Ten years ago, I was editor of Newsnight and we were raking over the implications of the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet empire was dead, the Soviet Union dying, but we had no idea of how the decade would emerge.
We may yet look back on the 1990s with some bewilderment – at its optimism, its hedonism, its light-hearted sense of individual freedom, its easy belief in a world where actions need have few consequences. It was the decade where a confident popular culture disconnected from the world of public affairs, where politics became another minority hobby. And even politics was fuelled by this optimism: Clinton in Belfast; Arafat and Rabin at the White House; Yeltsin apparently the head of just another consumer society at the G8. Even Bosnia was eventually controlled. History was over; things were now OK.
But the shadows have long been drawing in on this decade. For some time now – in Northern Ireland, Russia, the Balkans and the Middle East – the lamps have been going out. Last year, the collapse of the telecommunications boom proved that actions do have consequences. On 11 September, in New York, the Nineties finally came to an end.
The 1990s may come to be seen as our 1920s, a roaring decade, but also an in-between time. It was also the time when the culture of television, and of public service television in particular, faced the confusions and contradictions of unprecedented social and technological change. In a world where a new generation, freed from the Cold War, saw increasingly little connection between public affairs and the private rewards of their personal worlds, it became a commonplace that public service TV was a heritage curio. The energies of new technology and global consumer entertainment, exemplified by the digital entrepreneurs, were the inevitable enterprising future.
The new media pioneers and the Cassandras alike made the same assumption: that public service values were an anachronism to the new world of individual consumer choice.
This was, I believe, profoundly wrong. The culture of public service broadcasting in Britain has broadly worked because it has been competitive. Public service has not been allowed to become a BBC brand. The diversity of economic models, from the BBC's licence fee to C4's public-private model, to ITV and Channel 5's shareholder basis, have created a diversity of imagination and ideas. The digital world revolutionises distribution; it will offer new ways of viewers and programme makers interacting.
But the imaginative drive, uncompromising independence of mind and social purpose that characterises our most noticed programmes still invariably comes from the public service channels. And the catalyst to this creative market has been those channels that have notions of value wider than mere shareholder value.
This is why The Independent's recent quixotic editorial, arguing for the privatisation of Channel 4 in order to defend its remit, was so dangerously ill informed. The fundamental difference between public service value and shareholder value is in their different purposes. Purely commercial channels are there to maximise their return – and great programmes do result – but every slot is required to maximise its profit. By contrast, C4, reliant on the advertising market for its income yet freed from shareholders, is there to repay its dividend to the viewer via its independent-minded difference. A purely commercial channel sees its licence commitments as a ceiling, its cost of entry into the market; C4's remit is bound up in its ambition.
Of course we make popular programmes, and we purchase the best US series to help drive our revenues, but this is what pays for the programmes you would not see otherwise. C4 could probably formally fulfil its remit obligations if privatised, but it would do so at the least possible cost. Would it spend 5 per cent of its budget on news? (ITV is trying to slash its news costs at the same time as it rightly takes credit for ITN's coverage of the past weeks). Would C4 fulfil its religious and multicultural quota of broadcast hours by spending £1m covering the Kumbh Mela live, or £500,000 on a series with the ambition of testing God?
Some who criticise C4 do so because they believe it has taken the values of the Nineties generation too much to heart. Sir Jeremy Isaacs, whose buccaneering combination of libertarianism and cultural self confidence defined C4's original purpose, has warned against a channel driven by marketing and an obsession with youth. If it were, then he would be right.
However, C4's branding stands out as a reflection of the creative energy that has always driven it; in that sense, the brandmaster is really Jeremy Isaacs himself. He conceived of the need for a turbulent independent voice, coming always from the outside, but confident enough to stake its claim at the centre of broadcasting, influential far beyond its audience numbers. C4 launched into the most ideological decade of recent history. It had to reconceive itself in the antithetical culture of the 1990s. But then, as now, a pugnacious non-conformism, sometimes passionate, sometimes purely enjoyable, has characterised its programmes.
Television cannot be reactionary, and public service television consigns itself to irrelevance if it chooses to stand back with a puritan high mindedness from the culture and society that feeds it. C4's curiosity, candour and exploration of the contemporary define its difference. But this difference should be at one with a core belief that, in a democracy, people are prepared to be serious and responsible when they have to be, to engage in the issues and moments that shape our world, but otherwise should be free to enjoy their lives.
Public service television has been the greatest influence of democratic accountability in our lifetime. It has welded the wit and relaxation of entertainment to the interrogative and imaginative individualism that is the best guarantor of all our freedoms. In the end, the future of public service broadcasting is a test of whether our social cohesion in a democracy can survive in a global market economy, especially as that market wakes up to a world slipping into ever darker uncertainty.
We are 10 years on from the end of the Cold War. Ten years after 1919 came the Great Crash; 10 years after that 1939. The next decade may show up the feckless innocence, some might say arrogance, of the past 10 years. It may look back on them with affection and regret. But, whatever it brings, we will need the public-service values of television as much as ever.Reuse content