Armando Iannucci to address future of TV in MacTaggart Lecture


Writer and director Armando Iannucci will turn his attention to the future of broadcasting at a TV industry get-together tonight.

The satirist will deliver the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, the keynote address at the 40th Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival.

Oscar and Emmy-nominated Iannucci, who directed the cult hit I'm Alan Partridge and political comedies The Thick Of It and Veep, will discuss the theme of what television channels are for, as well as the future of BBC funding, government interference and the changing dynamic of how the public view TV.

Iannucci's lecture comes as debate continues about the future of the BBC.

Speaking ahead of the festival, Danny Cohen, director of BBC television, said the BBC is "at the heart of UK national life".

He said 97% of the population are using the BBC every week, which he described as an "astonishing number", adding that he thinks it is "testament to the quality of the work we're doing".

Mr Cohen highlighted the importance of the public's role and what they want from the BBC.

"Don't know if you've read all of the Government green paper but we welcome this debate about the BBC, it should happen every few years, but the key to it should be about what the public want, it shouldn't just be about what opinion-formers want, it should be talking to the public, what the public want from the BBC, how can a strong BBC be used to benefit Britain and what do they want from it.

"I think that need now for the public's voice in this debate to be paramount is very important," he said.

His comments come as the Culture, Media and Sport Committee prepares to scrutinise the BBC's charter review, which sets the parameters within which the corporation operates.

Last week the chairman of the broadcaster's governing body also said the BBC's future should be decided by the public rather than politicians with vested interests.

BBC Trust chief Rona Fairhead said MPs should not be allowed to interfere unduly with the editorial decision-making by the public service institution.

Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has previously said the review of the BBC's royal charter would look at whether the BBC should continue to be "all things to all people" or have a more "precisely targeted" mission.

Mr Whittingdale will be interviewed at the festival today, and Mr Cohen said they will "listen carefully to what John says, and see which bits we agree with and which bits we don't".

He added: "I don't think politicians want to choose what is on Saturday nights and nor should they.

"People in TV should make those choices and the public vote with their remote controls whether they like it or not.

"I don't think it'd be right, to be fair to John (Whittingdale) he's not said he thinks he should be making those individual decisions."

Mr Cohen said he does not know what Mr Whittingdale will say but said "in general he's a strong supporter of the creative industries".

The BBC Trust previously said MPs should be given a vote on any future plans to change BBC funding.

The trust's response to the Government's green paper on the future of the BBC said the current 10-year charter could be extended by another year and argued for "a legal obligation" in the next charter to make sure there was "parliamentary approval for any change to the BBC's funding".

The trust, which has also published a series of questions asking audiences for their views on the BBC, said the broadcaster was built on "a broad mission" including news coverage and entertainment.

Unveiling the green paper last month, Mr Whittingdale sparked speculation the BBC may be told to cut back on popular programming which competes with shows available on commercial broadcasters or to reduce its online presence, and he raised questions about the future of the licence fee, suggesting that the BBC could switch to a subscription service in the long-run.

Commenting on the feeling between the BBC and the Government going into Edinburgh, Mr Cohen said: "I think we know we've had, we've got the best settlement we believe we could get in challenging circumstances, I think there's been, you know, robust negotiations on both sides.

"I think we want to be open, we want to hear what they have to say, but we also clearly want to defend the BBC's purpose and importance of the licence fee and the importance of it to the creative industries, and why that matters."

He also spoke up for the BBC's entertainment output.

"I'm going to make a strong defence whenever I can at Edinburgh about entertainment on the BBC. I don't know why personally entertainment has become a dirty word in the context of the BBC.

"The BBC has always provided a fair amount of entertainment, the battle for Saturday night TV between BBC and ITV has been going on for ages, it's driven standards, it's driven competition - I don't think the viewer has in any way been a loser in that, they've just had a lot more great shows, and we truly believe we should be providing that as part of inform, educate and entertain," he said.

Commenting on the deal that gave the BBC responsibility for funding free TV licences for the over-75s, Mr Cohen said: "We weren't expecting to take on the costs of the over-75s but we know this is a tough time and we have to take our share of that."

Meanwhile, Steven Moffat, the man behind some of the BBC's biggest shows, including Sherlock and Doctor Who, has already hit out at the Government's plans for the corporation.

He said the BBC was "a beacon of quality" and described the recent green paper as "wretched" and "wrong".

And Sir David Attenborough confirmed he was asked by the BBC to sign a letter to the Prime Minister calling on him to protect the corporation from cuts.

Joining him in signing were stars including Daniel Craig, Dame Judi Dench, JK Rowling and Chris Evans.

When he was announced as the speaker in May, Iannucci said: "In the current climate where no one knows what the hell is going to happen to TV schedules, revenues, watching habits, funding, quality control, the BBC, investment, licence fees, charters, and government interference, I'm terribly excited to be asked to join the debate in this, perhaps our most spectacularly clueless year.

"Nobody knows anything, and in my MacTaggart Lecture I'm sure that will become abundantly clear. I'll do my very best, though, to show why TV still matters."

Previous MacTaggart Lecture speakers have included Kevin Spacey, James Murdoch, Jeremy Paxman, Greg Dyke, Dennis Potter and Eric Schmidt.

The festival runs from August 26 to 28.