MGEITF 2010: Thompson and Hunt provide a rich brew

25 Aug 2010  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Raymond Snoddy

In his latest column, Raymond Snoddy sets the scene for this weekend's MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival where "entertainment is virtually guaranteed"... Mark Thompson's MacTaggart lecture "had better be good" and Jeremy Hunt should at least be "more coherent".

Historically the Edinburgh Television Festival was for fun or trying to get a new job. The Royal Television Society's biennial beano in Cambridge was the one for grown-ups, the place where the senior industry players hobnobbed with the Secretary of State of the day and policy and legislation were often trailed.

Not this time.

Timing and circumstance has played into the hands of Edinburgh. By the time the next Cambridge is held in September 2011 - the boat will long since have departed. By then many of the arguments will have been won - or lost - and future media policy will have at least started to take its final shape.

The scene was, rather improbably, set last year by James Murdoch's MacTaggart lecture. The crudely self-serving demands for a "very, very" much smaller BBC and crass talk of "state-sponsored news" were so extreme and unreasonable that they should have died the death - but didn't.

If ever there was a time for Thompson to come out of defence mode, get on the front foot and spell out a vision for the future of the BBC - and admit previous errors of judgment - it will come on Friday evening.

Instead the ideas played into the ambivalence the Conservatives always feel about the Corporation.  Should they be praising the BBC as an example of a British institution renowned all over the world for the quality of its programmes or denouncing it as profligate public body in urgent need of reining in.

Often Conservative ministers cause considerable confusion by taking both stances on consecutive days, depending on audience and context.

But what James Murdoch ensured last year with his full frontal attack on the BBC is that this year's MacTaggart lecturer, director-general Mark Thompson had better be good.

Over the past 12-months the BBC has not defended itself well. The Murdoch arguments have been allowed to hang in the air despite the fact it is now BSkyB which has by far the mightiest financial engine in British broadcasting. Matters have been made worse for the BBC by self-inflicted wounds - everything from Jonathan Ross, executive salaries and Salford bungling to pensions and the cack-handed attempt to kill off 6 Music.

The very existence of the coalition Government and its unpredictable ways adds an inevitable degree of uncertainty and spice to the event.

If ever there was a time for Thompson to come out of defence mode, get on the front foot and spell out a vision for the future of the BBC - and admit previous errors of judgment - it will come on Friday evening.

His audience will almost certainly include Jeremy Hunt, secretary of state for media, culture and sport who will be interrogated on stage on Saturday by broadcaster Steve Hewlett.

Hunt should be praised for turning up. Not many culture secretaries have bothered to make the journey to Edinburgh over the years. Family weddings, holidays abroad etc have been cited in the past as reasons for absence.

Yet just as Tessa Jowell took a long time to recover from an initial disastrous performance at Cambridge so Hunt will have to be careful.  He too will have to come up with something more coherent than his wayward collection of pronouncements in opposition and coalition not least about the BBC.

At least everyone in commercial television is turning up in a less than suicidal mood this time. Last year advertising was down by 17%. Instead something like 10% growth is now expected for 2010.

The very existence of the coalition Government and its unpredictable ways adds an inevitable degree of uncertainty and spice to the event.

So we have a rich brew here. A poor performance from Thompson in such a public venue, fighting the ghost of Murdoch's MacTaggart and having to anticipate which way Hunt is going to jump next, could seriously undermine his reputation.

Hunt himself is vulnerable to having some of his hobby-horses exposed - the dogged attachment to North American style ultra-local television, the axing of the UK Film Council without consultation or process and the notion that it is a mortal sin for anyone in the public sector to earn more than the Prime Minister.  Entertainment is virtually guaranteed.

At least everyone in commercial television is turning up in a less than suicidal mood this time. Last year advertising was down by 17% - a full billion pounds down from the record year of 2005, with a further 15% fall expected this year.

To add to the upbeat mood we can stir in yesterday's view from WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell that we are not heading for a double-dip recession. That should do wonders for bar takings in Edinburgh.

Instead something like 10% growth is now expected for 2010.  And according to research carried out by consultants Deloitte the position of television, and television advertising remains supreme although by a lower margin than last year.

More than 56% believe that television provides the advertising that has the greatest impact on them personally - though that number was down from 64% in 2009.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that television advertising's appeal was strongest among the young with a third of those over 55 claiming - probably wrongly - that advertising had no influence on them at all.

To add to the upbeat mood we can stir in yesterday's view from WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell that we are not heading for a double-dip recession, at least on a worldwide basis.  That should do wonders for bar takings in Edinburgh however Thompson and Hunt acquit themselves.

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