In My Opinion: Robin MacPherson: Reflections on the Edinburgh TV Festival

ANOTHER MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival is over. The Armani suits, killer heels and expense accounts have left the George Hotel. The McEwan Hall quietly reverberates to the last whispers of BBC boss Mark Thompson’s deft McTaggart speech, defending the licence fee and the Beeb’s role as the cornerstone of quality TV against calls for the further liberation of broadcasting from the fetters of regulation.

Festival staff clear away the promotional brochures and pack up the 3D television displays to the echoes of Paul Abbot’s plangent (if at times incoherent) plea for more long-running drama on British TV. Like Life on Mars if you listen really carefully the ghostly voices of TV executives past mingle with the present and seem to be saying…well rather similar things.

As a delve into the archives (source of all 1985 quotes) of long gone eclectic left-nationalist leaning magazine Radical Scotland will reveal…

Back in 1985, a year before British Satellite Broadcasting went on air a young(er) Andrew Neil told the delegates that the BBC/ITV duopoly was a “conspiracy against the public to avoid competition” while David Graham (then a ‘young turk’ of the independent sector and producer of the ground-breaking current affairs programme Diverse Reports for Channel 4) argued that multi-channel TV, cable and the like made the existence of a “state-regulated, centrally controlled and ideologically centrist institution indefensible”.

Well not much and everything has changed – the Peacock Committee Enquiry into the BBC was in full swing and many in the television industry fully expected the Thatcher Government, fresh from defeating the Miners after a bitter year-long strike, to abolish the licence fee and throw the BBC to the commercial wolves. Delegates were abuzz with revelations of MI5 vetting of BBC staff and the banning of At the Edge of the Union, an allegedly incendiary documentary on Northern Ireland which provoked the NUJ to organise a blackout of BBC news coverage in protest.

Advertising men (and back then they always were men) like Rodney Harris painted a halcyon picture of niche channels targeting upmarket audiences and ploughing the resultant ad revenue back into high quality programming.

Fast forward to 2010 and the future turns out to be not so bright. We have Paul Abbott’s heartfelt plea for greater investment in British TV drama to match the quality of long running shoes like The Wire and The Sopranos while Mark Thompson points out a growing investment gap in quality programming which Sky TV ought to be able to help address out of its £6 billion turnover but shows no sign of turning over a new leaf.

Your correspondent, then a 20-something would be cultural activist and sometime journalist (unpaid) for Radical Scotland, was just one of many alarmed by the seemingly unstoppable rise of (Media) Baron Murdoch:

1985: “The prospect of unlimited cable TV channels, satellite TV, non-broadcast video, cheaper printing technology, etc, may give the illusion of ‘the democratisation of the means of communication’. But in reality the ownership and control of those media which reach the vast majority of views and readers will remain firmly in the hands of the Murdochs and Maxwells…”

Well, here we are a quarter-century on and, as Mark Thompson pointed out: “Sky is already a far more powerful commercial counterweight to the BBC than ITV ever was. It is well on its way to being the most dominant force in broadcast media in this country. Moreover, if News Corp’s proposal to acquire all of the remaining shares in Sky goes through, Sky will not just be Britain’s biggest broadcaster, but a full part of a company which is also dominant in national newspapers as well as one of the Britain’s biggest publishers.”

It’s not all bad news, however. The cheerleaders for laissez-faire in broadcasting have not had it all their way. The BBC has actually done not too badly in licence fee negotiations over the past couple of decades and the failure of the marketplace to deliver the full range of competitive high value programming, indigenously-produced drama in particular, has undermined the arguments first articulated by the likes of Peter Jay back then:

1985: “At bottom, broadcast material [is] ideally suited for the market place, i.e. individual units (programmes) which can be wanted by, and supplied to, one customer and rejected by another, for which everyone has a demand [and] which nobody needs’).”

However, the wolves are never very far away and while Culture and Media Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, would not be drawn on whether he intends to cut or simply cap the Licence fee, the BBC’s argument to retain its position as the cornerstone of UK Broadcasting requires constant updating and finessing. This weekend’s performances by Thompson and Hunt were simply the opening skirmishes in a battle which has been going on for over two decades and may last a third.

Robin MacPherson is Professor of Screen Media in the School of Creative Industries at Edinburgh Napier University and Director of Edinburgh Skillset Screen and Media Academy.