We are not a Left-wing GB News, insists Channel 4 boss

Alex Mahon - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph
Alex Mahon – Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph

The chief executive of Channel 4 has denied it is a Left-wing version of GB News and defended its often-critical coverage of the Government after winning a battle against privatisation. Alex Mahon insisted the station did not give too much credence to Left-wing voices, adding that there were a “wide range of views in the newsroom”.

She pointed to a show by Andrew Neil and a documentary series about Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, as evidence of the broadcaster’s breadth, despite the fact that plans for the latter were cancelled at the end of last year. Mahon also weighed in behind the BBC’s efforts to defend the licence fee, calling it a “wonderful public-service institution” and saying there was no better way to fund it.

Asked if the company was a Left-wing version of GB News, she said: “No, I think we’re politically impartial, down the line, a really investigative news [broadcaster], and that’s what we should be.”

The comments come after Channel 4 emerged victorious in a long-running row over privatisation. The Government this week ditched plans to sell the broadcaster, in a reversal of the privatisation policy pursued by Boris Johnson. Michelle Donelan, the Culture Secretary, described Channel 4 as a “British success story and a lynchpin of our booming creative industries”.

The verdict marks an end to months of wrangling over the future of the company, which is publicly owned but self-funded through advertising. Mahon said the Government had reached a “sensible decision” but insisted the U-turn would not force the channel to moderate its coverage.

She added: “Channel 4 is very editorially independent and there has been no suggestion that that should change and there’s been no discussion of people wanting to get involved editorially.”

Former Channel 4 News host Jon Snow, pictured before his final broadcast in 2021 - Hayley Barlow/Channel 4 News
Former Channel 4 News host Jon Snow, pictured before his final broadcast in 2021 – Hayley Barlow/Channel 4 News

Mahon is, by her own admission, exhausted. In little over five years as chief executive, the 49-year-old has successfully fought off two privatisation attempts, as well as grappling with the fallout from the pandemic and a shift to streaming that has increasingly dragged Channel 4’s key youth audience away from TV.

“It’s the second time on my watch, which I don’t think is related to me,” she says with a wry smile. The media boss admits it is the Government’s prerogative to examine the ownership structure and strategy of publicly-owned assets, but adds: “Sometimes I have said, ‘Perhaps they could be examined a little less frequently.’”

The process has been made all the more onerous by turmoil in Government, with two new prime ministers entering Downing Street since then culture minister John Whittingdale spoke about privatisation plans at the Tory party conference in 2020. But as chief executive of Channel 4, Mahon has been no stranger to sparring with the Conservative government, and under her tenure the broadcaster has come under fire repeatedly for its perceived Left-wing leanings.

In 2019, Channel 4 replaced Boris Johnson with a melting ice sculpture after the Prime Minister declined to turn up for a debate about climate change.The following month, the channel’s studio audience booed when exit polls predicted a Conservative victory in the general election.

The broadcaster has also struggled to keep the political views of its star presenters under wraps – a challenge shared by the BBC. In 2017, then Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow faced a backlash over claims he shouted, “F— the Tories” while dancing with a group of students at Glastonbury Festival.

More recently, the company was forced to take another Channel 4 News presenter, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, off air temporarily after he was caught calling Tory minister Steve Baker a “c—”.

Mahon brushes off this latest incident, saying the comments were made off-air and so did not constitute a breach of any Ofcom regulations.

“We made a very, very clear decision on that,” she says. “He apologised immediately and was clear that it was [said] in the heat of the moment and a sanction was put in place. That’s what we should do in that kind of situation. I think we did the right thing, it was a pretty heated time in politics wasn’t it?”

But for Mahon, who took the top job in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s inauguration, there has been little escape from heated politics. The Royal family’s trials and tribulations have also played an important role in Channel 4’s output, with the station last month releasing a controversial musical satire of Prince Andrew’s life. Mahon jokes that Prince Harry’s bombshell autobiography Spare could also prove to be fertile ground, adding: “I feel there could be many, many musical numbers coming from that book.”

High-profile presenter blunders aside, however, Mahon hits back against claims that Channel 4 is predominantly staffed by Left-wingers. There is a “wide range [of views] in the newsroom”, she says, and the output is “constantly evolving”.

“Sometimes people forget that we have that really wide range of shows that you might not expect,” Mahon adds. The most obvious of these is The Andrew Neil Show, which returned for a second series last September. The former Chancellor, George Osborne, appears as a regular guest alongside Neil, the chairman of the Spectator and briefly a star presenter on GB News.

