MacTaggart 2019: Fear and Loathing, Truth and Lies

By Professor Bob Usherwood

VLV members who saw Dorothy Byrne’s contribution to the panel discussion about politics on TV and radio at the VLV Spring Conference will not be surprised that her recent MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival hit the headlines. In a dynamic and powerful speech, Channel 4’s head of news and current affairs castigated men behaving badly and politicians who avoid scrutiny, and likened listening to the Today programme to ‘accidentally walking into a knitting shop in Bournemouth’. There were some good jokes, but above all there was the message that ‘we must find courage in this time of crisis and… unite to use the power of television to protect democracy because it is being seriously undermined’.

Reading this, I thought back to July when a prime minister and a virtually new government was ‘elected’ by 92,153 Conservative members or just 0.13% of the population. British television did little to reflect the serious implications of this. The BBC resorted to knock-about politics, encouraging politicians from different parties to shout at each other, and pointless vox pop interviews. Sky News branded its broadcasts with a Brexit countdown banner, apparently presuming that we could not wait for the great event.

All a far cry from the time when, in Byrne’s words, broadcasters ‘believed programmes could be used to make our country a better place’. She argued that ‘we have to stop being afraid of serious analysis authored by big brainy people’. We need, she said in the poem that closed her lecture, ‘A programme about THIS Island, Making more noise than Love Island.’

This she saw as a role for the terrestrial services that still account for 69% of all TV viewing and ‘are the only people who have any interest in saying big things about Britain’.

But ‘what do we do when a known liar becomes our Prime Minister?’ Byrne’s question is now even more significant following the Supreme Court’s ruling in September that the Government’s decision to prorogue Parliament for five weeks was unlawful. Her opinion that Boris Johnson should be called a liar when lying brought accusations of bias from right- wing bloggers et al. These were predictable but unjustified, as her judgement is clearly based on a belief, as expressed in a recent interview with the Guardian, that ‘truth has a primacy in a democratic debate’. Moreover, she also  went on to criticise Jeremy Corbyn for avoiding major interviews, urging him to ‘be a hero, come on Channel 4 News, go on the Today programme…’   

Today, as indicated earlier, was also disparaged. Many would agree that it is not what it was when Brian Redhead asked Nigel Lawson: ‘Do you think we should have a one-minute silence now in this interview, one for you to apologise for daring to suggest that you know how I vote and secondly perhaps in memory of monetarism which you have now discarded?’ Currently, some presenters on the Today programme appear, at times, unable or unwilling to speak such truth to power. That said, the programme does have Mishal Husain, who is one of the most forensic and analytical journalists in the business.

Husain’s authority may also do something to address Byrne’s concerns about the lack of progress in increasing ethnic diversity in broadcasting, something she called ‘the single most disappointing failure during my career’. ‘How,’ she asked, ‘can we represent the people of the UK if we ourselves are unrepresentative of the population?’

In his MacTaggart lecture in 1993, the great TV dramatist Dennis Potter – not named or shamed like some mentioned in Byrne’s introduction – observed that ‘on the television screen it is often when the set is switched off that it actually picks up a direct or true reflection of its viewers’.

Potter was speaking from a dramatist’s perspective and at a different time, but fascinatingly there were other connections with Byrne’s approach. Both reviled the name Murdoch. Potter mocked the Murdoch Chair in Language and Communications established at Oxford University, while Byrne reminded her audience of Ofcom’s description of James Murdoch following his role at News Group Newspapers during the phone hacking scandal.

Both speakers probably made some audience members feel uncomfortable. Byrne suggested hers may have included some ‘sexist bastards’ while Potter attacked several strands of BBC management. His lecture was ‘in the nature of a personal statement, or a cry as much from the bile duct as the heart’.

Byrne too was personal. She expressed fear at what we might lose and loathing at the behaviour of some male colleagues as well as examining the consequences of not identifying truth and lies in our democracy. Crucially, Potter and Byrne both articulated and demonstrated their love of, and their belief in, the value and values of public service broadcasting. Values which they felt were/are in danger of being eroded.

There was one further link between the two lectures. In 1993 Potter suggested that ‘Channel 4, if freed from its advertisements, could continue to evolve out of its original, ever-precious remit into a passable good model of the kinds of television some of us seek’. At the end of her splendid, honest and forthright lecture, I would have loved to have asked Dorothy Byrne how she would have reacted to that proposal.

Bob Usherwood is a trustee of the VLV and former Professor of Librarianship at the University of Sheffield