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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 broadcastnow.co.uk (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.”


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