THE clock is ticking for Channel 4. We may well be witnessing the last valuable years of one of the great experiments in British public service television.

Plans are afoot to privatise Channel 4, and redefine its purposes from media innovation to profit maximisation. It is yet another example of the current Conservative government’s pursuit of ideology at any cos.

Channel 4’s Chief Executive Alex Mahon, a pharmacist’s daughter from Edinburgh, said at the unveiling of the company’s annual report that the Government needs “to make sure that the media landscape is strengthened, not worsened, by any changes to the channel.”

She may already be whistling in the wind. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport has already put the privatisation of Channel 4 out to consultation, and it is monetary value and its assets are already up for analysis. As a long time, Channel 4 lifer who joined the organisation in May 1994, the day that the former Labour leader John Smith died, I am biased to a fault.

My first day at work was bizarre beyond belief, a plane load of colleagues had just arrived back from the Oscars where the Film Four movie Four Weddings and a Funeral had triumphed. The scene was truly memorable, an Oscar perished on the desk, and women still wearing their chiffon party frocks were reduced to tears as Smith’s death ended what had been a mood of drunken triumph. I worked at Channel 4 for more than 20 years and so cannot even fake a hint of neutrality when it comes to its future.

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Asking me about Channel 4 is not unlike asking me about Scotland. I have a deeply emotional attachment to its well-being and an unshakeable believe that its independence is a vital part of it hopes for the future. The current noise around Channel 4’s privatisation is revealing. Even in the face of multiple global challenges, not least the emergence of the major super streamers, Channel 4 has had a successful trading period in part by bundling its back catalogue of comedy into a popular destination for younger viewers.

It cost the taxpayer nothing and as the Scottish writer Armando Iannucci wrote last week, “It succeeds in ploughing millions into British production and jobs while enhancing our international reputation – What exactly is the problem?”.

The debate about Channel 4’s unique status has flared up periodically over the last 20 years but unlike the BBC licence fee debate, Channel 4 has been protected by its commercial look and feel.

Channel 4 sell advertising in and around programmes, which still accounts for over 90% of its income. That has meant that few people even now fully understand its status as a statutory corporation set up by Margaret Thatcher’s government to provide an alternative to the BBC and ITV.

Thatcher’s home secretary Willie Whitelaw, by now far detached from his birthplace in Nairn, responded to lobbying from producers who imagined a fourth channel that could commission rather than make its own programmes. This was the big bang in Channel 4’s history. Rather than own and run its own studios, it would become the UK’s first publisher-broadcaster, with a small core staff commissioning an army of creatives across the UK.

The National:

With an independent film wing FilmFour the model became critical in the modern history of Scottish film, kickstarting Trainspotting, Orphans, Last King of Scotland and many more.

By the 1990s, and unforeseen by Thatcherism, Channel 4 discovered new audiences for alternative and sometimes challenging content that often spoke to modern intersectionality, programmes for gay men and lesbians, shows for ethnically diverse communities and trailblazing reality formats that appealed to younger viewers. Selling advertising became not only more complicated but more sophisticated and Channel 4 struck gold by demonstrating they were a premium advertiser that could reach audiences that mainstream ITV struggle to attract, not least the young and upmarket.

I relished explaining the Channel 4 ad-sales strategy to producers and journalists, especially at the height of a controversy, in order to expose the old cliché that television chiefs were “plummeting downmarket in search of ratings”. Channel 4 could charge more to advertising revenue in prime time if it attracted the professional classes who watched less television and were therefore cash rich but time poor. It was a case of plummeting upmarket in search of specific ratings.

SO why now? Why is Boris Johnson’s Government keen to privatise Channel 4 given that they already own it as a British asset? One stark answer is that they value disruption and seem to relish the role of decaling war on the “woke”.

Most commentators feel that there is the spectre of personal and media vendetta about the move. Channel 4 News was the first to break the Windrush Scandal, the machinations of Cambridge Analytica and the 2015 election funding scandal.

It’s also personal. Johnson has been savaged by Channel 4 News and Current Affairs, called a liar by the team’s former head in a feisty McTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Festival, and ridiculed as a block of melting ice in an on screen leader’s debate he failed to show up at.

In Scotland we are at such a distance from the London media village that we tend to overlook its internal factionalism. Whilst there is a lot of love for Channel 4 among viewers there is a deep and almost splenetic hatred of Channel 4 among its right-wing media rivals.

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Newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph have been long-time opponents and the populist start-ups like GBNews loathe Channel 4’s success and its effortless professionalism.

There is no question that Channel 4 is valuable public asset and it has taken on new cost and complexity by diversifying its base away from London to commissioning hubs in Glasgow, Leeds and Bristol. Currently, swathes of Channel 4’s consumer and property shows come out of production teams in Glasgow. Many of Scotland’s top producers and armies of freelancers earn their living from Channel 4.

Nor can there be any doubt that it can deliver value to the exchequer but there remains significant doubt as to how much and at what cost?

One possibility currently being floated is that Channel 4 might be bought by its commercial rival Five, which is owned by the US media conglomerate Viacom. This would not be universally popular.

Another more distant option is a spectrum auction which would effectively put the fourth button out to tender. There is a wide-range of bidders that might be interested in a UK terrestrial television footprint, many like Apple or Sky with deep pockets, nor could you entirely rule out a sports franchise like Uefa or Formula 1 bidding for a settled television presence. Some of these options are hugely speculative and the most likely option is that Channel 4 will become a for-profit private company with shareholders. This will not be good news for either independent film or for Channel 4 News. The first because film is high risk and has often been a loss making venture at Channel 4.

The news would be exposed simply because it occupies a primetime slot that does not deliver advertising revenue.

The Conservative ideologues currently driving Channel 4’s privatisation claim that in the process they would protect what’s valuable about the channel.

I’m not sure I trust them.