Louis Theroux says there’s an ‘atmosphere of anxiety’ in TV industry during MacTaggart lecture

Louis Theroux has called on TV producers to “take risks” amid an “atmosphere of anxiety” in the industry.

On Thursday (24 August), the documentary-maker delivered the prestigious MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival.

During his talk, Theroux said that he felt it was harder to make his brand of programmes “investigating worlds viewed as stigmatised or controversial” because broadcasters wanted to “play it safe”.

The 53-year-old suggested there is an “atmosphere of anxiety” in the TV industry, leading broadcasters like the BBC with a “temptation to lay low”.

“I want to take the risk of going out speaking to people I profoundly disagree with and making documentaries about them,” he said.

Reflecting on his career investigating groups such as sexual predators and Nazis, he said: “Often the stories made me nervous. They felt risky. But it was also true that those shows that had real moral complexity to them were the ones that worked best.

“The less morally fraught episodes – the ones that were safer – haven’t aged so well.”

While Theroux stressed that he was in favour of better representation and not wanting to cause offence, 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 film-making.”

Presenter gave the MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
Presenter gave the MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

“As a result, programmes about extremists and sex workers and paedophiles might be harder to get commissioned… There is a temptation to lay low, to play it safe, to avoid the difficult subjects.”

Theroux continued: “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. For feeling. For figuring things out in a benign and thoughtful way. For expanding our thinking. For creating a union of connected souls.

“And what, after all, is the alternative? Playing it safe? Following a formula? That may be a route to success for some. It never worked for me."

Theroux called for television to be confrontational, surprising and upsetting”, telling producers: “Take risks. Sail close to the wind.”

Discussing his 2022 Forbidden America miniseries, where he spoke to far-right commentator Nick Fuentes, the presenter said: “Fuentes already has a profile so the idea of not platforming him is futile. The world has changed so much, there are so many outlets. The idea of putting your head in the sand... it’s not realistic.”