Byrne, who became the sixth woman to deliver the annual lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival on Tuesday, urged the industry to improve its opportunities for older woman and people of colour, reflecting similar themes from last year’s lecture by actor Michaela Coel.
Addressing a packed auditorium, Byrne told delegates that she had been sexually assaulted during her time at former UK media giant Granada.
“That first day at Granada, a female boss had also told me that a director would take me out to teach me the basics of filming and he would sexually assault me, but I wasn’t to take it personally because he sexually assaulted all women he worked with.
“Sure enough, he did assault me – one of the few examples in my career of the promise of a TV boss coming true. His assault was a criminal offence but who could I complain to? I learned early on that, as a woman, I was on my own,” Byrne said.
The Channel 4 exec also said TV needed “big new ideas” to deal with “widespread disillusionment and a loss of a sense of belonging,” hitting out at politicians for being untruthful.
“UK broadcasters still make some great investigations but where are the programmes which shake all our assumptions about society?,” she said. “We have to stop being afraid of serious analysis authored by big brainy people. We have the ability and we have the airtime. Let’s make some really clever and difficult programs.”
Byrne also took aim at Netflix programming, adding that she had counted 29 different shows on the streamer that revolved around drugs.
“I wonder if there’s a drug cartel anywhere that’s not currently being followed by a streaming service. There’s also a plethora of programmes about serial killers. Programmes about mass murdering drug lords will contribute nothing to the reinvention of the UK’s political landscape.”
Byrne, who has been with C4 for more than 20 years, also drew attention to former speakers of the MacTaggart lecture, including disgraced actor Kevin Spacey, Shane Smith of Vice, whose company faced its own accusations of harassment, and three members of the Murdoch family.
“What are the chances of that, eh? I especially enjoyed James Murdoch from 2009. He told the audience that it was important to ‘encourage a world of trust’ and that newspaper readers were ‘treated with great seriousness and respect.’
“Let’s delight ourselves by remembering how Ofcom described him just three years later, in his role at News Group Newspapers during the hacking scandal. He ‘repeatedly fell short of the conduct to be expected of him as a chief executive and chairman’. So much for trust and respect.”
She added that “one name among my predecessors has not yet had the comeuppance he deserves for his assaults on women.”
Byrne continued: “That’s one of the things about being an old lady, you gather a lot of information over the years. To men who have behaved badly in the past, I say this: you know who you are. And so do I.”
“How can we represent the people of the UK if we ourselves are unrepresentative of the population?” she said, adding that “we don’t need older white men anymore and that they should be crushed out of the way.”