Speaking to people in Chester over the past few months, one of the biggest areas of concern that people bring up is the quality of public debate. I agree entirely. There doesn’t seem to be any airtime for reasoned debate. The quality of political discourse that I see on a daily basis is limited to soundbites and put-downs.
The privatisation of Channel 4 puts another outlet up for grabs to the highest bidder. How can the BBC operate impartially and make unbiased executive decisions when its executives are constantly living in fear that their funding (the license fee) is at risk from a looming government axe? Sky News might be ringfenced for bias, but what about the programming that Sky offers to the same audience? ITV is beholden to its wage-payers, the advertisers.
Now the Culture Secretary tells us that Channel 4, which is currently responsible to the public, is to become accountable to whoever the highest bidder may be. It should be noted that previously, said culture secretary was unaware of how C4 was even funded.
Which billionaire will be able to afford to control the messages that are delivered to us? Will someone who has reservations about the LGBT+ community deliver Queer as Folk or It’s a Sin? Will a Whitehall donor understand the appeal of The Big Narstie Show? Would The Last Leg ever have been commissioned without a public broadcast mandate?
These are the shows that drive public debate and introduce important elements to public conversation. By selling Channel 4 off, the government are limiting the ideas introduced to public conversation. And there are no prizes for guessing which demographic will see themselves reflected in the content. My guess is that it won’t be marginalised ones.
And all of this will only serve to constrict the quality of public debate even further.
In the 2019 Liberal Democrat manifesto, there was an entire section devoted to high-quality public debate. We proposed a step up in the level of quality of public debate by introducing a Leveson-compliant regulator with oversight of privacy, quality, diversity and choice and expecting the BBC to tackle fake news.