Can Glasgow survive the arrival of Channel 4?

Can Glasgow survive the arrival of Channel 4?

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 4, June, 2018

CITIES ARE FRAGILE ENTITIES especially in the absence of prudent elites and representative community groups capable of foiling unwise decisions. Look around at Glasgow’s boarded-up churches or at the statues of military and religious figures and entrepreneurs located on the city’s central plaza, George Square. The values they encapsulated have faded. It would have looked absurd even a few decades ago but it is interests in the media, communications and entertainment sector who are claiming to be the city’s new pace-setters. 

They have a brash and present-orientated vision for the city based on harnessing emotions and challenging conventions.I hesitate to call these new interests an elite because their products are in trouble. Having shed staff in successive relaunches, the Herald, the city’s newspaper is increasingly short on news but replete with pages of comment proclaiming the left liberal gospel. In what management describes as ‘a creative’ move, Scottish Televisionis sacking 93 staff

Both media organizations struggle to attract readers and viewers. It may be no coincidence that their time of troubles has coincided with a conscious strategy to shed detachment and promote the pro-independence cause in their editorial stances and choices of contributors. These struggling brands have played up to Glasgow’s unruly character and have pushed the claim that the city can be a place at the cutting-edge of global change. If their coverage is anything to go by the fashionable radicalism consists of promoting outspoken women, a selective group of minorities, overlooked youth and of course advocates of Scottish independence. 

At times it is hard to imagine  that it was ordinary men and women who had little desire to experiment or be outspoken who have largely made Glasgow. If Glasgow becomes the new headquarters for Channel 4 and its creative hub, it will probably be even harder to detect the real city behind the radical hype.  

Before the city became one of the seven to reach the second stage of the selection process on 30 May, I suggested on twitter that the nature of Channel 4 meant that it would create an imbalancethat might have unwelcome consequences. 

The Channel has arguably been one of the main drivers behind the rise of an ‘anything goes’ mentality. It has replaced a culture of restraint and delayed gratification which once marked Britain out with one where vulgarity, spectacle and the embrace of superficially radical positions increasingly prevail. Channel 4 is more likely to commission and show programmes (as it did last week) recommending that statues of British heroes be removed from central squares than one, say, making the case for  a museum devoted to the crimes of communism be opened in a prominent location. 

It likes to shock as when the then hardline president of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to give the Channel’s Christmas lecture in 2008.  In 2017 to bury any doubt about his political views, the Channel’s venerable news anchorman Jon Snow was filmed at the Glastonbury Festival joining much younger revellers in shouting “F**k the Tories”. 

I asked myself if the arrival of  Channel 4 would be good news for a city where the presence of anti-royalist, pro-militant Palestinian and pro-disarmament groups make the ground appear tinder-dry at times. Was the arrival of a phalanx of media executives and the opportunity for local hell-raisers like the comedian Frankie Boyle  to do programmes on the banks of the Clyde rather than in London, an unconditional gain?  Will programmes enabling  a range of minorities to declaim about their identity, status and perceived lack of opportunity, really be what a city with a fast-changing demography requires?    

This is the standard Channel 4 mix. There is a penchant for dispute and confrontation, a readiness to condemn and denounce rather than stand back and reflect or explore. A set of multi-cultural ‘truths’ based on adherence to open borders and radical equality measures are often woven into the news. If a critical thinker like the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson dares to offer facts and evidence to challenge some of the prevailing orthodoxies, then he is treated as an enemy of progress (as happened in his encounter with Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman in January). The resounding and unexpected triumph of Peterson when up against an intelligent interviewer who made no attempt to understand what he was trying to say, made it perhaps the most watched item ever shownon Channel 4. 

My concerns were not assuaged when parliamentarians, journalists, crime writers, media studies lecturers and corporate lords queued up to salute Stuart Cosgrove, currently the director of nations and regions at Channel 4, for trying to lure the broadcaster to the city. Jobs were talked about but numbers were vague. Few ever talked about the kind of programmes that would be made or the values that would be projected in them. It went without saying that Glasgow landing this flagship media group would be a tribute to the city’s dynamism.   

