The Truth Shall Make You
RE-LOCATION, RE-LOCATION … AND CHANNEL 4
In 1988 I pitched an investigative film about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to one of the BBC’s most senior editors. I had been given access to evidence – then mostly still kept under lock and key inside Los Angeles Police Department HQ – which showed that the man convicted of the murder, Sirhan Sirhan, did not kill RFK.
The BBC editor pronounced this to be “a page one story”. But before he commissioned the documentary, he had one concern: how, he asked, could I make a film in Los Angeles when I was based in Yorkshire ? Surely only those with offices in London could tackle such a serious investigative task ?
It struck me then – as now – as a bizarre presumption. World In Action – the best investigative current affairs series – emanated from Granada Television (location: Manchester). Yorkshire Television (location: Leeds) produced the best documentary films in its First Tuesday strand.
But since the BBC editor was evidently sincere in his belief, I took the idea to Channel 4 instead. It was then rather less metro-centric in outlook and the resulting film was broadcast, as part of the much-missed Secret History series, in 1992. It did rather well.
Fast-forward 30 years and Channel 4 is engaged in a fierce fight with the Government over plans for the forcible re-location of its HQ from London to a provincial city. C4 now makes largely the same claim as the idiot BBC editor: being based in London is a television imperative.
The Channel’s resistance has some influential supporters. Peter Preston, formerly editor of The Guardian, used his column in today’s Observer to pour scorn on the idea of prising C4 out of its ostentatious Horseferry Road HQ.
“C4, with nearly £1bn in revenue last year, needs presence and easy access to an ad [advertising] industry that hangs tight to its metropolitan base. Another [argument against moving] is the extra slog of having to get independent from Exeter or Southampton to travel to Birmingham, Leeds or wherever the government decides to send it.”
Preston is apparently blithely unaware that neither Exeter nor Southampton are overburdened with production companies – and therefore the likelihood of anyone having to make a round-Britain trek to pitch ideas converges on zero. Nor does Preston seem to have grasped that whereas it once commissioned purely on the merit of an idea – regardless of the city in which the producer worked – Channel 4 today has sweetheart deals with vast ‘mega-indies’ to churn out swathes of homogenized rubbish. And where are these factory-producers based ? London, of course.
Channel 4’s problems go much deeper than its geographical location. I detailed many of these in my submission to the government’s consultation enquiry into the Channel’s future. I published that on this blog in June, but make no apology for reproducing it again.
A FAIRY FROM THE WAIST DOWN - Tim Tate DCMS Submission
But basing at least one of our (notional) Public Service Broadcasters outside London is vital to re-establishing the diversity of voices, opinions and experiences on British television. ITV used to fulfill that function – and for four decades performed it extremely well. Now it, too, is almost entirely run from, by and for the capital – and its output is indistinguishable from the rest of the London-centric production business.
Channel 4 is the epitome of that metropolitan outlook. Its only unique selling point is a self-assumed ‘too cool for school’ attitude. High time, then, that its overpaid, overweening and unadventurous executives were forced out of their lair and back into the real world where producers from Yorkshire can make serious and important films – even in Los Angeles.
My 1992 Channel 4 documentary – The Robert Kennedy Assassination – is viewable on the Films page of this website. My new book, re-investigating the story with former CNN-journalist Brad Johnson, will be published next year – the 50th anniversary of RFK’s murder.