This year’s MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival was given by Dorothy Byrne and it is brilliant – sharp, incisive, important and very funny. It is a must-read for anyone interested in media, politics, the lack of democratic accountability enjoyed by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition (to say nothing of ‘unelected bureaucrats’ such as Dominic Cummings).

Compare the utter lack of scrutiny or accountability by Boris Johnson – to Parliament, let alone the media – with Macron’s two and a half hour press conference yesterday. Jeremy Corbyn’s absence also gets a serious dig. This is not about political sympathies or partisan claims; rather, it is about democracy, accountability, integrity and the culture we are creating … and the important role of the media in exposing dishonesty, lying, misrepresentation and obfuscation.

Even if you don’t agree with Byrne, it is a romp of a read.

Back from holiday on Arran, we finished off with a night in Liverpool and the Liverpool vs Manchester City game at Anfield this afternoon. Holidays are disorientating. My mind goes all over the place. I managed to read four novels in the week, but spent most time playing with my two year old grandson whose speech grew enormously. You can almost see the synapses joining up in the brain as he puts language together with self-consciousness.

But, that's all incidental. My mind has been, as I said, all over the place. The novels – all by Patrick Gale – made me think about family, church, ethics, storytelling, humanity, God and other interesting stuff. But, it was someone else whose words teased my imagination and made me muse on church, football and leadership. I haven't had time yet to read the full text of Elisabeth Murdoch's MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival at the end of last week, but one paragraph near the beginning did grab my attention:

A great creative organisation is like any successful community; it's a place of honesty, integrity, and an environment where curiosity and enthusiasm are the norm. It's a place that demands personal accountability, collective responsibility and true self-determination. It's a place where opportunity doesn't have to wait for a board meeting; a place that stimulates self-expression and encourages collaborative endeavour.

Here she is speaking about the culture of an independent creative media business. But, I wondered if the same could be said about the church – even if only thinking ideally. Even though people in the church are always complaining that if we were more like a business we would do things better, I also have experience of business and the rhetoric in business is not always matched by the reality.

But, whereas honesty and integrity should be fundamental to a church community, 'an environment where curiosity and enthusiasm are the norm' sounds strange. Yet – and I have often argued for this – curiosity is the 'key to the Kingdom' and something Jesus seemed always to be wanting to stimulate. If you don't believe me, just read the parables and use your imagination.

Perhaps if the church were characterised more by curiosity and enthusiasm (for its core purpose – as Murdoch seems to go on to suggest) it might become a more attractive and less intensely conflicted body. It might also bring into sharper relief the importance of 'personal accountability, collective responsibility and true self-determination', understood theologically as the purposeful driving motivators of those who claim any sort of allegiance to the church. Purpose puts conflict in its rightful place – which is not at the forefront of every conversation.

Move on from this to Anfield this afternoon. I know: this is weird.

I am always deeply moved to see, hear and join in with over 50,000 people singing 'You'll never walk alone'. I grew up with it. I don't often get to see Liverpool play these days, but when I do I get choked as the music starts when the teams come out. Why?

I have sometimes heard it said that if church were more like a football match more people would come. There is a common purpose (but also a common enemy – the opposition); there is a communal anthem (but not everybody joins in); the participatory event lasts for a limited time and the rules are clear (but some people, having paid a fortune to be there, still behave like morons); there is a measurable outcome at the end. So far, so good.

But, there are also loads of people who couldn't run down the garden path who scream indignantly, offering their advice to the athletes on the pitch and criticising their competence, credibility, intelligence, fitness for the job and parenthood. I heard one woman say she was bored with the match – despite it being fast, creative, draining on the nerves and frequently exciting. In other words, perhaps the footie experience is a bit like church in that the 'worship' brings together a broad range of people around a single event, allows expression of a wide range of emotional responses to what is being witnessed, is necessarily participatory, involves a shed load of activity aimed at claiming allegiance and commitment (financial as well as time and emotion), and makes space for whiners, moaners, hypocrites, the hard-to-please and the self-righteously arrogant. As well, of course, as the gloriously optimistic, the blindly proud, the wonderfully realistic and the hopefully celebratory.

I'm not staking my life on this stuff. I just thought about it on the way back from Liverpool to Bradford. I love Liverpool, I love the media, I love business, and I really love the church. No illusions about any of them and loads of fantasies about all of them. But, ultimately, I just love the fact that all of them involve real people with real lives, real contradictions, real glories and real stories. And – this might sound a bit obvious – I love the fact that when thinking about the church particularly, I refer to a narrative that presents a warts-and-all picture of a broad community of real people whose curiosity has been teased and who, despite all the other stuff, can't help being grasped by the wonder of it all or the enthusiasm of purpose which it excites.

(And Liverpool should have taken all three points. Scrappy defending for Man City's first goal and a terrible back pass for their second allowed a draw. But, Liverpool's passing game is getting better – and I would be more optimistic for Liverpool's season than City's on the evidence of today's game.)

At last. After several years of hearing the BBC and its public service remit being picked away at by the people who hope to benefit (financially, at the very least) from its decline, the Director General, Mark Thompson, has struck back with a powerful defence of the culture, ethos, purpose and performance of the Corporation.

