Is Channel 4's chief executive really 'unfit to run a bath', let alone a TV channel? Rhys Williams ponders
An adult channel was launched on cable television last week. The company offered me a free trial. No, I said, there's been plenty on normal television to keep me amused thank you very much. If I wanted to gawp at women's breasts, then I already had Channel 4's Red Light Zone. And if it was a penis I was after, then I could have watched Mr Powertool on The Word, on Channel 4.

And the sin could go on - a bit of dope smoking on Pot Night, blasphemy in The Last Temptation of Christ and more nudity with Eurotrash. It's all been there ... on Channel 4.

So how surprising was it that yesterday, Paul Johnson, the multi-directional Exocet and would-be television watchdog, accused the station's chief executive Michael Grade of turning into "Britain's Pornographer-in-Chief"?

Grade's station, Johnson wrote in the Daily Mail, was polluting and degrading the nation's television screens, while the man himself had "done more than any other individual to lower the standards of British TV". Grade, he concluded, was morally and intellectually unfit to run a bath, "let alone a TV channel enjoying privileged access to the airwaves and watched by millions".

Johnson also registered concern that the Channel 4 boss smoked a cigar.

What prompted the outburst was a formal warning to Channel 4 by the Independent Television Commission about a series of vulgar stunts on The Word. The commission was deeply unimpressed with items in which a Santa Claus vomited on somebody, an elderly gent's colostomy bag was emptied on someone else and Mr Powertool pulled a woman in a chair across the studio with rope attached to his penis. Interestingly, the statutory guardian of taste and decency, the Broadcasting Standards Council, chose not to uphold complaints about these items.

Johnson and like-minded critics have in the past expressed outrage at the Red Light Zone, a season of programmes dealing with the sex industry and its players; Pot Night, a themed evening tackling the legalisation of cannabis; and an episode of Without Walls, which suggested that perhaps Mother Teresa was not such a saint after all. Controversy for the sake of ratings, they argued.

Shocking stuff? Well, no, not really. Michael Grade could reasonably contend that sex is a fairly commonplace feature of everyday life (perhaps not every day), and that the Red Light Zone was well signposted and consigned to a late-night slot, making it difficult to stumble upon. Discussing pot can hardly be considered going out on a broadcasting limb, given that at least one of the main political parties is committed to its decriminalisation.

It would, of course, be churlish to suggest that Johnson and Offended of Middle England spend more time reading and believing apocalyptic Daily Mail headlines and not enough actually watching Channel 4, but it may have escaped their notice that the station was jointly named The Most Socially Responsible Broadcaster in the World earlier this year.

Audience levels are solid at around 11.6 per cent of total viewing, way ahead of the 8.3 per cent share the station achieved in 1987, the year Grade took over. The increase has less to do with cheap sensationalism (none of the programmes cited by Johnson has been a runaway ratings success) than good-quality programming. And, if the channel is pushing the bounds of acceptability, it is not showing in complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Council, down by a third last year, or in the formal interventions by Independent Television Commission, which fell by a third.

In reality, Johnson's attack is not about Channel 4, but about Michael Grade the person. He is the consummate television professional with an apparently unshakeable belief in himself and what he produces. He genuinely believes he is in better touch with his audiences than the broadcasting regulators, and lets them know about it - behaviour that does not always win friends. Of course, the cigar and the dodgy braces don't help.