Alex Mahon speech to ISBA Annual Conference, 6th March 2018
Good afternoon everyone. It is great to be here to have the opportunity to thank a lot of the people who help to make Channel 4 successful. Without you, we literally could not be here doing what we do.
Indeed, investment from you helped us finance Three Billboards. I’m here today having landed this morning from the Oscars, where I was lucky enough to be at the ceremony to see the amazing Frances McDormand and the spectacular Sam Rockwell pick up two Academy Awards to add to the five Golden Globes and five BAFTAs the film has already won. I’m incredibly proud that Film4 and Channel 4 have been key backers of its success.
You may know that I am quite new to Channel 4 but even though I have hardly got through the front door, I have already been thinking about my successor.
It struck me that it would be a great measure of the success of our diversity plans if my successor could easily be Black or Asian.
I have a lot I want to do but I hope that will be part of my legacy. Right now in the UK that feels unlikely.
Not that I count as a classic media insider, I should say. I grew up in Scotland. Even more unlikely, I am a scientist who grew up in Scotland. Even more unlikely again I am a scientist who grew up in Scotland who didn’t go to Oxbridge. And just to cap it all I am a female scientist who grew up in Scotland not from Oxbridge.
Right now is a moment, after the abuse stories from the 1970s, after Weinstein and the revelations of sexual misconduct, after the gender pay disparities that are coming to light, that might be a moment of change.
This could be one of those moments at which the world turns for the better. We need to seize it.
Diversity matters to Channel 4 for a number of reasons. It is a statutory requirement. It offers a commercial advantage. But more than anything else, it is a democratic necessity. We play our part in a public culture which is noisy but civil, which is alive with warmth as well as vigour, which is raucous but courteous at the same time.
Indeed, the reasons for doing diversity well are so good that it makes you wonder why we still have so much to do. And we do. Make no mistake, we do.
Let’s start with our statutory need.
Diversity is part of the DNA of Channel 4 in part because it is part of our remit. Channel 4 is a unique broadcaster in the sense that we have the principle of diversity written into our remit by Parliament.
A Channel 4 that's not diverse is not really Channel 4.
That has always been, first as a viewer, then as a supplier and now as chief executive, what has drawn me to Channel 4.
I remember vividly in November 1982 when Channel 4 came on air. I remember a new perspective opening up for me. That was confirmed and deepened in their different ways by The Word, by The Big Breakfast and later by Channel 4 News, Trainspotting and the Paralympic Games. Every one of those programmes challenged me and supplied me with a new point of view.
When you think of some of the great moments in the history of Channel 4 you think of big moments in the history of diversity and inclusion.
I am thinking of Margaret and Beth in Brookside. Slumdog Millionaire. Nadia Almada, the trans winner of Big Brother. The Paralympic Games, and especially that Superhumans campaign.
Channel 4 has a public commitment to diversity but that is not why we care. We do not need to be forced into it.
The commercial advantage is obvious. There are plenty of academic studies to show that a diverse workforce is more innovative, more creative and more successful than a workforce that is homogeneous.
The diversity of our output, the point of view we have, also means that we attract a more diverse audience than other channels.
In fact we attract an audience that others do not reach at all which means that your advertising has a reach much further across the spectrum of the British population. Which also means that commercially, we are in a good place – despite the economic climate and the threat from the digital giants.
We have also seen the power that TV advertising has to change attitudes. Channel 4’s 2016 Superhumans ad is proof of that power. Three quarters of those who saw that campaign felt more positively towards people with a disability as a result.
We followed that with Superhumans Wanted. This was our £1 million airtime prize that was won by Maltesers whose campaign was organised around disability. Maltesers achieved an 8 per cent uplift in sales which makes it their most successful campaign in a decade.
We understand we can be a catalyst for change and that is one of the things we pride ourselves in doing. That’s why last year we decided to launch an annual £1 million diversity in advertising award. The winning campaign by Lloyds on mental health recently launched on Channel 4.
