Armando Iannucci delivered a passionate defence of the BBC in his speech to the Edinburgh TV Festival last night,
The 40th annual James MacTaggart Lecture, which has previously been delivered by Oscar winner Kevin Spacey and the former BBC director general Greg Dyke, was given to the man behind In the Loop, The Thick of It, Veep and I’m Alan Partridge. He seized upon the chance to praise the British TV industry and hit out at the government’s proposals to cut the BBC’s budgets and remit.
“Politicians have got the British television industry completely wrong because they peer at it through a filter of their own prejudices,” he argued. Indeed, his comments follow the decision by the government to make the BBC responsible for subsidising free TV licences for over-75s, effectively reducing its budget by a significant margin.
Instead of reining in the country’s “greatest network”, he said, he called for “champion supporters” to cheerlead the British TV industry to a global audience.
“Cheaper, user-friendly technology, means we’re living in both the Golden Age of TV, and a global bucket of swill. For every Sherlock and Breaking Bad, there’s a billion more people filming their brother squirt baked beans from his nose and anus,” he explained.
The BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, he suggested, should be used to “monetise the bezeesus Mary and Joseph out of our programmes abroad so that money can come back, take some pressure off the licence fee at home and be invested in even more ambitious quality shows, that can only add to our value”.
“Don’t be icky and modest about making money,” he added. “Protect public service broadcasting at home by displaying the arrogance of our convictions abroad.”
He criticised the government’s panel of “experts” appointed to decide the future of the BBC as the Royal Charter’s renewal takes place in the coming year, highlighting the lack of creative talent.
“Our programme-making skills are not just a vague part of our heritage. They are the primary economic component of our success. When the media, communications and information industries make up nearly eight per cent our GDP, larger than the car and oil and gas industries put together, we need to be heard, as those industries are heard.”
“But when I see the panel of experts who’ve been asked by the Culture Secretary to take a root and branch look at the BBC, I don’t see anyone who is a part of that cast and crew list. I see executives, media owners, industry gurus, all talented people; but not a single person who’s made a classic and enduring television show, not a presenter, a writer, director or creative producer, no Moffat or Wainwright or Mulville or Mercurio.”
“In America, the key production personnel, the writers, the first AD, senior researchers, are credited as producers,” he pointed out. “They’re rewarded for their key creative input.”
Speaking at the event separately, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale rebuked the idea that he was planning to take apart the BBC.
“Who is talking about dismantling the BBC?” he told the press. “I’ve never suggested dismantling the BBC.”
“There will come a time [for funding models to change] ,” Whittingdale added, “and we should start thinking about preparations for that… but in the short term, I slightly think that, for the moment, [it will be] the licence fee or something like it.”
Iannucci’s comments weren’t the only provocative statements being made, though: the festival also saw the director of ITV, Peter Fincham, accusing the BBC of changing its scheduling to force audiences to choose between X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing.
“I really can’t hear from the general public a groundswell of opposition to the BBC’s outrageous Saturday night scheduling,” said Iannucci at the end of his speech.
“There are no online petitions to shut down the BBC’s online cake recipes, or public demos to close its apparently left-wing news… We seem to be in some artificially-concocted zone of outrage that emerged fully-formed around the time of the election, a strangely choreographed set of editorials and columns, and private briefings.
“These opinions have taken on a momentum of their own, that they acquire mass, they appear almost like solid fact or at least enough like it that even our dear BBC news service is obliged to report them,” he continued. “Taking us to the exquisite irony that we start to believe the BBC is not to be trusted, because we heard it on the BBC.”
“It’s been a tremendous honour to be invited to speak to the UK television industry,” he concluded. “It’s an even greater honour to work in it. Let’s all defend it.”
The speech received a standing ovation.
You can read the full text of Armando Iannucci’s Edinburgh TV festival speech here.