David Behrens: Channel 4 move is great news... but let’s keep Leeds switch in perspective

Channel 4's main headquarters on Horseferry Road, London.
Channel 4's main headquarters on Horseferry Road, London.
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THE migration by Channel 4 of some of its staff to Leeds in the coming years is good news for the region, no doubt about that. But don’t let’s get carried away.

The channel announced on Wednesday that the city’s bid to host a new “national HQ” had beaten those of Manchester and Birmingham. A raft of others, including one from Sheffield, had fallen along the way.

This should be seen in its proper perspective.

The new base will not be a Northern Pinewood, nor an operation on the scale of the one Yorkshire Television maintained in the city between 1968 and the 1990s. It won’t even be the channel’s actual headquarters, which will remain in London.

What it will be is a suite of offices, most likely in or near the city centre. Some 200 of the 800 staff will move there. Another 100 will be deployed to “creative hubs” in Bristol and 
Glasgow.

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The question of which staff they will be, and how much power they will have to make decisions and spend money, has yet to be resolved.

As Chris Curtis, editor of the trade magazine, Broadcast, put it: “They have talked about moving creative decision-makers out of London but there’s a sense that the big creative decisions will still be taken in the London HQ.”

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This is a view fuelled by the channel’s earlier, very public remonstrance at having to move at all. The end result is a typically British compromise between the Government’s wish for it to increase its presence outside London – which it made part of its election manifesto last year – and the channel’s argument that a substantial relocation would cause it “significant problems”.

Yet there are unquestionably many positives to be drawn from this week’s outcome.

The first is that the new office is not to be located across the Pennines – a move that would have created an unacceptable London-Manchester axis which would have sucked creative talent away from nearby centres. Manchester is already the home of the nation’s biggest provincial television studio; it didn’t need another broadcaster there.

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There is also the opportunity, if it is taken, to broaden the pool of talent that the industry recruits. Young, working-class people in Yorkshire, disinclined to chase two-month researchers’ contracts in London that cost more in rent than they pay in salary, might now be able to build a career on their doorstep. That in turn may reduce the industry’s dependence on middle-class white executives – although Channel 4 is by no means the worst offender.

But the most significant potential benefit is a better representation of our region on screen. This does not mean that more programmes will be made here, for that has never been the way Channel 4 has worked. But we should reasonably expect to see a different sensitivity brought to bear.

A glance at one of the channel’s most successful Northern programmes of recent years, the reality series Educating Yorkshire, betrays some insight into its current mindset. The programme itself was sympathetic and constructive, but the title was neither. It smacked of having been dreamed up in London by a sneering smart-aleck who assumed the words Educating and Yorkshire to be a contradiction in terms. I don’t think that decision would have been taken by a commissioner who lived and worked in the county.

My own experience of pitching programmes to Channel 4 in the 1990s was of taking the train to London, waiting in the lobby at Horseferry Road and being shown into the office of a commissioner. There would be a half-hour discussion and I’d get on the train back. If a production was green lit, it would be made wherever I was based,

Transplanted to Leeds, that process would see visitors beating the same, well-trodden patch between the station and the new office – but few would see anything else of Yorkshire. It would be a windfall for the local restaurants – good luck getting a table at any of them in the future – but some way short of the “transformational” and “game-changing” hyperbole used by the politicians.

So while we should welcome the presence of an influential national brand to our region, we should not mistake it for a magic pill that will transform our region’s economy.

We’re talking about reality TV here, not real life.