I’M a huge advocate for public media and a big reason for that is the UK’s Channel 4 model. Earlier this month, however, the UK government said it planned to go ahead with its privatisation and large swathes of the public are rightly up in arms.
Channel 4 was created 40 years ago by prime minister Margaret Thatcher so it’s rather odd that its ultimate demise is being planned by her party. It was bold for a Conservative government to create a channel which would cost the taxpayer nothing and was not a burden on the treasury either because it was reliant on advertising and commercial partnerships.
Unlike the BBC, Channel 4’s remit is specific, diverse and independent of government influence. This is why, for example, you’ll see Channel 4 journalists taking governments to task or why you’ll find better informational or entertainment programmes. Channel 4 put brown and black talent on its screens long before it became the cool (indeed right) thing to do. The channel has also been a strong supporter of UK films; Film4, for example, has won 37 Oscars.
But there’s also the seemingly small things that created a big impact as I learned in a Twitter thread by writer Eliz Mizon.
The partisan nature of the news — world over — is no secret.
In 2010, UK TV’s Channel 4 won the broadcasting rights to the Paralympics Games in London. They also partnered with two organisations to research the impact their coverage would have. Before the coverage aired, only 14 per cent said they were interested in the games but thanks to the channel’s marketing strategy, 66pc tuned in to watch. Eighty-three per cent of those who watched said the channel’s coverage of the games improved society’s attitude towards the disabled.
Their work didn’t end there; the channel hired and trained disabled presenters. They could do this because of their public broadcasting remit which costs the taxpayer nothing. It also commissions content from hundreds of independent production houses.
Last year Channel 4 made one billion pounds in revenue. It is a financial and creative success story.
So why is the government proceeding with what Alice Thompson writing in The Times called a “half-baked idea”?
Maybe it has to do with the channel’s televised climate change debate in 2019 wherein they replaced Boris Johnson, who did not show up, with an ice sculpture which melted during the programme. The Tories were not amused and threatened to review Channel 4’s public service broadcasting obligations. They continue to accuse the channel of bias. For its part the channel said the ice sculptures represented “a visual metaphor for the Conservative and Brexit parties after their leaders declined our repeated invitations to attend tonight’s vital climate debate”.
Maybe it’s because the government wants to make money off the privatisation. Maybe it’s the very idea of public media owned by the public that doesn’t sit right with them.
Public media is usually funded through a fee from the public who pay for licences — some countries charge everyone for it, irrespective of whether they have the equipment or not. Poland and Italy, for example, include the fee in electricity bills. Residents in Japan pay a reception fee. The public media in the US is funded by a mix of taxes, corporate and foundations’ support as well as federal funding. CCTV in China was initially state funded but then began earning revenue through advertising. Generally, the public supports public media because, for example, they believe they’re getting fair news or informational programmes — free of restrictions from sponsors or theatrics born out of lust for ratings. And they are paying for it so a public media is accountable to them.
The partisan nature of the news — world over — is no secret. Public television negates this (or can) with its fair and balanced approach to information. This is vital in the highly polarised world — thanks to the media — and people need to support a call to action in support of public media. After all, a transparent media system will be accountable to them as they pay for it. A public media free from government control can help curb growing nationalism, extremism and misinformation.
More than ever, a multiplatform public media is vital for functional democracy and it should be available to all. This is especially necessary when you consider how new media has damaged and threatened democracy. Look how much calls for civil unrest, for example, get airtime on private news channels. In Pakistan right now, it is clear how much of the public is confused by propaganda posing as news, social media whiz kids posing as journalists and so forth.
Public media can fill the gap and provide fair news and diverse programming which reflects Pakistan’s plural society. Their reporting can also cause private channels to up their game. For that, the public must amplify calls for a public media as they will be the biggest beneficiary of unbiased news. ¢
The writer teaches journalism at the IBA.
Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2022