He has said that the government’s plans for the BBC are akin to “cultural vandalism”, and now Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky has a warning of what both the BBC and Channel 4 could become if Conservative plans for the two broadcasters are realised.
Kosminsky told RadioTimes.com that having seen how Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government turned ITV into a “politically toothless organisation”, David Cameron’s government are effectively doing the same with Channel 4 and the BBC.
The Wolf Hall director went on to explain that during his career, broadcasting legislation turned ITV into “essentially a machine for making its shareholders money” at the expense of creating challenging or original programmes. Plans to privatise Channel 4 would result in the same thing, while cutting back on the BBC risked making it irrelevant, he added.
“The ITV that I joined back in 1985 was a real powerhouse programme-making machine, 15 separate companies constantly giving the BBC a real run for its money, particularly in drama and in documentaries,” he told us at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. “First Tuesday [documentary series] where I worked, World In Action, Viewpoint – the various documentary strands that made really quite challenging programmes about the world and our lives here in Britain, holding powerful people to account.
“It’s hard now to imagine that ITV was like that once upon a time. Now it’s united into one broadcasting organisation, it’s gone hurtling downmarket, and it’s essentially a machine for making its shareholders money. I don’t think anybody debates that. It doesn’t set out to make challenging or particularly original programmes anymore,” he said.
“That was destroyed by Margaret Thatcher. And I was there and I watched it happen, and it was bitter. And I can’t escape the feeling that now the heirs of Margaret Thatcher are back in power, and holding the reins of power unencumbered by a coalition, and they have the same plan for both the BBC and Channel 4 simultaneously.”
In 1987 Thatcher called ITV “the last bastion of restrictive practices”. The 1990 Broadcasting Act allowed ITV’s regional franchises to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, eventually to be merged under one commercial company.
A photograph of a government paper revealed last month that plans to privatise Channel 4 were being discussed within the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, while the government’s green paper in July set out a wide-reaching review of the size and scope of the BBC.
“It’s interesting to me that both these broadcasters are under attack simultaneously,” said Kosminsky. “Channel 4 is being faced with exactly what ITV was effectively being faced with – privatisation. And the BBC is being encouraged into a kind of ghetto broadcasting.”
Kosminsky reiterated what he said at the Radio Times Festival, explaining that he feared the BBC would become like public broadcaster PBS in the United States, catering for a “microscopic literati-style audience” that was “utterly irrelevant to the general television firmament”.
A poll of Radio Times readers revealed that 91 per cent supported the BBC licence fee as the best way to fund the public broadcaster, while three out of four said that the broadcaster should not have its services cut, even if it resulted in a reduction of the £145.50 annual cost.
Kosminsky urged viewers to defend the BBC and Channel 4 during this consultation period.
“What I’m really frightened about is for quite narrow political reasons this cultural vandalism is in play where, having decimated ITV the last time they were in power, and turned it essentially into a politically toothless organisation, they’re now trying to do the same with the other two thorns in their side, Channel 4 and the BBC.
“I just don’t understand why the British public are putting up with it. How supine we’re all being about it. We’re going to let this happen, are we? It beggars belief. I don’t think Cromwell would have let it happen.”