Previous speakers include Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner and Norman Lear.
Byrne addressed a range of issues during her speech including her take on the news and current affairs sector in the UK, the current state of British politics as it pertains to news and journalism as well as the need for diversity.
However, one of the main thrusts of her speech was sexual harassment.
She joked that she was not first choice for the lecture. “I was telephoned late on a Friday night a few weeks ago while dancing at the Hebridean Celtic Festival in Stornoway. So, I realized at once I was your first choice. But we old ladies – or even wee old ladies – are not proud. Decades of cervical smears destroy all pride.”
She said the first thing she did when she got the call was to “check out my illustrious predecessors”.
“Kevin Spacey. He proved to be a good choice…. Shane Smith of Vice, an organization well-named as it turned out. And by an extraordinary coincidence three people with the same surname – Murdoch. What are the chances of that, eh? I especially enjoyed James Murdoch from 2009. He told the audience that it was important to ‘encourage a world of trust’ and that newspaper readers were ‘treated with great seriousness and respect.’ Let’s delight ourselves by remembering how Ofcom described him just three years later, in his role at News Group Newspapers during the hacking scandal. He ‘repeatedly fell short of the conduct to be expected of him as a chief executive and chairman’. So much for trust and respect.”
She said that she met James Murdoch once and that he “patronized and dismissed” her. “Hey James, now I patronize and dismiss you.”
Elsewhere, she slammed Netflix for the types of documentaries that it airs. “I counted 29 different programs on Netflix about drugs. I wonder if there’s a drug cartel anywhere that’s not currently being followed by a streaming service,” she said. “There’s also a plethora of programs about serial killers. Programs about mass murdering drug lords will contribute nothing to the reinvention of the UK’s political landscape.”
Byrne said that she didn’t see “big ideas on TV” now. “Our country is undergoing seismic changes. There is widespread disillusion and a loss of a sense of belonging as society fragments. Whatever happens about Brexit, we need big new ideas to take us forward. But I don’t see big ideas on TV now. Too many programs are saying small or medium-sized things about society. Where do we go for big ideas? Books, Tedtalks, podcasts, all really popular.
“On the news, I’m hearing every day that the very fabric of our democratic system is being ripped to shreds. But where is this crisis being analyzed outside of the news. UK broadcasters still make some great investigations but where are the programs which shake all our assumptions about society?”
Another topic that came up was women in the workplace, calling for broadcasters to do better to keep women after they have children and improve flexible working.
Somewhat surprisingly, she told a funny story about ITV programming boss Kevin Lygo illustrating the difficulties of getting male TV executives to understand the menopause.
“The problem barely discussed is the menopause. Even getting your boss to understand there is such a thing as the menopause can be a problem. Kevin Lygo is an inspirational leader but his knowledge of middle-aged women’s medical matters is perhaps wanting. When he was my boss, we were meeting one day when he suddenly remarked that I looked seriously unwell. I said I was not ill. ‘But you’ve gone all red and you seem to have a fever,’ he said. I repeated, ‘I am not ill Kevin,’ in what I thought was a meaningful way. He repeated that I was and I should go home. So I went back to my desk and announced I was leaving for the day. Everyone asked me why and I said, ‘Because my boss has never heard of the menopause.’ More recently Kevin has told me that this misunderstanding occurred because he assumed I was too young to being going through the change of life. What a charmer.”
Despite this, she went on to recommend television journalism to young women. “In what other line of work when some bastard annoys you or you hear of some absolute disgrace, can you say to yourself, ‘I’m going to make a program exposing that and I’ll put a stop to it.’ And sometimes you even do.”