Leon Brittan and Channel 4: an unsung role

A role not mentioned so far in the obituaries. In memoriam.

David Elstein
23 January 2015
Lord Brittan speaking at a media briefing, 2011.

Lord Brittan speaking at a media briefing, 2011. FCO/Flickr. Some rights reserved.In the general election of May 1979, Margaret Thatcher ousted James Callaghan as Prime Minister, and appointed Willie Whitelaw (whom she had beaten to the Tory leadership after Edward Heath was pushed out) as her Home Secretary. One of the urgent problems he inherited was the proposal from the Annan Committee, in 1976, to allocate the vacant fourth terrestrial TV channel to something called the Open Broadcasting Authority.

Many commentators thought the OBA – with its possible financing barely investigated by Annan – an unlikely prospect. The Tories explicitly opposed it. Certainly, ITV was confident in renewing its bid for a second channel of its own (to match BBC1 and BBC2), which had a degree of support from its regulator, the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Even the militant ITV technicians union, the ACTT, seemed ready to join up in support, and ITV2 formed part of the Tory election manifesto

Immediately after the election, the ACTT held its annual conference. A motion from the Television Branch committee in support of ITV2 was countered by one from a handful of freelances calling for Channel 4 to be run independently of ITV, to have no in-house production arm, and to commission a substantial proportion of its output from independent producers (of which, at that time, there were barely a dozen). The freelances won the debate: potential ACTT support for ITV2 was neutralized.

However, the IBA was still on board with some version of ITV2. So a group of would-be independent producers formed the Channel Four Group, campaigning for “TV4” (as they called it) to be withheld from the restrictive hands of ITV. Soon after the election, Leon Brittan was appointed Minister of State at the Home Office, under Whitelaw, and he later took responsibility for steering the 1980 Broadcasting Act through the Commons: an Act which indeed required the IBA to set up an independent board to run Channel 4, and to make room for independent productions.

There are various theories as to how the Channel Four Group managed to push the Conservatives towards what we now celebrate as the most innovative of our terrestrial TV services. Michael Darlow – a key campaigner at the time – tells in his exhaustive study “Independents Struggle” (Quartet Books 2004) of an approach by my former colleagues, Phillip Whitehead and Udi Eichler, to Keith Joseph, emphasising the “free market” credentials of the indie sector.

But he also mentions a drinks party, soon after the election, organised by a former Tory candidate, TV distributor Richard Price, at the Hampstead home of a friendly ITV executive, where the main guest was Brittan. I was one of the Channel Four Group members strategically dotted around the room, which Brittan circulated in deliberate fashion, taking careful mental notes. I had been at both school and university with Brittan, and had also briefed him during his time as a top libel QC, so I had no doubt that he swiftly grasped the essence of the case against ITV2, and for an independent Channel 4. The chances of Whitelaw having been converted to our ideas without Brittan’s intervention strike me as very low.

On Wednesday January 21, nearly 100 former Channel Four executives, programme makers and programme participants gathered at the channel’s Horseferry Road headquarters to celebrate the life of the channel’s first commissioning editor for arts, Michael Kustow, who died last year. It was a lively evening.

Sadly and ironically, a couple of miles away, Kustow’s exact contemporary at Haberdashers, Leon Brittan, was in those hours finally succumbing after a lengthy battle against cancer. Each in his way contributed greatly to the success of Channel Four: but I have not seen Brittan’s role mentioned in any of the extensive obituaries published so far. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData