Lots of `Mail' readers, who would otherwise feel uncomfortable about staying up late to for a lesbian love story, are given the perfect excuse to tune in - just to see what all the fuss is about, you understand...

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The Independent Online
Channel 4 will celebrate its 15th anniversary this month by doing what it has done for the last decade and a half - revel in controversy. Prominent among a raft of retrospective programmes will be Storm Over 4, which will celebrate the C4 shows which created the biggest public brouhahas.

I look forward to watching it, but I suspect it will tell us less than half the truth about how Channel 4 regularly becomes embroiled - or rather embroils itself - in controversy.

The look-back will, according to the advance publicity, claim that many of the headlines were caused "when a reporter got overexcited about a programme he had not seen and then wrote a story which usually began: `MPs tonight called for a ban on the Channel 4 programme which...' ''

That has happened more than a few times in the last 15 years. But Channel 4 would be performing a real public service if it lifted the lid on its strange symbiotic relationship with the chief instigator of the controversies that have engulfed it - the Daily Mail.

What, Britain's most radical and innovative minority channel somehow colludes with the voice of Middle England, the paper which dubbed its former chief executive Michael Grade "Britain's Pornographer-in-Chief" after he polluted our screens with Dyke TV and gave the green light to The Red Light Zone?

Oh yes, C4's press officers put a lot of time and effort into cultivating outrage in Kensington, for there is no surer way of generating maximum publicity for a forthcoming Channel 4 offering than getting the Daily Mail's dander up.

When they pull off that trick, the PR people don't only hook a fair number of Mail readers, the controversy also soon spills over into other papers, which merrily seize on the controversy to fill a few column inches.

This is not to suggest that senior editorial executives at Associated Newsapers are not frequently genuinely affronted by what Channel 4 transmits. The Mail's editor, Paul Dacre, does apparently believe that decent people like himself are under siege by Sodomites and other moral reprobates and that C4 is on the side of the devil.

Nor is it to say that Michael Grade wasn't, on occasions, genuinely exercised by the Mail's coverage of him. In his nine years at the helm of Channel 4 there were times when he doubtless thought that the Mail had gone over the top.

Still, it is an incontrovertible fact that the Daily Mail and Channel 4 have developed a close mutual dependency. You cease to doubt this when you learn that Grade's forthcoming memoirs will be serialised in the Mail.

Some po-faced broadsheet people were privately disgusted when they discovered this. The innocent little souls didn't realise the cosy little game that these two media organisations have played together almost since the moment "Channel Bore" came on air.

The soap opera Brookside has served up a steady source of banner headlines. Initially, it was excessive swearing and socialist soliloquies which aroused the Mail's ire. Latterly, lesbian kissing and sibling incest have done the trick.

Channel 4 is not alone in playing this game. The BBC repeatedly tries to break into the sport, but the corporation's mandarins get jumpy if even a minority of the licence-payers are being antagonised.

The ITV stations have no such hang-ups, but most of them just aren't as good as Channel 4 at shamelessly courting press outrage. LWT deserves special applause for managing to stir up a nationwide controversy about Lovebites. This was an immense achievement because the series was essentially an education programme about teenage sex screened on Saturday at lunchtime. Moreover, it was only screened in London. The rest of the UK (ie, over 80 per cent of the population) couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Mind you, we should never underestimate the metropolitan parochialism of London newsdesks.

But let us briefly return to Channel 4 and the Mail. Is this abusive relationship doing anyone any harm? Obviously it is benefiting the Mail, which gets a steady stream of front-page splashes and page leads from the "Pornographer-in-Chief" and his pals. And nicely engineered controversies clearly boost Channel 4's profile in the fast-fragmenting multi-channel landscape. The Mail allows Channel 4 to reach the parts it would otherwise not reach.

Lots of Mail readers, who would otherwise feel uncomfortable about about staying up late for a lesbian love story, are given a perfect excuse to tune in - just to see what all the fuss is about, you understand.

So, in a sense, everyone's a winner? No, not quite. The danger for Channel 4's commissioning editors is that they start to believe that they have fulfilled their remit to be daring and innovative when they have got the Daily Mail's dander up. That in itself should never be regarded as a yardstick of success or failure, but I suspect it has been at times, especially in the last few years of the Grade era.

We must certainly hope that Channel 4's new chief executive, Michael Jackson, demands a schedule that is daring in a far wider sense. I think he will, although I was rather disturbed to hear recently that he has been charming reporters on the Mail by telling them that the paper his parents in Macclesfield buy is ... the Daily Mail.

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