The government has announced that it wants a swift consultation on the privatisation of Channel 4, only four years after the Conservatives’ last less-than-swift consultation had decided against privatisation.
It has been something the Tories had threatened to revisit ever since 2019 when Channel 4 had the audacity to portray Boris Johnson as a melting ice sculpture after he failed to turn up for a debate on the climate crisis. Channel 4’s actions seemed very mild – there were many worse things the channel could have used to represent Johnson, such as a melting ice sculpture covered in a tub of lard; or a constantly beeping polygraph machine; or the work of an unwell bull.
At the time, the Conservatives had also been very unhappy with Channel 4’s then head of news, Dorothy Byrne, describing Johnson as a “known liar”. Quite why this should prove controversial, particularly to Conservative MPs, seems baffling. Surely there isn’t a person in the country who doesn’t think Johnson is a “known liar”?
The tragedy about Johnson’s lies is that he keeps on getting elected – so he keeps on telling them. His mendacity seems only to be matched by his narcissism and his indolence. He would lie more often if he wasn’t so lazy or so busy googling himself while looking in the mirror – although given what he must see when he looks in the mirror, it would seem he must also spend a fair proportion of his time lying to himself.
The government’s stated reason for a new consultation is that Channel 4’s ad-funded revenue renders it unable to cope against the new streaming services – a completely spurious concern given that Channel 4 is set to break the billion-pound revenue mark this year. The government are seeking a vindictive solution to a non-existent problem – and given that Channel 4 has spread its offices outside of London into the regions, it would seem to be doing exactly the “levelling up” the government should be encouraging. Channel 4’s remit is to be a disruptive, innovative force – if it makes the government feel uncomfortable, it’s doing its job well.
As cover for the Channel 4 privatisation push, the government are also keen to talk about streaming services being brought under UK regulation. This after the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, complained about the historical inaccuracies in The Crown and wanted Netflix to show a disclaimer beforehand stating that the show was “fiction”. People have seen Peep Show, Fleabag and Broadchurch, so I don’t think they are suddenly going to see Olivia Colman in The Crown and think this time it’s real life. Besides, if broadcasters were required to put “fiction” banners under drama, they might also feel obliged to do the same when Johnson uses statistics during PMQs.
Maybe Channel 4’s strategy to aggressively compete with streaming services should involve producing their own glossy historical epic to rival The Crown. Channel 4 could set their blockbuster down the other end of Pall Mall in Downing Street and call it “SW1A” – or if modelled more closely on The West Wing, perhaps called “£200,000 Refurb”; with similarly lavish sets and lavish £840 wallpaper.
The twist could be that Channel 4 actually include clips of real news footage so that nobody can then accuse them of historical inaccuracy. They could include real news clips of Johnson telling actual lies – the lies that Johnson would prefer now to have long been forgotten. Perhaps we could see the “Northern Ireland Protocol” episode which includes a news clip of Boris Johnson telling Andrew Marr that when it comes to Northern Ireland, “there will be no tariffs and no checks”; or the “Political Prisoner” episode with a clip of Boris Johnson telling the 2017 select committee that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been “training journalists” in Iran (Johnson later apologised for that).
Or the “Crying for ‘Bikey’” episode with a clip of Boris Johnson telling the Conservative leadership hustings that the last time he cried was when he had his beloved bike, “Bikey”, stolen while Sadiq Khan was mayor of London, although Khan had only been elected in 2016 and Johnson had already said that “Bikey” had disintegrated in 2014. Or the “40 New Hospitals” episode, or the “50,000 New Nurses” episode or the “I Have a Plan for Social Care” episode... etc.
If Channel 4 wanted to further cover their backs in regards to accuracy, Dominic Cummings is currently free and could be brought in as showrunner and historical consultant. This should guarantee publicity and the forthcoming revenue should leave the government with no worries that Channel 4 can compete with the streaming giants.
We could then all sit back and enjoy the Cummings-inspired episode “The Riddle of Genius” where Johnson misses five Cobra meetings to write a draft biography of Shakespeare while continuously texting that his health secretary is “totally f****** hopeless”.
Andy Parsons will be touring the UK this autumn and in 2022