Cambridge first-timer Cassian Harrison gets stage fright and mixes with multimillionaires. Plus there’s a freebie for the family
And so to my first-ever RTS Cambridge Convention: nine months of meetings, a few too many summer weekends spent writing presentations and chatting to panellists around the world, all to prepare for (what I hope will be) an extravaganza of an opening session.
I am to discover a very enjoyable, if also slightly surreal, three days: a heady cocktail of retro student living (a single college bed for the first time in 30 years?), shoulder-rubbing with a shoal of multimillionaires (don’t often do that in public service broadcasting), along with a judicious leavening of fine wines and even better conversation.
- I had been informed by everyone from the DG’s office down that the opening session of Cambridge makes or breaks the convention, so I wasn’t feeling the pressure – much.
I (and many valiant collaborators, including Jean-Paul Petranca of the Boston Consulting Group and David Bunker of BBC Audiences) had prepared what we hoped would be an effervescent amuse-bouche of big data on the future of TV, a first-rate panel of global thinkers and a rather unique set of videos.
- At the appointed moment, I stand up, stagger my way through an autocue baptism (believe me, Jeremy Corbyn did well), and leave the stage to James Purnell and panel to set the Convention running.
The whole thing still feels in the balance until we play the first of our videos. Stephen Lambert and his brilliant team had secretly made three films with the Gogglebox families, showing their reactions to a future where smartphones rule and traditional TV has all but vanished.
The families’ responses are brilliant: funny, trenchant and full of wisdom. As the Convention audience dissolves into laughter, I know we’ve broken the ice and are up and running.
- For me, the most fascinating part of the debate that follows is between Emily Bell (ex of The Guardian and now of Columbia University) and Ben Evans (a Partner at Andreessen Horowitz).
Emily gives a passionate warning about the dangers of so much journalism now being delivered through global social-media platforms, such as Facebook, which are entirely unregulated. Ben simply doesn’t see the problem.
It’s a powerful clash between two liberal visions – East Coast and West Coast – but also feels strangely irrelevant to us in the UK. I realise just how protected we feel by the guaranteed balance of, not just the BBC, but all television news in the UK.
- The big moment of day two of the Convention is Tony Hall’s speech. I’d been pulled into helping to craft the argument over the previous couple of weeks.
It was impressive to see how he and his team worked, marshalling their arguments with wisdom and good humour at what is a critical time for the BBC.
Tony gave over his weekends to bring a genuinely personal perspective and passion to the words.
I’m glad the speech goes down well, both in the room and in the wider world. And I’m secretly pleased that a good few of my thoughts made it to the final draft.
- Back to London on Friday evening, brandishing my Convention going-home presents – two Google Cardboards. These are fold-out cardboard boxes that turn any smartphone into a VR headset. Amazingly, they are more popular with the family than the BBC Four mug I brought home last year.
Cassian Harrison is Channel Editor, BBC Four.