Those who worry that Channel 4 has become risk-averse might be fretting needlessly. The broadcaster has shortlisted Glasgow as a location for its new headquarters. Currently, C4 has only 30 staff based outside London and hopes shifting its HQ to the regions, along with two other ‘hubs’, will help it better reflect that narrow slice of the country beyond SW1.
In shortlisting Glasgow, Channel 4 has decided either that there will be no second independence referendum any time soon – which is bold – or that any such re-run would not be commercially disruptive – bolder still. Independence is the elephant in the room of Glasgow’s bid, a project spearheaded by SNP-run Glasgow City Council, endorsed by Nicola Sturgeon, and fronted by Stuart Cosgrove, a former Channel 4 executive.
Cosgrove is a curious choice for a bid keen to downplay the independence issue. When newspapers questioned the SNP-backed ‘Scottish Six’ – a project to halt the BBC’s foreign coverage at the Tweed and replace it with a ‘Scottish’ perspective on international news – Cosgrove decried a ‘myopia that appears to resent Scotland taking actions for itself’ and warned that ‘many unionists especially at the heart of the Conservative Party, would happily lacerate the BBC’. Lacerating the BBC is something Cosgrove knows about. In the fevered final days of the Scottish referendum, when nationalists were charging the Corporation with pro-Union bias, he accused Auntie of failing to understand ‘the nature of balance and due impartiality’. It was, he said, ‘simply wrong and not acceptable’.
Just last year he predicted: ‘Democracy will triumph – yes majority more likely than ever’. Now that he’s trying to coax Channel 4 to Glasgow, Cosgrove dismisses talk of independence as a ‘binary debate’ and ‘a bit dated’, insisting Glasgow’s proposal should be judged on ‘the quality of the bid’ rather than ‘solving constitutional riddles’. Spare me, Venus! I am not the man I was!
Asked whether the threat of Indyref2 could hinder Glasgow’s pitch, Cosgrove told the BBC: ‘Scotland is somewhere just under ten per cent of Channel 4’s market. That would work out roughly as £75m of their value. There is no company in the world that I know of that wants to walk away from that kind of value.’ Quite, but what company, aware of that risk, wants to increase its exposure by investing even more in what could be a foreign market in a few years’ time? Glasgow’s USP is an ROI at the mercy of the SNP.
Last week, a commission appointed by Nicola Sturgeon produced a new 354-page economic blueprint for an independent Scotland. Last month, 35,000 marched through the streets of Glasgow demanding a second referendum. They were joined by the contenders for the SNP’s deputy leadership and while Nicola Sturgeon wasn’t there, she tweeted them a thumbs up emoji. Keith Brown, Scotland’s Economy Secretary and frontrunner in the deputy contest, says a second referendum could be held as early as April 2019. Does that sound like a stable market to invest in? If nothing else, it would keep Channel 4 News busy.
‘We live in an era of the unsettled will,’ Cosgrove averred during the 2015 General Election. ‘There is nothing settled about Scottish public life.’ Three years later, that remains largely accurate. If Channel 4 ultimately decides Glasgow is too much of a gamble, those who have spent the past five years revelling in the political upheaval caused by nationalism will have only themselves to blame.
The miserable irony is that, absent the political uncertainty, Glasgow’s bid would be almost unanswerable. The city currently produces audience favourites Location, Location, Location, Homes under the Hammer, Antiques Road Trip and Catchphrase. Channel 4 already allocates in excess of five per cent of its commissioning budget to Scotland, by far the biggest spend in any of the devolved nations. As a publisher-broadcaster, C4 would find in Glasgow a burgeoning production sector and a government minded to support growth. Last year, the Scottish Government doubled screen support funding to £20m, including a £2m production growth fund, £3m content development and production fund, and a £4m film development and production fund.
STV, Scotland’s main Channel 3 broadcaster, is shuttering its second channel and shedding 59 jobs amid losses. There will soon be dozens of accomplished editorial and production staff for Channel 4 to recruit. Glasgow is home to the strongest creative pool outside London, an arts community that’s not backwards at coming forwards, and a production capacity that rival cities would have your arm off for. Dear Green Place has stories to tell and people to tell them.
Designed to cater for UK life in all its far-flung diversity, Channel 4 long ago withdrew into a metropolitan milieu, blissfully unfamiliar with the peculiar habits and rum views of these creatures known as the British. Shifting a large chunk of the operation outwith the capital could give Channel 4 the good shake it needs and remind the organisation of its original mission.
Glasgow’s bid has its flaws and relocating there is a risk in the current political climate but a Channel 4 that no longer takes risks is just ITV with the Friends theme song on loop. If Channel 4 cannot see a future farther north than Bristol, it would be as well staying put and focusing on giving the people of north London the best, and best-funded, local TV channel in Britain.