The MacTaggart lecture is one of the high points of the British media calendar. The climax of the Edinburgh International Television Festival, held each year as an adjunct to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and organised and sponsored by the Guardian, the MacTaggart is a purposeful dispensing of ritual and propriety. The gloves come off. Every year, it seems, the speech gets more and more pointed.
The MacTaggart attracts the leading lights of British media, which effectively means either representatives of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which controls SKY, the nation’s biggest satellite broadcaster, or of the BBC, the nation’s biggest terrestrial network. Indeed, more and more, the MacTaggart is a formal attack on one by the other.
Last year, James Murdoch, Rupert’s son who runs his father’s interests in Europe and Asia, said, in his best sneering and scornful manner, that the government-supported BBC was not only arrogant and wasteful (“chilling”), but it stifled private media enterprise.
This year, Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, said SKY was on its way to being a gargantuan monopoly controlling and inhibiting the rest of British broadcast media. What’s more, it was on its way to dominating British media with exactly the crap programming that is the Murdoch signature and that the commercially exempt BBC was meant to be an alternative to.
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In effect, this is a restating of the historic status quo: the BBC has dominated British postwar media; Rupert Murdoch, for more than 40 years, has strived to match or exceed. They are duopolists.
Curiously, they are both defending their exclusivity and arguing about the relative virtues of their dominance, just at the moment when all distribution monopolies ought to be crumbling.
Indeed, how come the BBC and Murdoch, however much they hate each other, are so similarly lucky? Every other media monopoly in the free world can see its ignominious fate, but not the BBC and SKY.
This is partly because they both are government-sanctioned media, the BBC by dint of law, Murdoch by dint of cultivated and triangulated influence. (This is Thompson’s point, of course: that Murdoch and his son and minions are hypocrites.) And it is partly because the UK media market is something of the media market that time forgot. Change comes, but slower.
Still, it’s television. Television! Television delivered by satellite monopoly or television delivered by government fiat. Only one thing in the media world can be certain: if your dominance is built on delivery, maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, you’re screwed.
So next year, please, for the MacTaggart, no more Murdoch or BBC. Let it go.
*This post first appeared on the Newser website.