Louis Theroux has warned in his Edinburgh TV Festival MacTaggart address that an “atmosphere of anxiety” is leading to “less confident, less morally complex filmmaking.”
The celebrated documentarian reflected on a three decades-long career during which he has made shows about a wealth of topics pertaining to the fringes of society including on far-right extremists, sex workers and paedophiles.
He wondered aloud whether these programs “might be harder to get commissioned” today as he considered how populists and viral social media influencers have created a two-tier system of content when compared with impartial broadcasters like the BBC, a situaton that he likened to “an Olympics event where half the athletes are allowed to dope.”
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“We’re in a time of two parallel realities,” said Theroux. “The old world with our cherished values of ‘editorial policy’ and balance. And a new digital frontier where anything goes.”
While thanking the UK’s biggest public broadcaster for “giving me the latitude to pursue my interests,” Theroux said “lately there have been changes in the broader culture.”
“We are, I’m happy to say, more thoughtful about representation, about who gets to tell what story, about power and privilege, about the need not to wantonly give offence,” Theroux said, as he became the 37th MacTaggart lecturer. “I am fully signed up to that agenda.
“But I wonder if there is something else going on as well. That the very laudable aims of not giving offence have created an atmosphere of anxiety that sometimes leads to less confident, less morally complex filmmaking.”
Theroux considered how the “precepts of sensitivity have come into conflict with the words inscribed into the walls of [BBC HQ] New Broadcasting House,” which quotes George Orwell: “If Liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
He stressed that these shifts “reflect something far bigger than the BBC,” and pointed out that U.S. buyers turned down one of his recent documentaries on America before it was picked up by the BBC Select streaming service.
Using Jimmy Savile
Focusing back on the corporation, Theroux said it has been “fascinating and a little dispiriting” to see how the far-right, even in America, has attempted to use serial sex offender Jimmy Savile to tarnish the broadcaster.
Theroux has made two shows about Savile – one when he was yet to be posthumously outed and the other in 2016 when his crimes had been laid bare – and he called the former entertainer, who plied his trade for the national broadcaster for decades, a “convenient and easy shorthand to discredit and besmirch the BBC and anyone who works there.”
“The BBC often finds itself in a “no win situation,” Theroux went on to say, “trying to anticipate the latest volleys of criticisms, stampeded by this or that interest group, avoiding offence.”
Theroux said these criticisms “often come from former employees, writing for privately-owned newspapers whose proprietors would be all too happy to see their competition eliminated.”
“And so there is a temptation to lay low, to play it safe, to avoid the difficult subjects,” said Theroux. “But in avoiding those pinch points, the unresolved areas of culture where our anxieties and our painful dilemmas lie, we aren’t just failing to do our jobs, we are missing our greatest opportunities.”
Some of Theroux’s comments chimed with those of last year’s MacTaggart lecturer, Emily Maitlis, who warned of populism’s impact on traditional journalism and claimed an “active agent” of the Conservative Party was working with the national broadcaster, a barbed reference to Robbie Gibb.
After working solely for the BBC for years, Theroux unveiled a production company, Mindhouse, three years ago at Edinburgh, and he has since focused mainly on shows in which he doesn’t appear on screen, such as recently-unveiled Sky feature Tell Them You Love Me. He is also making a Lockerbie mini-series for Sky and Peacock, along with a BBC/CNN show on the Columbia space disaster.
“Working, for the first time, on shows which I don’t present has given me the insight that I’m better at television than I thought, and also worse,” he considered.
Theroux concluded with a clarion call and an ode to television, which he described as “godlike.”
“We need television that is confrontational, surprising, and upsetting,” he added. “We should aspire to challenge viewers’ assumptions and resist orthodoxy whenever possible. We serve social justice best when we aim to make television that reaches people and engages them. Take risks. Sail close to the wind.”
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