Louis Theroux says the TV industry’s fear of causing offence has created an ‘atmosphere of anxiety’ and accuses the BBC of seeking to ‘avoid difficult subjects’
- The documentary star was giving a speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival
The TV industry’s fear of causing offence has led to an ‘atmosphere of anxiety’ and ‘less confident’ programming, Louis Theroux said last night.
Giving a keynote speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival, the BBC documentary star also took aim at the Corporation as he accused it of seeking to ‘play it safe’ and ‘avoid the difficult subjects’.
While Theroux is best known for his 2000 special on paedophile celebrity Jimmy Savile, his other documentary subjects have included the Church of Scientology, neo-Nazis, crystal meth, plastic surgery and America’s notorious San Quentin prison.
His MacTaggart Lecture last night came against the backdrop of fierce debate about the influence of the ‘woke’ agenda on television and society in general, with concerns that ‘cancel culture’ is leading to less risky decision-making on programmes.
Addressing an audience of broadcast professionals in his prestigious speech, he spoke about a new focus in television that was ‘more thoughtful about representation, about who gets to tell what story, about power and privilege, about the need not to want only give offence’.
Documentary star Louis Theroux was giving a keynote speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival. He took aim at the BBC as he accused it of seeking to ‘play it safe’
Addressing an audience of broadcast professionals in his prestigious speech, he spoke about a new focus in television that was ‘more thoughtful about representation
But while saying he was personally ‘fully signed up to that agenda’, he added: ‘I wonder if there is something else going on as well.
‘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 added that a potential knock-on effect was that ‘programmes about extremists and sex workers and paedophiles might be harder to get commissioned’.
Speaking specifically about the Corporation, he said: ‘From working so many years at the BBC, and still making programmes for the BBC, I see all too well the no-win situation it often finds itself in.
‘Trying to anticipate the latest volleys of criticisms. Stampeded by this or that interest group. Avoiding offence.
‘Often the criticisms come from its own former employees, writing for privately owned newspapers whose proprietors would be all too happy to see their competition eliminated.
‘And so there is an urge to lay low, to play it safe, to avoid the difficult subjects.’
He added: ‘But in avoiding those pinch points, 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.’
Theroux said: ‘Taking risks can mean failure…..But I’d rather fail on my terms than succeed on someone else’s.
‘And 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 also spoke about his 2000 Jimmy Savile documentary – which some see as a missed opportunity to expose the paedophile before his death
In the speech he also addressed his Savile documentary, which has been retrospectively seen by some as a missed opportunity to expose the star before his death, as it hinted at the TV presenter’s dark side.
He said: ‘I was among many examining their consciences to figure out if there was anything I could have done differently.’
The documentary maker said it had been ‘fascinating’ and ‘a little dispiriting’ at how the ‘Right’ and ‘especially the far-Right’ had used Jimmy Savile, ‘cynically, as a stick to beat the BBC’.
He added: ‘In the fever swamps of the internet, Jimmy Savile has become a meme. A convenient and easy shorthand to discredit and besmirch the BBC and anyone who works there.’
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