I owe Margaret Thatcher a debt of thanks for creating Channel 4. Now her heirs could destroy it | David Olusoga

Selling the broadcaster to the highest bidder would silence a vital independent voice

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


David Olusoga

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Selling off Channel 4 would be a dogmatic act of cultural vandalism | Vince Cable
MPs and lords alike must oppose any money-grubbing attempts to sell off a national asset

Vince Cable

09, Jan, 2016 @5:30 PM

Article image
To be young under Thatcher was tough for many. This is going to be far worse | Barbara Ellen
Even at the height of Thatcherism, those in their 20s could take some comfort from what the future might hold

Barbara Ellen

14, Dec, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Britain’s broadcast media is too valuable to be the toy of politicians and moguls | Will Hutton
Rupert Murdoch launches a new channel, C4 is threatened and notions of impartiality seem up for grabs. Are we seeing a challenge to the old order?

Will Hutton

19, Sep, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Forty years ago, Thatcherism swept Britain. Could our new parties repeat the trick? | Tim Bale
The Brexit party and Change UK could learn from political insurgencies that are gatecrashing governments the world over

Tim Bale

28, Apr, 2019 @6:59 AM

Article image
I can’t guarantee to give you a better life. I’ll leave that to the charlatans | Kevin McKenna
We’re besieged by people promising to improve our lot. My self-help programme is slightly different...

Kevin McKenna

05, May, 2019 @4:59 AM

Article image
Pain, distrust and competing ‘truths’: the stark immediate legacy of Grenfell | Jackie Long
Eighty people burnt to death in their own homes. A month on, the bereaved and survivors are desperate for answers amid a litany of public failings. Now the final insult: empathy for them is running out

Jackie Long

16, Jul, 2017 @5:15 AM

Article image
Meryl Streep to play Margaret Thatcher
Film4 biopic would feature Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher and be directed by Mamma Mia's Phyllida Lloyd. By Jason Deans

Jason Deans

01, Jul, 2010 @11:26 AM

Article image
Mrs Thatcher unleashed a spirit of enterprise and ambition | Melissa Kite

Melissa Kite: Margaret Thatcher was the last great conviction politician who encouraged strivers to realise their dreams

Melissa Kite

13, Apr, 2013 @11:06 PM

Article image
Channel 4 buys rights to Emma Raducanu’s US Open final
The state-owned broadcaster stepped in to serve up a deal that allowed UK viewers to watch the British tennis star for free

Vanessa Thorpe

12, Sep, 2021 @5:35 AM

Margaret Thatcher: the great disrupter was bound to bequeath a divided nation | Observer editorial

Observer editorial: Britain's first female prime minister polarised opinion in her life. Little has changed with her death


13, Apr, 2013 @11:06 PM