In the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture in Edinburgh last night he talked tough and he challenged those who wish to see the BBC weakened. Predictably, the instant response from representatives of Sky and other independents was to claim the lecture amounted to little more than ‘a plea for the licence fee’. Why predictable? Because it is easier even for professionals to sneer than to engage with the debate on reasonable terms.

First of all, Thompson was not defensive about the BBC (in a protectionist way) and openly described the challenges facing the organisation in the next few years. One of these challenges is the deliberate negativity within the media industry (and politics) regarding the BBC:

The purists have spent a generation making the free market case for abolishing the licence fee and the British public agrees with them less now than they did when they started. Nor is there any evidence that the public have any enthusiasm for the privatisation of Channel 4, the Arts Council of the Air or any of the other schemes which the hardliners have come up over the years. But of course you wouldn’t know any of this if you based your assessment of public attitudes to British broadcasting on the evidence of most of the UK’s national newspapers. Systematic press attacks on broadcasters, and especially on the BBC, are nothing new of course ⎯ the first hostile campaigns began back in John Reith’s day ⎯ but the scale and intensity of the current assaults does feel different.

He then goes on to ram the point home:

Often the reporters freely admit to us that they know the story they’re working on is going to be ramped up, distorted or just plain nonsense. But as one journalist said to one of my colleagues recently: ‘It doesn’t matter about the facts, they just want to trash you.’ Now that’s what I call refreshing honesty. Not the public interest. Not accountability. We just want to trash you.

Now, hurting the feelings of BBC leaders is not the issue here. The issue is why there is such a strong agenda of negativity in sectors of the UK media against an institution revered around the world and (as every poll seems to suggest) loved by the public? (Read the report – he quotes figures.) By the time he has a go at Sky and the Murdoch Empire, it is clear that he is suspicious of the motives behind criticism from certain quarters.

Secondly, Thompson talks up the wider broadcasting field and stresses the need for a strong Channel 4, a strong ITV and a strong independent sector. Yet, he sees that strength lying in the commissioning of and investment in excellent British creative programming. Why? In order that all people have access to the best  and that we are not reduced to a lowest common denominator culture in which we simply buy in – regardless of quality – what everybody else is making abroad:

Exceptional per capita investment in new production has meant that we have a far bigger position in the most expensive forms of TV drama, comedy, landmark factual not a sufficient condition for producing the best TV in the world, but it is a necessary one.

As everyone knows, much of that investment derives from direct and indirect public intervention. Free market purists claim that, if you reduced or eliminated this intervention, the market would simply fill the gap. But look around the world. There are plenty of countries where public intervention is on the wane – licence fees cut, public broadcasters in decline – but in no country anywhere has the market stepped up to replace the lost programme investment.

But do not believe anyone who claims that cutting the licence fee is a way of growing the creative economy or that the loss in programme investment which would follow a substantial reduction in the BBC’s funding could be magically made up from somewhere else. It just wouldn’t happen. A pound out of the commissioning budget of the BBC is a pound out of UK creative economy. Once gone, it will be gone forever.

Thompson makes his case strongly, but the speech needs to be read as a whole and only then addressed critically. The BBC faces significant challenges, but it needs people at the top who believe in it, are not afraid of fighting for it and can articulate a vision for its confident role in the emerging digital world. It feels to me like we have heard a strong first strike. We need more.

I didn’t realise I felt so strongly about the value of the BBC in this competitive world until I heard James Murdoch’s MacTaggart Lecture last year. The brazen amorality of his case and the deliberate omission of anything that confounded his argument (News Corp says it wants competition, but actually wants to be dominant across the media platforms, eliminating the competition it doesn’t like…) was shocking. The massive progress led by Murdoch Senior in changing the way the media operate were undermined (in my view and that of some others who are interested in media policy) by Murdoch Junior’s arrogance – the arrogance of those who have power and know they have the money to increase their concentration of power. As Thompson observes:

Sky is already a far more powerful commercial counterweight to the BBC than ITV ever was. It is well on its way to being the most dominant force in broadcast media in this country. Moreover, if News Corp’s proposal to acquire all of the remaining shares in Sky goes through, Sky will not just be Britain’s biggest broadcaster, but a full part of a company which is also dominant in national newspapers as well as one of the Britain’s biggest publishers.

According to Enders analysis, it will be a concentration of cross-media ownership which would not be allowed in the United States or Australia, News Corp’s other two most important markets.

Compare the ethical assumptions behind these two statements:

There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.


People say to me ⎯ ‘aren’t you afraid that Sky is going to start spending more on original British programmes 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… What would success look like? Strong creative and commercial revival at ITV, 4 and 5. A Sky which was as proud of spending hundreds of millions of pounds on new British programmes as on the HBO archive. British producers succeeding in international markets, not at the expense of quality but because of it.

The former was James Murdoch’s conclusion, the latter Mark Thompson’s.

Mark Thompson has taken the debate to the nay-sayers and has raised the rhetorical stakes. There are interesting times ahead.