Louis Theroux has used his MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival to urge programme makers and broadcasters not to shy away from difficult or “morally complex” topics.
He said that while it’s a good thing that television is now “more thoughtful about representation, about who gets to tell what story, about power and privilege, about the need not to wantonly give offence,” he wondered “if there is something else going on as well and 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.”
He said that increased sensitivity may have “come into conflict with the words inscribed into the walls of New Broadcasting House, attributed to George Orwell. “If Liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Theroux said he sess the “no-win” situation the BBC often finds itself in “trying to anticipate the latest volleys of criticisms. Stampeded by this or that interest group. Avoiding offence” with criticism often coming from “its own former employees, writing for privately owned newspapers whose proprietors would be all too happy to see their competition eliminated.”
All this, said Theroux, leads to a “temptation to lay low, to play it safe, to avoid the difficult subjects.”
But, he said in avoiding “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. For feeling. For figuring things out in benign and thoughtful ways. For expanding our thinking. For creating a union of connected souls.”
He said that while “taking risks can mean failure… the risk of not taking risks is something worse. Not just failure, but a kind of loss of integrity. A mimicry, that is a denial of oneself. A forgetting of the melody of one’s own soul.”
Theroux went on to talk about AI and how risk means it won’t make any great inroads to documentary. “We’ve all seen the amazing results AI can produce. In a few years it may be able to write a passable sitcom or action movie. Or a MacTaggart. But what it won’t be able to do is take risks. Because risk involves danger. And there’s no danger for machines. Risk involves real feeling. The possibility of humiliation, embarrassment, failure.
“Humans experience all those emotions and more. As a species we are flawed and as individuals we are doomed. We’re fucked up. And therein lies our strength. We connect over the frailties we have in common. We feed on the recognition of the common lot of human weakness. And when we recognise something real, there’s no substitute for it.”
Photo: Shutterstock for Edinburgh TV Festival
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