The James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture has been the centrepiece of the Edinburgh Television Festival since 1976, attracting a roster of illustrious names including Dennis Potter, Greg Dyke, Elisabeth Murdoch and Armando Iannucci.
This year Dorothy Byrne, Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4 (C4), became only the sixth woman to deliver the prestigious a speech. And the former World in Action producer didn’t hold back.
In her keynote address, Ms Byrne labelled Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “cowards” after accusing the political leaders of deliberately avoiding TV interviews. She even went as far to say: “What do we do when a known liar becomes our Prime Minister?”
No one sitting in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre could’ve accused Byrne of not using her platform as a positive force for good, as she went on to call for more to be done to hold today’s politicians to account. Downing Street later labelled her comments about the Prime Minister as “disappointing”.
But rather aptly over the Bank Holiday Weekend, C4 accused Downing Street of freezing it out of a planned interview with Mr Johnson at the G7 Summit, supposedly due to Byrne’s criticism of the PM in Edinburgh. C4 said various reasons for the ‘axing’ were given by No 10. But whether this interview was deliberately dodged or not, Byrne’s point about politicians refusing to appear in TV interviews will be even more under the spotlight going forward, particularly as this week the Government asked the Queen to suspend Parliament just days after MPs return to work in September. As a Brexit deal or no deal looms, politicians’ transparency with broadcast journalists and willingness to do interviews will clearly be more under the spotlight than ever.
Byrne’s speech will also be widely remembered for her calling out of what she described as the TV industry’s “sexist bastards”, while also giving one example of her being sexually assaulted earlier in her career:
“That first day at Granada, a female boss had also told me that a director would take me out to teach me the basics of filming and he would sexually assault me, but I wasn’t to take it personally because he sexually assaulted all women he worked with.
“Sure enough, he did assault me – one of the few examples in my career of the promise of a TV boss coming true. His assault was a criminal offence but who could I complain to? I learned early on that, as a woman, I was on my own.”
The renowned exec also claimed one of the previous MacTaggart speakers was guilty of abusing women and added that the television industry still needs to become a better place for older women and people of colour to work.
Diversity and off-screen issues were some of the biggest discussion points at this year’s festival. After taking part in a panel on funding models, Danny Fenton, CEO of Boom! PR client Zig Zag Productions, summed this point up well:
“At this festival more than any ever there’s been more contemplation about the way the industry operates and the way people are treated. Duty of care has certainly become a bigger issue – this year’s event was more about not so much what’s going on screen but what’s going on behind the screen.”
He went on to also tell IBC365:
“Edinburgh showed us there is continuing interest in non-TV platforms and whether there’s going to be a swing of the dial. But overall, it still demonstrated that linear TV is dominant on the whole. Watching the BBC reel with mega drama hits and massive live events bringing in so many millions it was impossible not to think that reports of the death of linear tv have been greatly exaggerated!”
Elsewhere, Sam Barcroft, CEO of Boom! PR client Barcroft Studios, received some of the biggest applause of Edinburgh’s final day during the ‘Celebrity Call Centre’ session, hosted by Naked Attraction presenter Anna Richardson.
Sitting on a panel that included UKTV Deputy Director of Commissioning Hilary Rosen, C4 Head of Specialist Factual Fatima Salaria and journalist, broadcaster and author Grace Dent, Sam delved into a number of issues facing the modern workplace while also offering some very personal mental health stories. He also emphasised the importance of building a strong and “healthy” workplace in the modern-day TV industry to provide support for mental health issues:
“Our company offers support to anybody and everybody who wants to come forward. This stuff happens to everybody in every industry, but NHS cover is patchy so you need to be there to help your company, whoever they are and whatever they’re going through.”
Clearly, off-screen issues are starting to be taken a lot more seriously in our industry. But as the panel concluded, there is still a long way to go. Next year’s Edinburgh Television Festival will no doubt be a good barometer to see how things have progressed.