It's big - but it's not clever

Media executives often come up with ideas that sound plausible and insightful, but turn out to be foolish. So says The Independent's Raymond Snoddy in his Alternative MacTaggart lecture at this year's Edinburgh Television Festival
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On a recent trip to my native Northern Ireland I came across a most interesting character. His name was Thick - or more precisely had been Thick. So annoyed and depressed had he been by his surname and the preconceptions it engendered that he decided to change it. He had always been a big fan of the Godfather movies. It therefore took only a relatively small imaginative leap to decide that it would be a good plan to change his name to... Corleone. It was his big idea.

The story struck me as a perfect metaphor for my Alternative MacTaggart. You take a real and clearly identifiable problem. You apply an admirable amount of imagination and knowledge, and often a ferocious degree of intelligence to solving it - and you end up in a far worse jam than the one you started in.

This talk is dedicated to every Mr Thick in the media and broadcasting industry who fondly believes in the importance of having a big idea and that they will be infinitely better off when they have transformed themselves into a Mr Corleone.

How is it that intelligent and well-meaning people in the media manage so effortlessly to come up with really big ideas that turn out to be exceedingly daft?

By analysing known examples of big ideas that turned out to be total crap, it might be possible one day to eliminate future outbreaks, or at least limit the potential damage. But first I must tell you the sort of things I have in mind.

Ted Turner

Ted Turner famously predicted that newspapers would be dead by the year 2000. Instead it is Turner who, if not exactly dead, has been greatly diminished and impoverished - all because he embraced the utterly daft idea that the future prospects of AOL somehow equated to the real 100-year-old solid media assets of Time Warner. This is a clear example of one kind of big idea that almost always turns out to be wrong - the belief that new technology will instantly wipe out all that has gone before.

Rupert Murdoch

Rupert's slightly less dramatic suggestion was that by around now there would be only three national newspapers left in the UK - one that looks like The Sun, one that looks like The Times with the Daily Mail occupying the last remaining slot. Tell that to the soaraway Independent. Of course it might happen one day, but it clearly hasn't yet and shows no obvious signs of doing so any time soon. This is perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the big idea that goes badly wrong - identifying a perfectly plausible endgame and completely misjudging the likely timescale involved and exaggerating the degree of inevitability.

Peter Jay

One of my favourite broadcasting big ideas dates back to the 1981 MacTaggart lecture given by the once-described "cleverest man in England", Peter Jay, the former journalist and British ambassador to Washington. The great man forecast that by 2000 the proliferation of outlets - video, satellite and fibre optic cable - would result in the almost total deregulation of broadcasting. "There need be no limit to what can be published electronically other than the general law and what the public (and others) are prepared to pay for," Jay argued. Up to a point. But how strange it is that these visions are always about to happen some time in the future and are in fact rather reminiscent of South Sea island Cargo Cults.

Ian Hargreaves

Move forward a decade and we have the thoughts of another decidedly clever man, former editor of The Independent, the New Statesman and senior BBC honcho, Ian Hargreaves. In a pamphlet published by the think-tank Demos in 1993, he argued that the television licence fee would in the end no longer be viable and therefore there was no time to lose in moving the BBC to subscription, in order to do so from a position of strength, rather than allowing the BBC to wither on the vine. He may ultimately be proven to be right but perhaps even Ian, more than decade later, would admit that his timing was a little off. Certainly the BBC would have waved goodbye to the certainty of around £15bn in licence-fee income if his advice had been acted on and would be a very different, more market-driven animal today.

Mark Thompson

The BBC director-general was also a little bit ahead of himself - maybe quite a lot ahead of himself - when he suggested at the Banff television festival three years ago that the growth of multi-channel viewing meant that mainstream stations would have to become more genre-specific in future in order to survive. After all, it had happened already in a more extreme form with radio, so why should television be immune?

Either in response to this clever big idea, or perhaps in an over-interpretation of it by underlings - another danger with big ideas - BBC Television changed dramatically as a result. BBC1 came to specialise mainly in entertainment, while factual and current affairs were dispatched to BBC2. And, rather shamefully, arts programming disappeared almost entirely. Although it was always denied, clearly BBC4 was intended as the final resting place for arts until the governors rather belatedly woke up and realised what was being done in their name. Arts programmes are the canaries in the coal mine of public-service broadcasting and how shameful it was that it took the intervention of the BBC governors to bring arts back to mainstream BBC television.

Tony Ball

At this very festival last year, the former BSkyB chief executive Tony Ball proposed that in future the BBC should not show any foreign programmes and should be required to auction off as many as six of its most popular programmes every year to the highest bidder. You can't get a dafter couple of ideas than that and anyway, who precisely do you think would have benefited most from such suggestions if they had ever been put into practise? Yet because of the status thing, people who should have known better were running around at Edinburgh last year saying "what an intriguing idea" - rather in the way that BBC executives used to laugh like drains at all of Greg Dyke's middling jokes, as if they were the funniest things they had ever heard - while he remained director-general, of course.

Michael Green

There seems to be no modest middle way with media executives. If it's not pessimism, it's reckless, exuberant over-optimism. When I suggested to Carlton founder Michael Green before the launch of ONdigital that the venture stood little chance of success against the might of BSkyB, the reply was undiluted confidence. It was a 20-year licence and anyway, the Government simply couldn't let the project fail. It was too important to its digital strategy and collapse would be far too embarrassing. Is that really so, Michael?

The Board of Channel 4

This organisation has recently produced the mother of really big ideas: the notion that Channel 4 should merge with Five.

Who would benefit from such a development? The answer is obvious: Five in general and Clive Hollick, chief executive of United Business Media, in particular. Lord Hollick has repeatedly made it clear he has no interest whatsoever in being involved in commercial television. All he wants to do is sell his stake in Five for a price he feels meets his ambitions. Absolutely nothing wrong in that, but it seems strange that the board of Channel 4 should be lying on their backs and waggling their legs in the air just to boost Lord Hollick's bonus.

Well, Michael Grade seems to have made a good start as BBC chairman but so far it only adds up to the usual fine words. I believe he will be up to the task, but he will undoubtedly have to face many clever people in the BBC who are capable of generating an endless stream of obfuscating big ideas. None the less, I have every confidence he has been around the track enough times to recognise bullshit when he encounters it.

My immediate task now is to introduce Mr Grade to my good friend Mr Corleone so he can serve as a perpetual warning against the danger of being seduced by big, plausible ideas.