Edinburgh TV Festival: What we learned about the future of the BBC from John Whittingdale and Armando Iannucci

Armando Iannucci delivers his MacTaggart lecture

The first day of the 40th annual TV Festival in Edinburgh was dominated by the ongoing debate about the future of the BBC.

John Whittingdale, the minister for culture, has had much to say about the national broadcaster in the past and probably regarded his trip to Scotland with greater trepidation than ministers usually do when venturing north of the border... and that's really saying something these days.

But this Daniel walked into the lions' den with a well-prepared plan. Correctly anticipating the nature of the attack he and his colleagues would face from Armando Iannucci in his MacTaggart lecture later in the day, the minister got his retaliation in first. And it was clever. He suggested that anyone who imagined the government wanted to dismantle the BBC was "tilting at windmills" and hit a much more conciliatory tone than he has before.

ITN's Alastair Stewart put Whittingdale through a facsimile of a rigorous going-over, reminding him that they were "old friends" whenever posing a question that provided any potential difficulties. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the minister acquitted himself well and those who were privy to the embargoed advance copy of Iannucci's speech witnessed a slight scaling-down of the language used to describe the existential threat to the BBC.

Meanwhile, in another room, BBC head of news James Harding surprised some commentators when he declined the opportunity to deny that the corporation's dedicated news channel could follow BBC Three into the online-only space. His sanguinity may be a reflection of a general belief that the distinction between what we call 'television' and what we call 'internet' will be so blurred by then that it won't really matter what kind of broadcaster you are.

And that would make sense as Harding and the other news luminaries on the panel are nothing short of obsessed with figuring out how to reach the widest possible audience online, and if that means sharing space with 'cat videos' then so be it. Harding declared himself confident that audiences want the 'spinach' of serious news as well as the 'cheesecake' of internet frivolity.

At the main event, Armando Iannucci launched a passionate defence of the BBC. He mocked John Whittingdale'svolte-face on 'Strictly Come Dancing' as a manoeuvre that could earn him a lot on the show and suggested it is emblematic of an overall confusion in the government's approach to the BBC.

There's little doubt that Iannucci's clever, funny attack had been neutered by Whittingdale's pre-emptive defence but that wasn't its only problem. There were few surprises in his speech and had most of the assembled media hacks written their commentaries before the release of the embargoed copy they wouldn't have been far wrong. Only his call for greater commercialisation of the BBC's output raised any eyebrows – and even that wasn't exactly revolutionary.

The speech was received well and it had some good jokes but–- as his defence performance on Radio 4's Today programme this morning demonstrated – he hasn't really advanced the debate.

Jason Stone is a media writer and editor of David Reviews. Follow our live coverage from the Edinburgh International TV Festival here

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