I think we all have a mutual interest here. Diversity is a good in itself but it is also commercially sensible. Reflecting the diversity of your customers simply makes business sense.
I do think that the progress on diversity in Britain has been remarkable. The workplace today is unrecognisable from when I started 25 years ago. I pay tribute to the work that many companies here have done. And I know this is a hot topic in the marketing industry, with many advertisers leading the way, including Lloyds, Barclays, BT and Mars.
In our industry nobody does better than Channel 4. Ofcom found that we have a greater proportion of women, BAME, LGBT and disabled staff than any of the other public service broadcasters.
However, I have not come here today to say everything is just fine. We know it’s not and so I don’t want to rest on our laurels. Channel 4 might perform well within the industry but that doesn’t mean to say it performs well enough.
That is certainly true, I am afraid, for BAME inclusion at Channel 4. Our research shows us that retention and progression of BAME staff are particular issues.
At the moment 18% of employees are from a BAME background but this is lower at senior levels. We have a target of 20% across Channel 4 staff. I now want us to hit 20% at every level, especially the most senior.
Though the Channel 4 brand is a powerful pull for people from a BAME background, we do not always live up to that promise.
BAME employees felt the culture inhibited them from being themselves at work. They thought progression was not always fair and this sense was especially marked among women. BAME employees felt that there was a gap between them and senior management.
We now have a comprehensive plan in place to change this.
To ensure that there are more BAME role models in senior positions. To progress the careers of BAME employees who are coming up through the system. To introduce a formal Talent Management Programme. To ensure that managers have the necessary training to manage teams from diverse backgrounds. All of this starts and finishes with measurement and with honest conversation about the blockers. Those are sometimes difficult conversations.
I am determined that Channel 4 will be regarded as a beacon for inclusion, not just in our industry but in every industry.
That is because the real lesson of what our employees told us is not statutory and it is not commercial.
It is democratic.
Channel 4 is a vital part of a diverse public culture. We are a place where many different voices can speak. We are one of the public spaces in which our democracy hosts its debates about itself.
Channel 4 helps us to examine and define who we are and what we stand for. It helps us to define what it means to be British and to be a citizen of the world.
This can be a noisy affair. A democratic culture should be full of clashing points of view and people who argue with both passion and conviction. Channel 4 wants to be the host for that discussion.Yet that passionate argument is now subject to two threats. The first is fake news.
I have never felt more sure about the important role of public service broadcasting than I am now, in an atmosphere in which, unless we are careful, it will be impossible to distinguish between truth and lies.
Channel 4 has a passionate commitment to a high standard of truth. This shouldn’t need saying but unfortunately right now it does.
Diversity can only flourish in a culture which is committed to truth. Fake news closes down debate and it closes down the conversation between people of different views.
And I know that many advertisers are thinking about how they should support the media who stand for truth and transparency.
The second threat to the public realm are the divisions that have appeared in the nation.
Think back to the glorious summer of 2012, to Super Saturday and then to the moment when the Paralympics seemed to change the way we saw disabled people in Britain.
The summer of 2012 seemed like a moment in which Britain was at ease with itself, when we were filled with energy.
How different it feels now. Our world suddenly feels divided and unequal.
Many of the differences in a free society are nothing to be worried about. In fact they are to be celebrated. Free thinking people with views and interests of their own will differ.
However, there is more going on than the usual cacophony of many voices. The tone of the argument has become uncivil. People are being set against one another.
Brexit has revealed the social and regional divides in Britain. Immigrants have received abuse in the streets. Instances of sexual abuse and harassment have surfaced in many walks of life.
Diversity can be a casualty of a moment like this, if we all retreat to positions that are comfortable. It is the task of Channel 4, among others, to ensure that the conversation keeps going and that it is conducted in a democratic spirit.
I think the three elements of diversity are linked. It needs the support of the law. We need to make the commercial case. And we need, above all, to remember that the health of our public conversation means we need as many voices in the debate as possible.