Thirty years of Channel 4

“Can we say that?” “Can we say that publicly?” Last night’s discussion at the Free Word Centre, marking 30 years of Channel 4, hinged on these questions. For the filmmakers, programmers, board members and legal department at Channel 4, these questions are also at the heart of their day-to-day operations.

Chief Executive David Abraham’s opening words sketched an outline of Channel 4’s  trajectory as “an irritant and a challenger to vested interest”. Without shareholders, state funding or fear of its commercial advertisers’ feelings, its editorial autonomy has brought it the trust of its audiences, Abrahams said.

Channel 4’s legal team, led by Prash Naik, are motivated by a presumption to publish. Line by line, shows are vetted and cleared before airing. “Can we say that?” Can we say that publicly?” It may be a struggle, but the default final answer is, rightly, “yes”.

Following Abraham’s speech, English PEN’s Jo Glanville brought together filmmakers Peter Kosminksy and Brian Woods, and media law silk Adrienne Page QC, to join David Abraham on stage.

The extortionate costs of defending a libel charge causes Adrienne Page to worry that media organisations will run scared from airing controversial material. In Brian Woods’ experience it can take years to find a home for shows addressing subjects like sexual abuse by teachers, or documentaries critiquing Islam. Though Channel 4 sometimes gets it wrong, last night’s discussion showed that the intention to provoke, stimulate and inform is still firmly part of their remit. Shocking and offending some of your audience might even be considered part and parcel of good television making.  The only caveat, as Abraham put, is,  “If you are gong to shock and offend do it for a purpose”.

The trend towards making more content available online, in shorter formats, with high levels of commentary and user interaction around each show, means the challenges to free expression will proliferate. Channel 4 has its own battles to fight in keeping television an essential vehicle for finding and challenging boundaries.

Eve Jackson is events manager at Index