But Mahon struggles to find further examples to illustrate her point, save for the cancelled programme about Paul Dacre and the documentary series 60 Days with the Gypsies, which was broadcast last February.

“It’s always important to listen and continue to ask ourselves: ‘Are we covering all issues with a wide range of perspectives?’” says Mahon. She insists it is important to listen to negative feedback, adding: “Don’t worry, Channel 4 gets plenty of criticism.”

Still, Mahon stands by Channel 4’s role as the edgy challenger to the establishment. “We are here to be a challenging broadcaster, and it’s in our remit to challenge the status quo,” she says

Andrew Neil has been hired to host a political interview programme - Channel 4
Andrew Neil has been hired to host a political interview programme – Channel 4

Mahon was born in London to an American father and English mother, before moving to Edinburgh at the age of five with her mother and Scottish step-father. It is an upbringing she has previously described as “non-standard”.

After studying at Imperial College London and completing a PhD in medical physics, she made an unorthodox move into the creative industries. Her career in TV began at European broadcaster RTL. She rose to chief executive of production giant Shine and led Foundry, the special-effects business behind films including Avatar, before becoming Channel 4’s first female chief executive in 2017. Now, with another thwarted attempt at privatisation behind her, Mahon is considering the next move for Channel 4.

A key part of this will be deepening the broadcaster’s push into the regions. Channel 4 has already opened a regional headquarters in Leeds and, under the new terms set out by the Government, the broadcaster will double the number of people it employs outside London from 300 to 600 by 2025. As well as creating jobs in Leeds, it is also establishing posts in Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol. And it is doubling its annual investment in 4Skills – its paid training and placement programme for young people – from £5m to £10m.

For Mahon, this regional push will be one of the defining features of Channel 4 in the years to come. She wants the station to be more representative on screen, but says this does not only mean traditional aspects of diversity such as race, gender and disability.

“I think now, for us, representation on screen is also [about] where shows come from – where they’re set, where they’re made, who the people are that are involved in them,” she says. She points to the fact that Channel 4 News is broadcast from Leeds several times a week, making it the only national news programme based outside the capital.

This policy also extends to Channel 4’s entertainment output, though Mahon says programmes will “not be parochial, not just tartan tours of Scotland, but shows that are really rooted in communities”.

According to figures from accountancy firm EY, commissioned by Channel 4, the broadcaster created more than 1,500 additional jobs in the nations and regions from 2019 to the end of 2021. However, the new emphasis on the regions has raised questions over the future of Channel 4’s headquarters, located just a stone’s throw from the House of Commons in Westminster. In its alternative proposal to privatisation, released last year, the company suggested that if it doubled its staff numbers outside London it could sell the Richard Rogers-designed building, which has been valued at £100m.

Mahon says this alternative proposal has been “put to bed” and is adamant that there are no plans for Channel 4 to sell or move from its London base. However, as the broadcaster shifts more staff out of the capital, there will be growing speculation over whether the vast building will still be required.

Alex Mahon and George Clooney attend the London premiere of Channel 4 show Catch-22 in 2019 - David M. Benett/Getty
Alex Mahon and George Clooney attend the London premiere of Channel 4 show Catch-22 in 2019 – David M. Benett/Getty

Channel 4’s victory in the privatisation battle can be put down in no small part to a successful Whitehall lobbying campaign spearheaded by Mahon. The broadcaster drummed up support from across the independent TV production industry, which relies heavily on commissions from the channel, and warned that a sale would cause a £3bn hit to the economy and push dozens of production firms to collapse.

These concerns were accompanied by vocal campaigns from big-name stars including Armando Iannucci, the writer behind The Thick of It and The Death of Stalin, and Russell T Davies, the Doctor Who showrunner and It’s A Sin creator.

Ultimately, the campaign proved effective. The Government received more than 56,000 responses to its consultation on privatisation, with roughly 96 per cent of those who replied coming out against the move.

This united front, however, may be starting to crack. While privatisation has been scrapped, ministers have put forward a number of measures aimed at promoting the broadcaster’s commercial flexibility. Key to this is the relaxation of Channel 4’s so-called “publisher-broadcaster” status, which blocks it from producing its own programmes. The restriction, a key element of the broadcaster’s remit when it was set up under Margaret Thatcher in 1982, is designed to pump money into the UK’s independent production sector.

Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said that removing the rule would allow Channel 4 to diversify its revenue, while also paving the way for the channel to create its own shows and retain the lucrative intellectual property rights.

The Government said measures will be taken to safeguard the company’s role in driving investment in the UK, including raising the quota on programmes from truly independent producers above its current level of 25 per cent and potentially introducing specific protections for smaller production companies. But independent producers fear their future could still be under threat from the creation of a new Channel 4 production studio.

Jane Muirhead, chairman of the producers’ trade body, Pact, has said the plans could lead to the “same damaging outcome” as privatisation if proper protections were not put in place.

John McVay, the body’s chief executive, warned Channel 4 could cut commissions from independent producers to make space in the schedule for its own programmes. This would be unlikely to affect the channel’s big-hitters, such as Gogglebox and The Great British Bake Off, but would, instead, hurt smaller, less profitable shows on the margins.

Both the Government and Channel 4 have said they will work closely with the industry to ensure the broadcaster’s role in funding producers is safeguarded. An industry source insisted Channel 4 had never asked nor lobbied for a relaxation of the “publisher-broadcaster” status, while questions have been raised over whether in-house production would even be viable.

McVay says production itself “isn’t a panacea” given the high costs associated with setting up studios and securing talent, as well as the low success rate of producing a highly-profitable show. Still, the prospect of lost investment has put Pact on high alert, paving the way for potential clashes between the industry body and the broadcaster and opening up a new battleground for Mahon.

Nadine Dorries had planned to privatise Channel 4 - TOLGA AKMEN/Shutterstock
Nadine Dorries had planned to privatise Channel 4 – TOLGA AKMEN/Shutterstock

Fundamentally, however, Channel 4’s problems run deeper. When Boris Johnson and then-Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries launched the latest privatisation attempt, they cited the challenge for traditional broadcasters as more and more audiences turn to streaming services and advertising revenues decline.

During his leadership campaign, Rishi Sunak also took this approach, saying a sale was needed to help Channel 4 survive tough competition from streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Figures released last year by media regulator Ofcom showed that young Britons are more likely to scroll through TikTok than tune into traditional TV, while YouTube, TikTok and Instagram are all more popular news sources than TV among teenagers.

Mahon acknowledges these challenges, saying Channel 4 must do more to reach audiences in the social media age. “I think the bigger question is ‘How do you think about distributing your content in a way that people can really easily find it?’ because it’s still too complicated for consumers,” she says. “We need to make it easier and we need to be distributed in more places. We’ve tried to be, in the last few years, platform agnostic, so you can find our long-form shows on YouTube, we put stuff on TikTok. But continuing to do that is really key, because I think that’s soon going to be a really big problem.”

Within traditional TV, too, Channel 4 is facing tough new competition. GB News, which launched in 2021, has brought US-style opinionated news programming to Britain, with the aim of drawing viewers away from the traditional players.

Mahon says there is “plenty of room in the market for GB News”, adding that its launch has been positive for the industry. Meanwhile, commercial rival ITV has ramped up its digital efforts with the launch of a new streaming service, ITVX, as it tries to stem the flow of audiences to deep-pocketed US players such as Netflix and Disney.

Mahon, however, is dismissive of ITV’s belated digital push. “We’ve been overhauling and revamping and focused on streaming for the last four years, so it’s good that ITVX are now doing that, but we are still the UK’s biggest free streaming service,” she says.

On the BBC, she is more supportive. The Channel 4 chief is sceptical of calls for the licence fee to be abolished, saying: “Tell me a better system. If someone comes up with a better system to fund such a wonderful public service institution, I’m sure we’d all love to hear about it.”

She adds: “I do think it’s incredibly important that the BBC stays as a strong public service broadcaster.”

But while the wider TV industry continues to grapple with the inexorable rise of streaming, Mahon knows that the key to success will always be making popular programmes that serve Channel 4’s audience. “Focusing on young people and focusing on people whose voices aren’t normally heard are probably more important than they’ve ever been in a social media and digital dominated age,” she says.

With the privatisation battle behind her, Mahon will now be able to focus on this strategy and, despite the fatigue, she is relieved that the matter has been put to bed so early in the year.

After more than five tumultuous years, however, might the media executive be ready to move on? “No, there’s too much to do,” she replies.

It remains to be seen whether those efforts will be enough to convince the station’s Right-wing critics that it really does embrace a wide range of views.

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