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Iannucci launches spirited BBC defence

EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL TELEVISION FESTIVAL: Comedy writer Armando Iannucci used his keynote lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival to vehemently defend UK pubcaster the BBC from its detractors.

The BBC has come under fire over its purpose and financial spend, with the British Conservative government recently confirming the pubcaster would foot the licence fee bill for over-75s as part of wide-ranging cuts that will affect how the Corporation operates going forwards.

Iannucci used his Mactaggart speech to attack the government for its approach, claiming that executive decision-making was lessening the standing of British television internationally, and that there should be focus on growing the industry.

The news came as BBC director general Tony Hall, writing the Daily Mirror newspaper, claimed further cuts would put 32,000 jobs across the industry on the line, and hours after Tory minister John Whittingdale had used his Edinburgh interview to rubbish claims of a Conservative agenda to destroy the Corporation.

“Faced with a global audience now, British television needs its champion supporters, it needs its cheerleaders,” said Iannucci. “Who will they be? The government? Not while they consistently talk of reining in our greatest network. The broadcasters? Not while most of their energies are dissipated fighting off political attacks on their impartiality or finances.

“Now, of course, our friends in Whitehall would argue that, as the BBC’s charter comes up for renewal, it’s important to see how the Corporation can operate even more effectively. I’d argue back that starting a debate on how the BBC should be funded just days after lopping 20% off its budget without discussion, seems pretty much to me like shutting the stable door after the horse has been bolt-gunned.”

He was also critical of the panel the government has put together to look into the BBC, which includes the likes of ex-Channel 5 chief Dawn Airey and former Shine Group boss Alex Mahon, noting it was mainly comprised of media executives and not creatives.

This group did not include “not a single person who’s made a classic and enduring television show, not a presenter, a writer, director or creative producer, no Moffat or Wainwright or Mulville or Mercurio”, he said.

“Talk to us,” said Iannucci. “No-one comes into contact more regularly with the hard economics of making a budget work than a production team. Every time I make a show, I’m a small businessman, responsible for hundreds of employees, in charge of a budget of millions of pounds. And of course if the project isn’t successful, the work won’t come back.”

Iannucci, who is behind HBO comedy Veep and BBC political comedy The Thick of It, said there was more appreciation of creatives in the US, and the American executives had described the perceived scaling back of British television as “mad”.

He argued British content should be pushed harder, with more focus on international markets. “Let’s be more assertive; the international market flatters us with imitation: now’s the time to strike out not huddle down. If the licence fee is under strain, then let’s supplement it not carve it up, by pushing ourselves more commercially abroad,” said Iannucci.

“Use the BBC’s name, one of the most recognised brands in the world, and use the reputation of British television across all networks, to capitalise financially oversees, be more aggressive in selling our shows, through advertising, through proper international subscription channels, freeing up BBC Worldwide to be fully commercial, whatever it takes, frankly, don’t be icky and modest about making money.

“Let’s monetise the bezeesus Mary and Joseph out of our programmes abroad so that money can come back, take some pressure off the licence fee at home and be invested in even more ambitious quality shows, that can only add to our value.

“Dismantling it is madness. The question shouldn’t be, how do we cut it down to size, but why should we?”