Dawn Airey Brace yourselves: Birt is back on the podium at Edinburgh T

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The Independent Online

But it would be a mistake to view the Edinburgh Television Festival as merely a nifty networking opportunity.

Unlike the Royal Television Society's biennial Cambridge Convention, which is devoted almost exclusively to matters of policy, programme-making is still at the heart of Edinburgh. Debates about public service funding will always jostle with such topics as television's reality overload and the extent to which Jamie Oliver should be allowed to dictate government policy.

Edinburgh is also unique for its keynote address, the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, named in honour of a famed Scottish producer. Delegates ranging from the chairman of the BBC Board of Governors to the lowliest Soho runner squeeze into the pews of the McEwan Hall to listen to the pronouncements of television's great and good.

Rereading a new collection of the MacTaggart Lectures*, one is struck by the remarkable prescience with which many of the speakers anticipated future broadcasting trends. It is also fascinating to recall the open hostility which greeted many of the ideas at the time, including reform of BBC governance and the shift away from social value to market forces as the key engine driving the medium.

Sixteen years ago Rupert Murdoch was widely derided when he tore apart the traditional broadcasting duopoly, presaging an age when "freedom and choice, rather than regulation and scarcity" would be the hallmarks of British TV. Yet he was right. Today the five terrestrial channels attract less than half the available audience in peak-time and are among hundreds of viewing choices.

Similarly, Sky's then chief executive Tony Ball dared to suggest two years ago that lavishing millions on Hollywood movies and cranking out tired old formats maybe weren't the most prudent ways to spend the licence fee. But the idea that the BBC should refrain from engaging in bidding wars and stop replicating populist formats is now firmly embedded in the Government's BBC Green Paper.

An equally audacious plan for the corporation was presented in 1996 by one of its own, then director-general John Birt, who outlined a blueprint for the BBC's survival in the digital age, something that was by no means assured at the time.

This year, the ennobled Lord Birt ascends to the podium once more, becoming only the second person in the history of the festival to have delivered a second MacTaggart (the first having been Greg Dyke in 1994 and 2000).

As the Prime Minister's adviser on strategy it's arguable he now has greater influence over the fate of the BBC than he ever did in his time inside its four walls. A fact that is aided by the impressive list of protégés he spawned: one is the number two at Ofcom; another is the Broadcasting Minister; and the third is the present Director-General.

Despite his recent public reticence, John Birt has never been one to hold his tongue. This is the man, after all, who recently argued for the redistribution of licence fee income to other broadcasters. He also went on record last year to attack ferociously what he described as the "slipshod" journalism and "sophistry" that occurred under Dyke's reign.

It promises to be a fascinating evening, not just in terms of its content but for the reactions it will provoke. Whether Birt's presentation alters broadcasting history, we'll just have to wait and see. My money is on a stark wake-up call to the industry. Not for nothing did Birt call his autobiography The Harder Path.

*Television Policy: The MacTaggart Lectures, edited by Bob Franklin (Edinburgh University Press)

Dawn Airey is managing director of Sky Networks and executive chair of the Edinburgh Television Festival

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