Just a glorified trade fair

Observations on television

After one particularly flaccid session about how to make hit programmes, an ITV executive remarked of the Edinburgh television festival: "It's become like the Labour Party conference. No one dares say anything, with spin-doctors watching every move."

The evidence seemed to bear him out. At another debate BSkyB's Dawn Airey, chair of the festival and usually the liveliest personality around, checked herself when about to be indiscreet (or just interesting) about her employer, catching the eye of the company PR. And throughout a session on ITV, the two people who run the network sat in silence at the back of the hall.

Today's festival bears no relation to the gathering that John (now Lord) Birt helped create 30 years ago and reminisced about in his derided opening MacTaggart lecture. Then it was a "radical departure", with firebrands such as (Lord) Gus Macdonald (yes, really) "putting media executives on the spot" at the seedy Assembly rooms. I caught the end of this when I started attending Edinburgh 19 years ago. There were spectacular rows. Just as Birt is no longer a shy youth, hair on shoulders, embarrassed as Marianne Faithfull "ground her bum against me" while snogging Mick Jagger, so the festival has changed in spirit and focus, without anyone really saying so.

One factor causing dissatisfaction is that the opening lecture is supposed to be "agenda-setting" and start a row, but this year Birt predictably failed to do so (though he was spectacularly rude at a private Guardian party a day later). A temperate speech doesn't position the festival at the centre of media debate, but when some 2,000 buzzy media types have given up their bank holiday to jet up to Edinburgh they like to think they're seeing the world change a bit - as when Janet Street-Porter attacked "grey, boring men in suits running TV", or Rupert Murdoch dismissed British television as "Stone Age" and Dennis Potter called Birt a "croak-voiced Dalek".

Without that "hold the front page" factor, the reality emerges: the festival is more of a trade fair than anyone admits. The popular sessions are those offering the scent of money, and the rank and file of delegates are insecure independent producers and their minions, hustling for business. They don't do rows like the salaried executives used to.

With five sessions running at any one time, the event is also a mirror image of the multi-channel environment: there is choice, but not always quality. Germaine Greer, the Alternative MacTaggart lecturer, told anyone who would listen that she hadn't written a speech because she wasn't being paid.

There are few occasions now for everyone to mingle. The commissioners are relieved: they are hassled less. Visiting the bar in the George Hotel is no longer de rigueur, and, with Channel 4 dispensing free champagne for the lucky elite in the Georgian splendour of Soho House, why venture out?

Channel 4's founder, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, once remarked in an Edinburgh speech that "it's only television". Perhaps he was ahead of his time.

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