- a knowledge base for media professionals
The Public Service
Search / Email Story / Print Page /

Dial M For Mysterious

Television people are unusually sensitive these days. The crystal ball shows Netflix, Amazon and HBO attracting viewers as they commission impressive new shows. Broadcasters are being gobbled up by telecoms, cable operators and others seeking the immediate gratification of shareholder value. Unable to keep their hands above the table are the politicians, typically a decade or two behind and narrowly focused on the spoils. It’s time to give that ball a shake.

mysterious MAs summer begins to wane the British television industry, accompanied by assorted others, makes its way to Scotland for the Edinburgh TV Festival. There is stroking and joking, new seasons set to premiere, accented by requisite whinging over the state of the art, state of the world or simply state of mind. It is a serious lot.

Attention is focused each year on the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture delivered by a notable or noble, usually of high verbal acuity, rarely boring. For forty years those addressing The MacTaggart have had something to say about television and the world in which it lives. This year Glasgow-born writer and director Armando Iannucci held the live audience rapt as he has with the comedic genius of I’m Alan Partridge, The Thick of It and, most recently, the HBO political satire Veep. He titled his MacTaggart Lecture “We’re All In This Together.” It was quite serious.

He began: “This place is a mess. We are a mess. We don’t know what we want. So, trying to be specific and prescriptive in this unknowable landscape is a fool’s errand. It would be a fool indeed who would try to quantify precisely what, say, our broadcasters should do: he or she would be really mad if they tried to define the purposes and scope of certain TV channels. Madder still if they did it by say some sort of panel of experts, and a mad mad system that would then take these expert findings and enshrine them in law. Oh dear.”

And to insure full attention: “British television needs to be at its strongest: with a big global fight ahead, we need to consolidate all our talent and expertise. Foreign owners are buying into our networks when we should be beating the world with our shows.” Facebook and Google are getting tax breaks, while “the BBC gets the blame.”

His main theme was the BBC and the much feared goring it will receive at the hands of Conservative Party politicians. “If public service broadcasting, one of the best things we’ve ever done creatively as a country, if it was a car industry, our ministers would be out championing it overseas, trying to win contracts, boasting of the British jobs that would bring,” said Mr. Iannucci, quoted by (August 26). “And if the BBC were a weapons system, half the Cabinet would be on a plane to Saudi Arabia to tell them how brilliant it was.” Mr. Iannucci failed to mention the UK’s notorious financial sector.

“And yet, it’s quite the reverse,” he offered. “They talk of cutting (the BBC) down to size, of reining in imperialist ambitions, of hiving off, of limiting the scope, with all the manic glee of a doctor urging his patient to consider the benefits of assisted suicide.” He mentioned that British creative industries, of which television is a significant part, comprise a larger contribution to UK gross domestic product (GDP) than “the car and oil and gas industries put together.”

British politicians, he said, get television “completely wrong” through “the filter of their own prejudices.” But there are other evil forces. “Where does it come from, this spooky force bending the ear of chancellors and ministers and civil servants and asking them to cull the BBC?” he waxed rhetorical. “Let’s for the sake of argument call this force M, for Mysterious.” Nobody, but nobody missed it.

“Dismantling (the BBC) is madness,” he offered. “The question shouldn’t be how do we cut it down to size, but why should we?” He called on broadcasters to “argue back.”

Reaction to Mr. Iannucci impassioned address ranged from robust to stuttering, largely determined by point of view. "I think a very, very small number of people think the BBC is a bad idea, and a huge number of people think the BBC is a wonderful idea,” said acclaimed Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat the following day. "Sadly, the small number of people are all in government."

"Let's be clear: I think it's fair to say there is only one broadcaster in the whole world that would come up with and transmit it, as a good idea, Doctor Who.”

Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, also addressing the TV people, denied any intention to “dismantle” the BBC, previous statements notwithstanding, or that Rupert Murdoch offered advice to government ministers on BBC funding. Oh, how Mr. Murdoch dislikes the BBC website and its huge reach. Secretary Whittingdale did invite Mr. Iannucci “for a chat.”

See also in ftm Knowledge


Few pure media brands transcend borders and boundries to acheive the iconic status of the BBC. The institution has come to define public service broadcasting. Yet missteps, errors and judgment questions fuel critics. The BBC battles those critics and competitors and, sometimes, itself. 155 pages PDF (August 2015)

Order here

Public Broadcasting - Arguments, Battles and Changes

Public broadcasters have - mostly - thrown off the musty stain of State broadcasting. And audiences for public channels are growing. But arguments and battles with politicians, publishers and commercial broadcasters threatens more changes. The ftm Knowledge file examines all sides. 168 pages PDF (March 2014)

Order here

ftm resources

related ftm articles

Bare Naked Principles
For commercial businesses, say free-market absolutists, no single principle carries more weight than profit. To a standard more lofty than puerile pennies comes the media sector, wearing public service, interest and values proudly. Virtue is in the beholding.

The Geek In The Corner
That the media sector failed to recognize the ascendant changes brought on by the digital revolution is, by now, a well-worn cliché. Broadcasters, publishers and other content producers have all been dutifully flailed for their dismissal, disregard, missteps and madness. Big ideas, it seems, take a long time to sink in.

Those Dirty Little Secrets
Public broadcasters generally eschew opportunities to eviscerate adversaries, those from the commercial media sector in particular, those owning newspapers in specific. It’s unkind, déclassé, even impolitic. In the UK, the knives have come out.


ftm Knowledge

The Campaign Is On - Elections and Media – new

Elections campaigns are big media events. Candidates and issues are presented, analyzed and criticized in broadcast and print. Media is now more of a participant in elections than ever. This ftm Knowledge file reports on news coverage, advertising, endorsements and their effect on democracy at work. 84 pages. PDF (September 2017)

Order here

Fake News, Hate Speech and Propaganda

The institutional threat of fake news, hate speech and propaganda is testing the mettle of those who toil in news media. Those three related evils are not new, by any means, but taken together have put the truth and those reporting it on the back foot. Words matter. This ftm Knowledge file explores that light. 48 pages, PDF (March 2017)

Order here

The Millennials

In the media sphere nothing is more important than knowing the audience. Once in a generation a target group evolves to catch the attention of publishers and broadcasters, advertisers and media buyers, social critics and politicians. The Millennials, also known as Generation Y and digital natives, are it, with unique characteristics and behaviors. They have already reshaped everything we do. 35 pages, PDF (December 2016)

Order here

More ftm Knowledge files here

Become an ftm Individual or Corporate Member to order Knowledge Files at no charge. JOIN HERE!

copyright ©2004-2015 ftm partners, unless otherwise noted Contact UsSponsor ftm