Channel 4 boss Alex Mahon has said the government’s new plans for the “It’s a Sin” broadcaster spans “a decade or more” but that the spectre of privatization can never fully disappear for a public organization.
Speaking to Variety a mere hour after the U.K. government formally called off its plans to sell Channel 4, Mahon said: “This is a plan that takes us through a decade or more because there are big commitments here, particular around funding in the nations and regions and making a difference with young people and bringing people into the industry. Those aren’t things you can achieve in 10 minutes; we need time to achieve them.”
Mahon noted that Rishi Sunak’s government is “thinking about this for the medium to long term,” but that “they’ll always have the right as government, or as governments change, to look at these things — as they should have.”
When asked whether the government has any protections in place for Channel 4’s future, Mahon said: “They’re being really clear that they expect Channel 4 to succeed and prosper for the next 40 years, but I don’t think anything is really protected, is it? That’s the reality of being a public organization and there are pros and cons of that. But I fully support the right of government to look at public assets over time.”
The government’s plans for Channel 4 — which will be formalized in a forthcoming Media Bill (a timeline for which is still unclear) — will allow the broadcaster to make and own some of its content, and will also institute a new statutory duty on its board members to protect its long-term financial sustainability. Channel 4 has also committed to increasing roles outside London and providing more opportunities for people from across the U.K. to gain experience in the sector as part of this package.
Making and owning its own content, in particular, will be a major shift for Channel 4, which has to date outsourced all of its programming to the British production sector. This measure has already received pushback from producers’ trade body Pact, which said in a terse statement on Thursday that Channel 4’s in-house production “will be a blow to the sector, who are already facing increased production and business-related costs.”
Mahon confirmed to Variety, however, that there are still “no answers” to any questions about how much of Channel 4’s output will be produced in-house, or what specific changes will be made to the broadcaster’s independent production quota.
“It requires legislation, and for the Media Bill to go through,” explained Mahon.
“The government will now go through and engage with the production sector. We have been really clear we think it’s incredibly important to engage properly with the sector, and ensure that, should they put legislation through, this is done in a way that doesn’t damage the sector. We feel Channel 4’s success is absolutely synonymous with the success of the U.K. indie sector, so we’re going to wait to see what the proposals are coming out of that, and then we’ll react to that.”
The health and prosperity of the U.K. indie community, however, is “absolutely core” to the success of Channel 4, underlined Mahon. “We need to ensure that as we work with [the government], it’s done in a way that doesn’t cause a negative impact on the sector,” she said.
Reflecting on the entire privatization ordeal — which has spanned the better part of two years including the public consultation — the CEO, who took over from David Abraham in October 2017, said her team “took the process really seriously from the outset.” But rather than launching its own anti-privatization campaign from the get-go, Channel 4 allowed the industry to speak on its behalf before wading in with public responses. Mahon herself never attacked the government nor former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, a key architect of the privatization plan, but rather presented her reasons as to why Channel 4 deserved to remain publicly owned at various public engagements.
“I wanted to make sure that, in our responses, we weren’t emotional, we weren’t angry, we didn’t take personal positions. We focused on data, because then you can be really clear and give fact-based, honest answers,” said Mahon.
The executive, who says her holiday period was derailed by negotiations with the DCMS (“There’s been no turkey stuffing!” she quipped), thanked her staff for their support and “relentless” positivity.
“They’ve been very, very supportive, as has the industry. But it’s fair to say it’s a relief to everyone today to feel that we’ve got here,” said Mahon. “The government have come up with a good package of measures, and we can get on with our day to day.”