Is Channel 4 a public service broadcaster that should be saved from privatisation? Today's Queen's Speech, which lays the groundwork for the sale of the channel, is set to reignite that debate once again. But Channel 4's increasingly dire output – and its obsession with shows about sex – shows privatisation might not be such a bad idea.
Yes, Channel 4 produces some worthy stuff, but much less than in the past – I can’t recall a really good recent documentary on the channel. Its news is useful enough, especially if you can tolerate the smug air of its main presenters. But these positives are outweighed by a massive negative that enlightened people pretend not to notice. In recent years it has broadcast various shows that go beyond crass titillation and present morally repugnant behaviour as liberated, even healthy. In a sense they are more insidious that anything that exists on the dark web, because they come with a stamp of approval, with an air of public service authority.
In the past I have complained about Love Island, Naked Attraction and My First Threesome. My current gripe is called Open House: The Great Sex Experiment. I saw less than a minute of this show the other day, as I channel-hopped. But I got the gist. A young couple were on a sofa talking to a psychologist, or therapist, or relationships expert, or whatever they call her. The young woman was tearfully apologising for her reluctance, the previous night, to swing, or join in an orgy or something. It wasn’t spelled out, but I don’t think it was a game of charades that she ducked out of. She blamed her own insecurities for getting in the way, letting everyone down. The therapist was saddened by her self-doubt, shaking her head in pious disbelief, reminding her that she was a gorgeous young woman.
I felt physically sick at the thought that this young woman was being pressured to behave in a way that she was uncomfortable with, rightly uncomfortable with I’d say. It was suggested to her that she should distrust her discomfort, see it as neurotic. It was one of the nastiest things I’ve ever seen on television: someone being undermined by a nasty consensus.
In a free country this sort of thing should be tolerated, I suppose, as long as there is plenty of contrary content. But to give it the authority of ‘public service broadcasting’ is utterly messed up. The channel has consistently failed to treat sex in a serious and balanced way. It’s all too one-sided. No platform would be given to someone like me, saying something something like this.
Channel 4 used to air such stuff once or twice a year. Now there is a constant flow. Hot on the heels of Open House, which has finished (for now), is Let’s Make a Love Scene, which starts this Friday. It’s billed as a fun dating reality TV show in which contestants re-stage famous sex scenes from movies, then see if they might want to date each other. Brief Encounter, you could call it.
Why do enlightened people, including cultural commentators and TV critics, fail to notice the moral harm in all this? Because the sort of people who appear on reality TV are the sort they are wary of judging. They don’t want to seem prudish or snobbish.