By Stephen Pollard
February 2, 2009
I have a piece in today's Times:
Here's an offer you can't refuse. Work an extra hour or pay a bit more tax so that Channel 4 can broadcast Shipwrecked: Battle of the Islands (a “Tropical reality show in which two tribes of castaways are marooned on neighbouring islands”).
If you don't like the sound of that, rest assured that your money will go towards paying for Hollyoaks; or, if you prefer, Noel Edmonds's Deal or No Deal; or maybe The Madness of Boy George, to take a sample of the highlights from yesterday's schedule.
And, by the way, it really is an offer you can't refuse. Refuse it and you'll go to prison. That's what Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, is proposing. Channel 4 is on skid row. According to its own estimates, it has an annual funding gap of £100 million. And, as a public sector broadcaster, it expects you and me to put our hands in our pockets and cough up the readies to let it carry on with its intellectually challenging and democratically essential schedule. Yes, indeed; how philistine a society we would be if we did not pay to have Big Brother or How to Look Good Naked produced.
To rescue these essential programmes, Mr Burnham wants Channel 4 to link with BBC Worldwide, the BBC's commercial arm, which earns income to offset the licence fee. That income would instead be diverted to subsidise Channel 4; which would, of course, mean the licence fee rising to cover the shortfall to the BBC.
What a sublime Alice in Wonderland world these people live in. To cut to the chase: Channel 4 is up the creek because it can't get enough viewers or advertisers to cover its costs. In a normal world, that would would lead to one of two outcomes: going bust, or cutting its cloth accordingly. Not when it comes to so-called public service broadcasting. Here, someone else is forced to pay for it - and that someone is you. Whatever one's view about the notion of public service broadcasting and the funding model of the BBC in the modern world, a case can at least be made that Radios 3 and 4, and some other BBC programmes do indeed provide a service unavailable elsewhere.
Anyone who tries to make that case for Channel 4 is either featherbedding their own nest or attempting to pull a fast one on the taxpayer. Or, in reality, both (yesterday it was revealed that it has 19 employees paid at least £190,000 a year and 91 staff on more than £100,000 a year).
The issue is very straightforward: if Channel 4 can't pay for itself, tough. Sell it, like any other broadcaster, to someone who can.