‘Can we say that? Can we say that publicly?’ Last night’s evening of drinks and discussion 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. There could be no better place than the Free Word Centre, and no better company than Index on Censorship, English PEN and Article 19, for a frank analysis of the past three decades of independent television.
Chief Executive David Abraham’s opening words sketched an outline of Channel 4’s unique 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. Perhaps more importantly, it has the implicit trust of its creative contributors. Channel 4’s legal team, led by Prash Naik, are bold defenders of the filmmakers’ rights, 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. All three confirmed that the threats are there, and worsening. ‘To be at the boundary,’ says Peter Kosminsky, ‘you have to go beyond the boundary’ – but it’s a hard place to be on your own. Financially, the extortionate (and rising) 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 which are criticising Islam. The BBC has clearly played a toxic role in this movement against controversy. 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. The creativity and execution of the programme must be outstanding, and the law must be on your side. Beyond this, 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”
Conversations like these usually happen behind closed doors. To see such open discussion alive at Channel 4 is exciting. 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. For Index, Free Word, English PEN and Article 19, these challenges are firmly in eyesight. By committing to free expression and free debate with us, Channel 4 has its own battles to fight in keeping television an essential vehicle for finding and challenging boundaries. Happy birthday, and good luck, Channel 4!
This event was hosted by Free Word, Index on Censorship, Article 19, and English PEN.