The MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival is delivered to a large audience, of some many hundreds, but often, it is really intended only for a handful of folk. BBC director general, Mark Thompson's MacTaggart may not go down as the most memorable, but he'll be satisfied if his coded words are comprehended by his chosen few.
He courted them by praising the quality of British broadcasting. He, in particular supported calls that ITV be freed from having to sell its advertising space (under the so-called Contract Rights Renewal system) at lower than market value. Then, he reminded everyone that Sky operates with a budget that dwarves even that of the BBC, far be it less well-resourced outfits. And then he hit them with…..er, something rather esoteric, about re-transmissions.
So subtle a battle cry. As delegates filed out of the McEwan Hall in Edinburgh – the traditional venue for the MacTaggart – some seemed underwelmed and others praised his defence of the BBC. Today's newspapers tended towards assurances that there is still cost-cutting to come, “up to and including the executive board”.
But others got it. The Guardian's front page had Sky as its top line, under the headline, 'Murdoch is too Powerful – BBC Chief'.
It was always worth taking a ringside seat, to see how Thompson might react to the unkind words, said of the Corporation, by Sky's James Murdoch during last year's MacTaggart – that the “scale and scope of [the BBC's] current activities and future ambitions is chilling”, adding that its journalism is “state-sponsored”. But Thompson played it politely. There was no sabre-rattling in his speech last night, nor in his post-lecture de-brief this morning, with Channel 4's Krishnan Guru-Murthy his interrogator.
In fact, he lavished praise on Sky. But he was also trying to manoeuvre fellow channel heads in the event of Sky declining his blandishments. What would success look like?, he asked rhetorically. “Strong creative and commercial revival at ITV, [Channel] 4 and Five”, he began.
Should it get ugly, become ideological, he'll be hoping it's not the BBC versus Sky but the world.