends to privatise the nationally-owned television station Channel 4. Yes, gentle reader, you are entitled to ask why the readers of this column need to know about this. You may not have even heard of Channel 4. Allow me to say that this proposal raises an issue of profound importance in our world. Bear with me while I tell you how.

I will begin by saying why I feel personally aggrieved over this move. I was a commissioning editor at Channel 4 between 1984 and 1997, and wrote several programmes for the channel before and during that time. This mooted privatisation is not a transfer from the State to capitalists.

Channel 4 is not owned by the State but is a national institution initiated by an Act of Parliament in the early 1980s with a brief to bring to broadcast television the voices, subjects, dimensions, attitudes and movements which were not represented by the duopoly of the BBC and the Independent Television network (ITV).

It avidly and rapidly established itself as the voice of critical, even impertinent, free speech.

The previous decades had given rise to social voices unrepresented on the established channels: the women’s movement, the movement of the new communities living in Britain — West Indian, African and subcontinental — gay people and the disabled.

Apart from these thus-far-unrepresented groups, Channel 4 set itself the task of bold investigative reporting, critical of the government and all institutions. It was one of the instruments of nationwide free speech. In addition, in keeping with its “minority” remit, it introduced hitherto unrepresented sports such as American football and, yes, Indian kabbadi, to the nation.

Indian readers must know Channel 4 programmes such as the situation comedy Tandoori Nights starring Syed Jaffrey, Mira Nair’s films Salaam Bombay and Kama Sutra, Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen and Gurinder Chadda’s Football Shootball (originally in English called Bend it Like Beckham).

By the late 1990s, the movements which Channel 4 had championed in its initial pioneering years were no longer new and had gone some way to becoming established. The other phenomenon which radically changed the necessities, policies and commissioning of Channel 4 was the proliferation of commercial TV channels. Channel 4, a unique non-profit organisation which existed by selling its own advertisement spaces and ploughing the money back into programming, was compelled to compete. It began chasing viewing figures and in that pursuit the remit was “reinterpreted” to mean anything that would get bums on seats — or eyeballs to screens. (I must say that I had left for pastures new by the time this “deterioration” set in — without claiming, I insist, that my departure was not the principal cause of the decline in standards!)

The two impediments to absolute free speech in the media are State control and commercialism. Commercial outlets — newspapers owned by tycoons, channels owned by those who, for one reason or the other, dare not speak truth or defiance to authority or oppose, advertise and expose the capitalist feints and deceptions of “free enterprise”. Think here of the Russian oligarchs who have stakes in television stations and national newspapers. Or think of the criminal behaviour of the newspapers under Rupert Murdoch’s control.

State ownership or control of every media outlet with the enforced closure of all critical voices has, in Russia, led to the shameful fabrication of news to the point of demonstrating through fake footage that the holocaust Vladimir Putin’s regime is carrying out in Ukraine is being welcomed by its bombed, butchered and yet brave and resistant population.

All Russians, and the populations of all other countries where this propaganda is transmitted, whose blatant lies may even have appalled Joseph Goebbels, are not idiots. The protests in St. Petersburg and Moscow against this meaningless megalomaniac slaughter have met with bans, brutality and arrests.

Of course, “free speech” doesn’t mean the rants and raves of those who advocate harm to innocent people. This phenomenon has acquired the label of “hate speech” and if the ban on it extends to those who, in some fanatical dispositions, say kill all Jews or kill all Christians, which human being today with an ounce of reason would not support it. The ban on hate crime shouldn’t extend to forbidding the opinion that virgins don’t give birth, that the Old Testament has some nasty out-of-date prescriptions or that God doesn’t dictate books.

That all criticism of the regime, however murderous its actions against Ukrainians or Uyghur Muslims in Russia and in China, is suppressed is an indisputable fact. The Nazis under Adolf Hitler were by no means the first to stamp with brutality on free speech. They are now not the last. Whatever one thinks of the aggressive actions of the United States, say in Vietnam, there was adequate evidence that they didn’t poison opponents or throw them into jail. Neither did the US government stamp on the media that reported in detail their Vietnam and Iraq wars as unjustified and criminal.

Come back the non-privatised old Channel 4 — part of your commercialised recent past is forgiven!

Next Story