Nothing about the time or the place I was brought up in imbued in me any affection for Margaret Thatcher or the government she led.
As a teenager in the 1980s, I watched in horror as my home town of Gateshead was economically devastated, the industries in which my grandfather and his ancestors had worked allowed to go to the wall. In the 1990s, I became one of the thousands who reluctantly submitted to Norman Tebbit’s sneering injunction to get on our bikes and move to where the work was, a migration south that I never sought and still resent.
Given that background and those experiences, it is a struggle to admit that in one aspect of life I have been a beneficiary of that same government; admitting that governments we oppose can do good and that our political opponents are opponents rather than enemies are sentiments rapidly disappearing from British political life. For what do I owe thanks to an administration that devastated my home town? I am indebted to the Thatcher government for the creation of Channel 4.
Channel 4 transformed the UK television landscape. As its remit demanded, it has, for two generations, challenged accepted tastes and thinking and given voice to marginalised groups, particularly the young. Behind the scenes, within the television industry, the impact of Channel 4 has been just as revolutionary, but for very different reasons.
The Thatcher government intentionally designed Channel 4 to be disruptive. Its function was to unleash a culture of entrepreneurship and to bring this about the channel was structured differently to the BBC and ITV. Channel 4 did not make its own programmes. TV producers were encouraged to set up companies and seek commissions from the new broadcaster. Channel 4’s function therefore was to incubate a culture of risk-taking that was very much in keeping with the Thatcherite vision of a share-owning, home-owning Britain of small business owners.
For almost four decades, Channel 4 has operated exactly as its Conservative architects envisaged. State owned but not state funded, the channel pumps profits from advertising revenue into the nation’s independent production companies. Those companies have helped make British television extraordinarily dynamic and uniquely creative. Four years ago, I became part of a second generation of producers to follow the path laid out in the 1980s with the formation of Channel 4, setting up a television production company with the ex-Panorama producer Mike Smith.
Starting a television company is like jumping out of an aeroplane in the hope that you’ll be able to persuade someone to supply you with a parachute before you hit the ground. To justify taking such a terrifying leap, producers draw up business plans that are predicated upon one fundamental calculation: are there enough broadcasters who might be willing to buy the sorts of programmes you want and are qualified to make?
Our business plan was partly based on our belief that we would be able to win commissions from Channel 4. Had the channel not been there, or had it been a purely commercial broadcaster, interested only in ratings and not the sort of public service television we make, the maths behind our business plan would not have added up. The same is true for countless television production companies across the UK that will question the viability of their business if, as is proposed, Channel 4 is sold to a commercial buyer.
Channel 4 was key to the launch of our company and has been key to its survival. Our first commission came from the channel and I was confident more would follow as I had a war chest of proposals I had kept in reserve, knowing they were quintessentially Channel 4 ideas. One of them, which I began to develop in the first weeks of our new company, became the documentary The Unremembered, which earlier this year led the government and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to apologise for its longstanding failure to offer equal treatment in death to African and Asian soldiers and auxiliaries who died serving Britain during the First World War.
That documentary and the extraordinary response it elicited from Westminster is a classic example of the public service programming that Channel 4 was created to commission, television that leads rather than reflects the news agenda.
After almost four years of operation, our company, Uplands Television, remains a tiny player, not a minnow but a fish small enough to be at risk of being eaten by a minnow. And the waters in which we swim are menacingly patrolled by giant production companies, many of them owned by even more colossal US tech and media companies. Yet the fact that those giants operate in UK waters, and often buy up British television companies, is evidence of the health of the sector that Channel 4 helped create.
Nothing about my background led me to believe that people like me, from council estates and failing schools in deindustrialising towns, get to be business owners. My impostor syndrome kicks in on a regular basis. But the Thatcher revolution that created Channel 4 was – we were told – all about convincing people from backgrounds like mine that we are not impostors and that we can be entrepreneurial.
Yet just as I learn, somewhat reluctantly, to acknowledge how this great innovation that has enriched the nation and my industry is an achievement of the Conservative party, today’s Conservatives, the inheritors of that legacy, are setting out to wreck one of the great achievements of the Thatcher era. Disfigured by Brexit, the current Conservative party seems incapable of recognising its own past achievements. Destroying Channel 4 – and privatisation risks doing exactly that – would be to devour one of its own children. It would also signal in the process that the Conservatives are no longer the party of business but the party of “fuck business”.
• David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster