Channel 4 should be relocated to Birmingham, following an announcement by the Culture Secretary yesterday that the entire broadcaster could move away from London, writes David Kuczora.
It was a good day to bury bad news. With the triggering of Article 50, the rolling news channels have deployed correspondents to far-flung parts of the United Kingdom to report on the reaction from various punters. And there’s no doubt Brexit is the vital issue of the day, which makes it sad that there was another announcement of national importance which has slipped significantly down the news agenda.
The Culture Secretary Karen Bradley laid out proposals which could see some or all of Channel 4’s 800 staff move out of London to either Birmingham or Manchester. Indeed, Mrs Bradley rushed up the West Coast mainline to speak at the Nations & Regions Media Conference held at MediaCity in Salford after a busy morning in Westminster.
“With more than 250 companies employing over 7,000 people, the transformation of MediaCity since work started here exactly ten years ago is incredible,” said Mrs Bradley.
“With the BBC and ITV at its heart, this has become a world-class media cluster, with a life and energy all of its own. Salford demonstrates that the television sector in the UK is not all about London – and that the best broadcasters on Earth can flourish in places other than London.”
Predictably, cue immediate indignation from the London media luvvies. Channel 4 itself issued a statement robustly against the idea – complete with a threat that a “substantial move” would mean less spent around the UK.
The spokesman said: “We have invested £1.5 billion in Nations and Regions commissioning over the last 10 years, and consistently outperform our Ofcom requirements… The most important factor in supporting the Nations and Regions is where we spend our money rather than where Channel 4 is headquartered. A substantial relocation would be highly damaging to Channel 4’s business model and diminish our investment in the creative industries around the UK and our overall contribution to the UK economy.”
The Culture Secretary gives this sort of nay-saying short shrift, commenting: “I am unsympathetic towards those who recoil in horror at the very idea of media jobs being based outside the capital. Or for those who insist that people with ideas in the West Midlands, West Country or West Wales must travel to Westminster to get programmes made.”
Similar outcries were heard when a large chunk of BBC programming relocated to Salford – and Mrs Bradley is at paints to point out what a success that has proven to be. So MediaCity is doing very nicely, thanks very much. Which means it’s time for a major national broadcaster to have its base in Birmingham.
Birmingham used to be a hot-bed of telly production, with Pebble Mill Studios being the home to Top Gear, Gardeners’ World, Countryfile, Inside Out, Points of View, Dangerfield and Juliet Bravo amongst a host of other well-loved primetime names. But when the BBC relocated to new studios in The Mailbox, scores of BBC staff producers were moved to Bristol or Salford. The more insidious effect was a creep away from the region of freelance telly talent too – the camera men, scriptwriters, producers and other professionals who move from project to project.
It led to an impassioned campaign by the Birmingham Post, which started simply by looking at cold hard cash: Midland licence fee payers contribute £942 million a year to the BBC, yet the corporation in 2014 invested just £80 million across the region – less than it spends in London in 12 days. The funding formula just wasn’t fair, claimed the Post. The campaign reached the Commons Culture Committee as well of the door of the BBC’s Director General Lord Tony Hall, who was himself brought up in Birmingham. It has since been announced that online youth channel BBC Three will be relocating in due course to the city.
BBC Three would be the perfect bedfellow in Birmingham for edgy Channel 4; the broadcaster that gave us cutting edge programmes like Brasseye, Skins, Queer as Folk, Brookside and Peep Show. It’s often overlooked that this was a channel created by Margaret Thatcher’s government with was a unique mission: To appeal to tastes and interests not generally catered for by ITV. Educational, innovative, experimental and distinctive.
Unlike the Beeb, Channel 4 has always been self-funding – so the government doesn’t have the same budgetary Sword of Damocles to dangle as with the BBC’s Charter Renewal. But the Culture Secretary’s announcement today did make it clear that the broadcaster will remain in public ownership, so the Department of Culture, Media and Sport will continue to play a formal and important part in the running of the broadcaster.
Birmingham must now step up and lobby strongly for Channel 4 to move wholesale here, according to Andy Street, Conservative candidate for the West Midlands regional mayor at an inaugural election on 4th May this year.
Mr Street said: "This is a huge opportunity and is exactly what a regional Mayor should be pursuing. While we don't know yet what conclusions the consultation will reach but it's absolutely vital that partners in the region start building a case for greater investment here by Channel 4. And our case is a strong one. Fantastic creative industries, unrivalled connectivity and a young population mean we must have a compelling argument.”
This is a once in a lifetime chance to completely reinvigorate Birmingham’s broadcast industry. As a city, we now need to stand up and demand that Channel 4 moves here.
David Kuczora is a Council Member of the PRCA, a Freeman of the City of London and a Fellow of the Royal Society for Arts.