Splitting most of my weeks between Glasgow and Edinburgh, I sense neither place is dynamic. Instead, they appear to be badly run by callow- municipal cliques. Edinburgh’s disgraceful infrastructure is matched by the ominous expansion of violent crime in Glasgow. In both there is little empathy between the poorer and more affluent quarters despite appeals to urban solidarity.   

My fear is that the arrival of Channel 4 will deepen the existing fault-lines and perhaps create new ones.  Radical groups whose mission is to disrupt and quell other voices, will be given a free ride. On the other hand, the great majority of people who want to quietly get on with making improvements in their lives in a tranquil environment will be sidelined or else told to ‘wake up’.    

My reservations about Channel 4 would be reduced if there was evidence that it was willing to  commission and defend programmes where conversations took place between knowledgeable people on difficult or neglected subjects. But except in its early days Channel 4 has no such track record. It puts on token programmes appealing to a mainstream audience, such as, Penelope Keith’s ‘Coastal Villages’but it fights shy of any sustained effort to educate and inform in a low-key and detached manner.  

Instead, there is automatic adherence to whatever is the ‘zeitgeist’ of the day whether it is Islamophobia, transgender rights or the ‘Me Too’ movement.    A different Channel 4 would do wonders for the Scottish cultural scene which is stale and inward-looking not least because a neurotic government keeps pushing intellectuals to frame their work in ‘national’ terms. Programmes could be made that explored the close and sometimes mutually-reinforcing times between Scotland and the United States, changing patterns of crime, the role of Scottish inventors and entrepreneurs in the English industrial revolution, the background of the gypsies from Slovakia and Romania now attempting to put down roots in Glasgow. 

The list is endless and some of these programmes could acquire a global audience if it was ensured that professionalism and balance were to the fore.  The senior Scottish Conservative David Mundell curiously believes that the arrival of Channel 4 in Glasgow might strengthenthe UK.

He offers no evidence for that view. He might not have heard that Channel 4 executives are completely blasé about whether or not Scotland remains in the UK. It will make no differenceabout whether they do or do not relocate to Glasgow. This makes Channel 4 exceptional given the companies that are put off from coming, stepping up investment, or remaining in Scotland by the risk that the onset of independence might transform economic conditions to their disadvantage. 

Channel 4 journalists are well known for their impatience with the current political order. It is hardly conspiratorial to suggest that many of them, along with radical programme makers, would be thrilled to have a ringside seat in reporting (as well as encouraging) the break-up of the United Kingdom. Pursuing this dream has already  extended the professional lives of a string of BBC Scotland worthies from Blair Jenkins and Derek Bateman to Lesley Riddoch and Iain MacWhirter.   The existence of a separatist party that is in government and has a base of at least 100,000 activists also offers incentives for a television company wishing to increase state subsidies or make programmes which result in a loyal viewing audience.   

Nobody is talking about how Channel 4 might alter the political weather if it makes Scotland its chief hub. Nor about the types of programmes it should put its energy and cash behind. The excitement all stems from a Scottish media-lobby that spills over into politics. Its members are excited by easy money and cheap fame that will come in large part via taxpayers’ money.   

This is the same impulse which has brought a lot of people (with sharp elbows and soft brains) into nationalist politics. Alas it is impossible to disinvent the SNP, but there is till time to deter the Channel 4 from moving north. Despite the impatient tweets from Stuart Cosgrove and endorsements from television figures like Maurice Smith, I remain delighted to say ‘Channel 4, Stay Away, Glasgow Most Certainly doesn’t Need You’.   

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who lives in Edinburgh. He published ‘Scotland Now - A Warning to the World’ in 2016. His 14th single-authored book and debut novel, ‘Flight of Evil: A North British Intrigue’, came out in March.  He can be followed on twitter at @Cultfree54 and he blogs at ‘Was It Something I Just Said’.

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