‘Everyone always wants to talk to me about Channel 4’s future – privatisation is a big decision’

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Mahon, a 48-year-old mother of four with a PhD in physics, insists her role in the process is “merely to advise on the benefits and the risks… focus on facts, data and evidence”.

She adds: “It’s quite important that we look at that because privatisation is a big decision.” 

The facts about Channel 4’s unique circumstances are not always readily to hand for outsiders, even the culture secretary. At her select committee debut in the role last week, Dorries falsely suggested that the fact that the broadcaster was “in receipt of public money” was relevant to whether it should be privatised.

Channel 4 is instead entirely commercially funded by advertising sales, topped up by its occasional film production hits such as The Personal History Of David Copperfield, directed by The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci.

Mahon, who received a £991,000 pay package last year, declines to join in the chorus of mockery that met Dorries performance online, noting that the record was quickly corrected.

With such diplomacy the chief executive may believe she can make an ally of the new culture secretary, who has put the brakes on a privatisation process that under her predecessor Oliver Dowden was hurtling in only one direction. September’s reshuffle, in which every minister in the Department for Culture was sacked in what was widely interpreted as a punishment for the failure to install the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as chairman of Ofcom, could yet lead to Channel 4 remaining in public hands.

Mahon’s hopes are pinned on Channel 4’s potential role in the Prime Minister’s faltering “levelling up” agenda, and the continuing commitment to it of a Johnson loyalist such as Dorries.

“A lot of what we do for the UK chimes with the things the Government is trying to do,” says Mahon. “We’re a flagbearer for levelling up and investing outside of London.”

The last time privatisation of Channel 4 was considered, under David Cameron in 2016, the debate ended with a new remit for the broadcaster to buy more of its programming from production companies outside London. It also agreed to establish new offices in Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol.

Mahon spent much of her first year in charge finalising and implementing the plans, which included moving hundreds of jobs away from Channel 4’s landmark Westminster headquarters.

“I said we’d get to 50 per cent of our spending being outside London by 2023, but we’ll get there this year,” she says. “When we started this, we had 30 roles outside London. Now we’ve got 400.

“A lot of Conservatives believe that Channel 4 does an amazing thing for the UK. As I spend a lot of time talking to Conservatives, a lot of them believe that what we are doing in the nations and regions is spectacular.

“So I’m ahead of plan by two years. But I’m still not as far as I could be.”

Now her advice to Dorries, who grew up on a Liverpool council estate and is a vocal campaigner for social mobility and regional investment, is that privatisation would put this at risk. Mahon, who prior to Channel 4, led part of the Murdoch family’s television production business and a private equity-backed software provider, says if she was running a privately owned Channel 4, the axe would swing.

“I know the areas that I would reduce,” she says. “It would be some of the unprofitable activities such as the skills training we do for the industry. I’d probably focus more on buying from larger rather than smaller production companies. So that would harm a lot of what we’ve done in the nations and regions.”

Mahon’s own background is unusual for the upper ranks of British television. As well as an advanced hard science degree from Imperial College, rather than the Oxbridge humanities BAs that tend to dominate, she spent some of her Edinburgh school days at a state comprehensive. It’s not the sort of tough backdrop that underpins Dorries’ novelistic oeuvre, but Mahon is a longstanding advocate of more opportunities for talented people without connections.

“I think it’s the right thing to do for our economy here and for our industry,” she says, “because you know as well as I do, it’s tough to get into this industry [if you’re] not from a particular type of background.” Her own success has helped to buy homes in Little Venice and the Cotswolds.

But if Mahon’s role is to advise Dorries on the benefits as well as the risks of privatisation, what are the potential upsides?

“Umm… well, the benefits could be more international partnerships. And there can always be benefits to taking costs out of businesses. There are benefits to having different access to capital. But the question is also what don’t you get?”

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