Last week, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, opportunistically pretended to have bailed out a picturesque Cornish theatre that had, like most arts practitioners, received nothing from him. Also last week, Dowden was outlining his plans for privatising Channel 4 in a piece penned for the Times, hidden behind the paywall. Dowden’s favourite kind of policy announcement is the kind of policy announcement you have to pay for. So I snatched up the Times from my newsagent’s counter, the first hard copy I had read since it declared me “the world’s greatest living standup comedian” in 2018. Dowden’s words were reassuringly expensive, like luxury Stella Artois. My newsagent, Ranking Newsman the News Selector, remembered the old days when the younger me would buy every non-Guardian newspaper in his shop and methodically burn them in the council dog mess bin outside. He wryly remarked that a man gets more right wing as he gets older.
Dowden’s first two paragraphs were blandly plausible. Then he patronisingly cited I May Destroy You and It’s a Sin as examples of shows by public broadcasters that “hold their own”. But the subject material of these acclaimed dramas – race, gender, sexuality and rape – is exactly the kind of woke content commercially driven producers would historically not commission, content that Channel 4 was explicitly established to create. Indeed, 20 years ago, the anti-woke Daily Mail wrote that woke It’s a Sin creator Russell T Davies’s 1999 drama, Queer as Woke, proved woke television needed to be actively censored. Beck’s beer even withdrew its sponsorship of the woke series, as it has every right so to do.
The government’s most loyal anti-woke culture war warrior, Dowden spoke fondly to the Evening Standard last year of his school minibus trips “to see West End shows – fairly accessible ones, like We Will Rock You, Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens and Flashdance the Musical”. I noted that an all-singing, all-dancing sex-tacular dealing with the abstract notion of consent in contemporary urban relationships was conspicuously absent from the reopening West End and wondered if Andrew Lloyd Webber had a show in the pipeline about the millennial sexual anxieties of the black community, featuring James Corden and Dame Judi Dench as singing cats. I laughed to myself in the newsagent’s queue.
Ranking looked up from his credit card reader and asked me what I was sneering at. I told him my idea and that I would probably put it in my Observer column that weekend. Ranking shook his head and told me that woke humour was never funny and I would never be a successful comedian. “See The Falcon and the Winter Soldier?” he continued, unexpectedly. “That is massive and it is pro-Black Lives Matter and addresses racial injustice. And there’s a robot eagle in it. And Batroc the Leaper, a fellow from France who can leap madly about, my man. These things don’t have to be all suffering and gloom and ladies crying.” I stormed outside to read my Times while sitting on the dog mess bin, bringing the paper closer to its ultimate resting place in the faecal crematorium of content.
Now Dowden was saying that although Channel 4 was set up “to provide greater choice”, the multi-platform market means choice is no longer an issue. But we never get the choice to see his cabinet colleagues on Channel 4 News, in case someone asks them a hard question about some facts. And far from providing real choice, the multi-platform market just means that clusterfucks of algorithms drive consumers into narrow trenches of similar content. Few privatised companies are going to commission a necessary, but not necessarily popular, documentary-drama about FGM, for example, although perhaps Dowden could persuade Andrew Lloyd Webber to write a musical about it featuring James Corden and Dame Judi Dench as singing vaginas.
Meanwhile, David Attenborough, our living national saint, emerges in my Guardian to warn Dowden against deforesting an ecosystem of “editorially independent television channels that currently promote quality, diversity, innovation, respectful debate and trust”. Previously, Saint David has tried to save our physical world. Now he is trying to save the abstract world of ideas. He will go to his grave having failed on both fronts, politicians mouthing perfunctory platitudes while pissing into it. Through the newsagent’s doorway I could see Ranking laughing at me with another customer, the security guard who often moves me on from sitting on the steps by the Electric Ballroom. I slipped on my mask and stormed back into the shop to begin a muffled rant.
“The thing is, Ranking, Dowden’s thinking is so muddled it’s possible he really believes his proposals will safeguard Channel 4. It’s more likely that he’s trying to hasten the death of one of the few news outlets that can be relied upon to question his colleagues. Look! Dowden signs off this piece with a sentence dripping in deliberate, or maybe entirely unaware, irony. Dowden is the representative of a government whose online election communiques were proved to be 88% false and he has warned advertisers not to withdraw their support from the counterfactual, Ofcom-evading GB News channel. But here he writes that we are in ‘the era of fake news’ and need ‘trusted and respected media providers more than ever’. It’s a deliberate provocation, surely? I’m glad you think this crisis is funny, Ranking.”
“It’s not that,” said my aggrieved newsagent. “Maybe BBC and Channel 4 give you news for free. But not me. You went off without paying.”
• Stewart Lee interviews the folk singer and writer Shirley Collins on stage at Charleston, East Sussex on 7 July; a double vinyl version of Asian Dub Foundation’s Access Denied album, featuring a “Neolithic” remix of the No 1, Stewart Lee-sampling, single Comin’ Over Here, is now available; the acclaimed anti-rockumentary King Rocker streams on Now TV; Stewart Lee: Unreliable Narrator is available on BBC Sounds; rescheduled 2022 dates of Stewart’s 2020 tour are now on sale