At the end of this month, just shy of its 36th birthday, Channel 4 will decide where to move its head office. In the world of media this is a moment of considerable significance. But the potential impact of the board’s verdict is much greater. Here’s why the relocation of this particular broadcaster matters far beyond the cacophonous republic of programme makers, digital entrepreneurs and aspiring film directors.
The bidding process, overseen by Jonathan Allan, Channel 4’s chief commercial officer, has yielded a shortlist of three: Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. Each of the cities has a decent claim to the prize – but it should unquestionably go to Birmingham, which has a hunger for the regeneration its presence would galvanise, and a civic trajectory that is perfect for Channel 4. Preparations for the Commonwealth Games in 2022 and the prospective arrival of the HS2 link have enlivened the UK’s “second city”, which was once known as the “workshop of the world”. Today, unemployment is falling across the West Midlands but it is still too high: the jobs that a “hero brand” such as Channel 4 would generate are badly needed.
But the city does not present itself as a hard-luck case. Quite the opposite: the municipal spirit that animated Joseph Chamberlain is surging once more. Birmingham’s digital infrastructure, early rollout of 5G mobile capacity, and the tech hub in nearby Leamington Spa are seriously impressive. And while it is true that MediaCityUK in Salford has been home to a chunk of the BBC machine since 2011, it is also certain that Channel 4 would be overshadowed in that setting. In Birmingham, it would be the unchallenged media-mafia family, a potent force in the life of the city from day one.
True, Leeds claims to offer the diversity that Channel 4 is seeking in its new home. But it can scarcely compete with the unparalleled pluralism of Birmingham – whose population embraces more than 187 nationalities – or, crucially, the age demographic of the Midlands city. More than 40% of Birmingham’s citizens are 25 and under. And this – above all else – is what makes the city the ideal new location for this, of all broadcasters. As it approaches its fifth decade (and I’m old enough to remember its launch night), Channel 4 – facing competition from Amazon Prime, Netflix and YouTube – badly needs access to the pulsing marrow of youth. Even in the world of virtual business, the geographical setting of the modern corporation’s HQ still matters tremendously. If Channel 4 moves to Birmingham, it will be living amid its target audience.
Soaring above the bid decision itself, there is an even greater principle at stake. For as long as I can remember, senior ministers have been paying lip service to the argument that London’s grip on the life of the nation is seriously excessive, and that more attention must be paid to what is variously called “decentralisation”, “devolution”, “regionalisation” and much else besides.
Not all of it is verbiage. There are now devolved assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Stormont (the last suspended, it is true, since January 2017); six metro mayors, most notably Andy Street in Birmingham and Andy Burnham in Manchester, and the “northern powerhouse” established by George Osborne. Still, the gravitational pull of London remains overwhelming. Even when power is parcelled out from Whitehall, its recipients are left in no doubt that the real action remains in the Big Smoke. The BBC’s presence in Salford is important. But, come on: the big decisions are taken in New Broadcasting House in London, and everyone knows it.
What makes Channel 4’s relocation so remarkable is that it absolutely does not fit this pattern. For once, a blue-chip national institution with global reach really will be leaving London. And – though the move involves only a single company and 300 employees – its ripple effect is potentially immense. For the first time, a front-rank media organisation at the heart of the nation’s cultural life will be unambiguously based outside the capital. I can already sense the panic in the clubs and bars of Soho. And you know what? It’ll be good for them (which, if you work for a national newspaper in London, is also to say: for us). I have lived in the capital all my life, and make no apology for loving it. But it would be idle to deny that its overwhelming dominance in almost every sector has frayed the social cohesion and economic balance of this country.
As far as the rest of the UK was concerned, it was London that came up with the double whammy of the crash and austerity – and everyone else who picked up the tab. It is impossible to understand the 2016 vote for Brexit without acknowledging the strength of this resentment: the feeling that an ill-defined “metropolitan elite” has long treated the rest of the UK as an annex to its glorious Renaissance city-state, and as the lucky beneficiary of its munificence.
The best way to deal with such broiling sentiments is not to argue but to take action. The relocation of Channel 4 to Birmingham would show that London is ready to devolve human capital and cultural muscle, as well as to subsidise local organisations kept on a tight leash from the centre; that it is truly prepared, at last, to let go of some of its greatest assets. Brexit has inspired an often frantic debate about what sort of country we want to be. Let’s be in no doubt that this is part of the answer.
Source: The Guardian