BBC’s Thompson fires back with MacTaggart lecture

BBC director-general Mark Thompson's anticipated MacTaggart lecture saw him take aim at James Murdoch, Sky and critics of the BBC in a speech titled 'The Battle for Quality.'
August 30, 2010

Executives from the UK and international television industry gathered at the annual MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival on Friday to hear BBC director-general Mark Thompson’s anticipated James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture.

Over the course of the 50-minute talk, Thompson defended the necessity of the public broadcaster’s licensing fee to the country’s creative industry, warned of Rupert Murdoch and News Corp.’s concentrated media ownership and used the media mogul’s own comments from last year’s MacTaggart lecture to argue that satellite providers should pay popular PSBs to redistribute the channels on their networks.

Thompson delivered the speech amidst a host of simmering conflicts, namely a strike threat from BBC staffers over pension cuts and proposed government cuts to its licensing fee. Last year Murdoch’s son James, News Corp.’s chief executive in Europe and Asia, used his MacTaggart talk to launch a blistering attack on the BBC’s size and dominance in the UK market.

Though his riposte failed to deliver the fire and brimstone many pundits hoped for, Thompson took aim at James Murdoch and satellite provider BSkyB, for which Murdoch is chairman and non-executive director, by pointing out that News Corp’s move to acquire all of the remaining shares in Sky would result in a concentration of cross-media ownership that would not be allowed in the United States or Australia.

‘A year ago, James Murdoch fretted aloud about the lamentable dominance of the BBC. He was able to do that only by leaving Sky out of the equation altogether,’ he said. ‘People say to me: ‘Aren’t you afraid that Sky is going to start spending more on original British programs and will therefore be competing head-to-head with you?’ But that’s what should happen. It would be good for the BBC. It would be good for the industry. It would be good for the public.

‘Our system depends on the big commercial broadcasters backing British talent,’ he continued. ‘And not just backing them with occasional commissions which are then lavishly marketed, but with week in, week out investment across a wide range of programs.’

Forecasting to a future political debate regarding the broadcaster’s licensing fee, Thompson said the financing is integral to the UK’s creative economy at a time when the BBC is at its most popular with the British public. He spoke of backroom political and commercial forces seeking to undermine the network: ‘As one journalist from a broadsheet said to one of my colleagues recently: ‘It doesn’t matter about the facts, they just want to trash you.”

Toward the end of the lecture Thompson set his sights on Rupert Murdoch, using the media mogul’s support for re-transmission fees in the United States to argue for their introduction in the British market to further support PSBs that heavily invest in British productions – save for the BBC.

‘Just to give us a starting point, consider that Fox originally asked Time Warner for $1 a month per subscriber in exchange for the right to re-transmit the Fox network,’ he said. ‘At that level, Sky would be paying £75m a year to get the equivalent of Fox. Given the rather greater popularity of Channel 4, ITV and Channel Five, Sky could perhaps afford to be even a little bit more generous!’

‘James may quibble with Rupert’s logic. I find it curiously compelling,’ he concluded.

Watch Mark Thompson’s entire James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture via the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival website here.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.