The television industry is not one known for its introspection and abounding self-awareness. But once a year it transports itself north to Edinburgh to indulge in all such things and more; three days when W1A morphs into EH3 to take in the Fringe, hopefully on expenses.
There has been plenty of material worthy of self-analysis. The abrupt removal of The Jeremy Kyle Show
after the suicide of a recent participant re-opened the debate about television as circus freak show. Lately Channel 4 has run a series on the story of Jade Goody, whose life and death became part of modern broadcasting history. There was little examination of Channel 4's own role in the Goody story: she sprang to fame in its tawdry Big Brother
series, and it became clear that her supposed racism in a subsequent 'celebrity' edition involved some fairly obvious producer manipulation. But hey, Jade was great telly and everybody loved Big Brother
– didn't they?
Last year ITV was absolutely shocked to learn that the Kyle show – a daily human circus – might actually be a bad thing. I mean to say, using dodgy lie-detector techniques to expose folk on live TV? Who could have guessed some of them might react badly? Never mind that The Jeremy Kyle Show
was a mainstay of the ITV schedules for so long, fronted by a sneering host and populated with guests who, frankly, clearly struggled with the challenges of everyday life. When the show was suddenly swamped in negative headlines that threatened the share price, it was dropped instantly. Never mind, there's still Love Island
if you enjoy other people's discomfort. Or at least the prospect that two of them might, er, 'get together' on air.
The MacTaggart Lecture was thankfully worthwhile. It was delivered by Dorothy Byrne, the boss of Channel 4 News
and a 40-year veteran whose career goes back to the days when TV journalism was a little more respected than it is today. Dorothy may have reached the stage in life – and how welcome this is – when she may not concern herself about whether airing opinions might be dangerous to her career. And good on her for that.
So Boris Johnson is a 'known liar', and both he and Jeremy Corbyn are
cowards, said Byrne. She isn't too fond of the Murdochs either, especially James. For good measure she told a few tales of sexual harassment by various TV bosses from her earlier years in the industry. Johnson had failed to subject himself to a single interview or news conference since being anointed prime minister by two thirds of the Tory membership, she pointed out. Instead, we are treated to Facebook videos, anonymous news briefings, and the one-way traffic of op-ed articles, often by sycophantic MPs who owe their preferment to Downing Street.
By Sunday night, Channel 4 News
were complaining that Downing Street, having suggested they travel to the G7 summit at Biarritz for a long-sought interview with the PM, withdrew the offer as a result of Byrne's speech. What is he scared of?
James Graham seemed uncomfortable at one stage of his onstage chat with the ubiquitous, and re-invented, Alastair Campbell. Graham wrote the Channel 4 play, Brexit: An Uncivil War
, whose anti-hero Dominic Cummings was played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Was Boris Johnson so impressed by the Cumberbatch that he was inspired to hire Cummings into his SMERSH-like role in charge of Downing Street policy, asked Campbell. 'If I thought that, I wouldn't sleep at night,' remarked Graham.
The media often falls in love with its nemeses. Alastair Campbell's new found status as a broadcast darling seems ironic to those who remember his apparent determination to destroy news balance – and possibly a few careers – while spinning on behalf of Tony Blair, and all the nonsense about 45-minute missile attacks. Hardly a day goes by without Campbell on the airwaves. The same was true for 'Boris' prior to his seemingly effortless journey to Downing Street. Even in Scotland, some journalists seem fascinated by Stuart Campbell, who runs a pro-independence website from his home in Bath. Now he says he may create a party that aims for second-preference votes in Scotland. A jolly wheeze indeed.
Patrick Holland, controller of BBC Two, survived a haranguing from the redoubtable Jackie Long. Holland is a keen player of 'buzzword bingo', exulting in the tonality of his refreshed channel, for example. Where would we be without Inside the Factory
, where Gregg Wotsisname explains how many potato crisps get churned out by the Walkers plant every day (amazing!) or Remarkable Places to Eat
, where two guys swan round impressive eateries from San Sebastián to Edinburgh just to make the rest of us hungry?
He's promising more Frankie Boyle and more Romesh (but hey, everybody's got more Romesh). Forensics
is coming back, but School
isn't, and there's a forthcoming documentary on Harvey Weinstein. All very well, said Channel 4 News
reporter Long, but the average age of BBC Two viewers is 62. And they're all old, posh people aren't they? Buzzword Holland couldn't quite shrug off her questions. Long was persistent about TV ignoring young people, although she conceded her children liked Louis Theroux.
This is the thing about the TV industry's obsession with youth. When I was young, executives fretted that people like me weren't watching TV. They even hired Janet Street-Bleedin-Porter to chase the 'yoof' vote. Perhaps the truth is that people in their 20s tend to have a life and not spend their time in the house watching the box. TV bosses are getting their knickers in a twist about the impact of Netflix, or Amazon or Apple, which is spending billions getting into TV. Hmm... you mean people are looking beyond conventional TV towards other forms of entertainment? Such as the video rental boom of the 1980s or MTV and the growth of satellite and cable in the 90s? Sometimes execs need to calm down a little, perhaps commission something from Romesh. Seems to work for many of them...
Inevitably, there was a discussion about comedy and how far it should go in this post-ironic world of Trump and Brexit. Whatever happened to satire by the way? Spitting Image
seems downright revolutionary, and it even went out on ITV. Armando Iannucci is struggling to satirise today's politics, although Veep
was a great West Wing
spoof before Trump came along and blew satire out of the water. Should comedy make jokes about disability, or gender, or race in this day and age? A panel of producers and commissioners beat its collective breast about what used to be allowed on screen – Ricky Gervais making paedophile jokes, for example.
One safe conclusion might be that while British TV slaps itself around about the social relevance of 'being funny', only the Irish – Sharon Horgan, the Derry Girls
– are capable of making us laugh about normally unfunny things such as mental health and 'The Troubles' these days. That's the problem with the comedy business: it's so damned serious.
For more on the Edinburgh International Television Festival, see Hamish Mackay's Media