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Byrne hits out at TV’s ‘sexist bastards’

Dorothy Byrne during her MacTaggart lecture

ETF: Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at the UK’s Channel 4, used her MacTaggart lecture to discuss being sexually assaulted, lambast politicians for lying and stress the role TV must play in preserving democracy.

Delivering the annual James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Byrne said the TV industry still needs to become a better place for older women and people of colour to work. This picked up where last year’s MacTaggart, from actor and screenwriter Michaela Coel, left off.

Taking aim at “sexist bastards” in the TV industry, Byrne followed Coel in also recounting her own experience of sexual assault early on in her TV career: “That first day at Granada, a female boss had also told me that a director would take me out to teach me the basics of filming and he would sexually assault me, but I wasn’t to take it personally because he sexually assaulted all women he worked with.

“Sure enough, he did assault me – one of the few examples in my career of the promise of a TV boss coming true. His assault was a criminal offence but who could I complain to? I learned early on that, as a woman, I was on my own,” said Byrne.

Discussing the previous industry figures to have delivered the MacTaggart lecture, Byrne deadpanned that actor Kevin Spacey, who gave the keynote in 2013 and has since been accused of sexual misconduct, had “proved to be a good choice.”

Byrne, one of the longest-serving commissioning heads in the industry, also claimed one of the previous people to deliver the MacTaggart, which has been a fixture at the annual event since 1976, is guilty of abusing women.

“Elsewhere on the list, I spotted one name among my predecessors who has not yet had the comeuppance he deserves for his assaults on women. That’s one of the things about being an old lady, you gather a lot of information over the years. To men who have behaved badly in the past, I say this: you know who you are. And so do I.”

Describing herself as “the first old lady” to be invited to deliver the TV festival’s keynote speech, named in honour of the Scottish television producer, director and writer who died in 1974, Byrne pointed out she is also “just about the oldest female TV executive working for a broadcaster” in the UK.

Byrne said the TV industry’s ongoing efforts to become more inclusive and less dominated by “posh boys” were vital but well behind schedule.

Byrne added that while the overt racism she saw at companies such as Granada in the 1980s “would never happen now,” she described the lack of progress in increasing ethnic diversity in television as the “single most disappointing failure” during her career.

“How can we represent the people of the UK if we ourselves are unrepresentative of the population?” asked Byrne, adding it was also important to “resist the idea that we don’t need older white men anymore and that they should be crushed out of the way.”

The exec also emphasised the need to keep women in the workplace after they have children and reach the menopause, with more needing to be done to raise awareness around menopausal symptoms.

“The problem barely discussed is the menopause. A quarter of women suffer significant symptoms and a major survey found that a quarter of women considered giving up work these were so bad. Often this problem coincides with parents falling sick and children taking major exams.

“That happened to me and life was a real struggle. Major broadcasters and larger companies need to take the lead by offering flexible and reduced working to older women so they are not lost to the industry.”

Also during Byrne’s lecture, she voiced concerns about the trend for high-profile politicians, such as US president Donald Trump, British prime minister Boris Johnson and UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to avoid televised interviews with journalists and instead deliver their messages via social media.

“There has been a dramatic fall in politicians holding themselves up to proper scrutiny on TV and in recent months, and even weeks, that decline has, in my view, become critical for our democracy,” said Byrne, pointing to the likelihood of a UK general election as the country prepares to leave the European Union.

“I genuinely fear that in the next election campaign there will be too little proper democratic debate and scrutiny to enable voters to make informed decisions,” said Byrne.

Turning to Trump, Byrne said: “If the leader of a democracy no longer believes in the fundamental importance of truth, then that democracy is undermined. That is what has happened in the US and we must not allow it to happen here. I believe that we need to start calling politicians out as liars when they lie.”

The veteran exec called on UK broadcasters make better use of online factchecking services to include factually correct information in their programming to help viewers realise when politicians were lying.

“It’s time for the television industry to stand up for itself and speak out publicly against what is happening,” said Byrne.

The exec also criticised the UK TV industry for failing to address major fractures in contemporary British society in its programming in the same way media such as books and podcasts have.

“We are all desperate for young audiences. Millions of young people are now politically aware and active. We have to stop being afraid of serious analysis authored by big, brainy people. We have the ability and we have the airtime. Let’s make some really clever and difficult programmes,” said Byrne.

The exec took a swipe at US-based streaming services such as Netflix, saying: “I counted 29 different programmes on Netflix about drugs… and a plethora of programmes about serial killers. Programmes about mass murdering drug lords will contribute nothing to the reinvention of the UK’s political landscape.”

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