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Channel 4 CEO Mahon, culture secretary Dorries defend positions on sale plan

The war of words over the future of UK commercially funded pubcaster Channel 4 intensified over the weekend as its CEO and the government argued their cases in national newspaper columns.

Nadine Dorries (photo: Chris McAndrew via CC)

The controversial bid to privatise the broadcaster was given the go-ahead by culture secretary Nadine Dorries last week, despite widespread opposition from the production sector and leading figures across the arts and politics.

The UK’s indie community has slammed the government’s plans, while the proposal also received strong criticism in a House of Lords debate.

Those reportedly interested in buying C4, which is expected to be sold for around £1bn (US$1.3bn), include ITV, Sky and Discovery.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday yesterday, Dorries dismissed the criticism as being “lazy, overwrought and ill-informed rhetoric from the Leftie luvvie lynch mob” and said she had the best interests of C4 at heart by “freeing it from the constraints of the state.”

“Last week I made the decision that it is time to unleash the broadcaster’s full potential and open Channel 4 up to private ownership and investment while protecting its crucial public service broadcasting remit,” Dorries wrote.

“We believe we can sell Channel 4 to a buyer who will fund emerging talent, independent and impartial news, and invest in every corner of the UK.”

Elsewhere in the article, the Conservative politician said the government was keen to see the broadcaster base more of its operations in the north of the UK, with C4 having already moved its headquarters from London to Leeds.

“Post-sale, I want to reinvest the proceeds into levelling up the creative sector, training a skilled workforce to fill the jobs in our booming film and TV studios,” Dorries wrote.

She added that the aim is to “protect the public service elements of broadcasting, ensure its sustainability and invest in creative skills, opening up the sector to a much broader section of society.”

Alex Mahon

Restating her strong disapproval of the sale plan, C4 CEO Alex Mahon wrote in the Sunday Times: “Channel 4 is a thriving national asset with a business model that has never been in better health.”

Mahon acknowledged that C4 faces stern competition from the likes of Netflix and Amazon but said its unique business model allows it to support the UK creative economy while serving under-represented audiences and young people.

“Unlike any other broadcaster, all our shows are made by entrepreneurial, privately owned businesses, and we have become a highly efficient engine for converting advertisers’ investment into revenues for hundreds of TV production companies – some big, but most pretty small,” Mahon continued.

“The question has been asked whether we can survive and thrive in the future under the ‘straitjacket’ of being owned by the public. And whether Channel 4 will be crushed by the likes of Netflix and Amazon, which increasingly dominate video-viewing markets. And without access to private money and reliant on advertising revenue – not subscription – will we gradually be crowded out of our own market?

“Like the rest of the UK television sector, we openly recognise all these challenges. However, we are not intimidated by them, thanks to the fundamental strength of our business and the changes we have made in recent years. We have expertise, and that gives us confidence in the forward plan.”

Mahon and the C4 management team have proposed an alternative to privatisation that they say accelerates its existing digital strategy and multiplies the secondary benefits of public ownership, such as job creation and skills building outside London – in places where private media companies generally don’t invest.

“Others have pointed out that we are very different to Amazon and Netflix: they are not trying to compete with the shows we make in Hull or Derry or Leeds, nor are they sending journalists out to Ukraine,” Mahon added.

“Our plan to keep Channel 4 in public hands would deliver 100,000 training places for young people outside London who would otherwise never get the chance to taste life in the media. That would be starting immediately, continuing for the next decade and delivering £2bn of value.

“The plan also substantially increases the proportion of the money we spend with production companies outside the M25 [outside London] – from the statutory 35% to a commitment of 50%. This is a percentage that we achieved last year for the first time, and we believe we can continue to hit it year after year.

“And to address the question of resilience, we suggested a new scheme in which we would use private capital in a joint venture setup that would build into a £200m-a-year creative business over time.”


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