Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

BBC chiefs have to tell us how they spend our money

Bad news: BBC Northern Ireland’s Peter Johnston has been implicated in the Newsnight fiasco leaving Lord Patten a tough job

How unfortunate for the BBC that the 90th anniversary of its radio service has coincided with a crisis of confidence.

The BBC has always had a great reputation for drama, but it has surpassed itself this month. The sight and sound of its director-general slamming shut his front door on his short-lived career as the top cat took reality TV to a new level.

How embarrassing also for the former Northern Ireland Office minister, governor of Hong Kong and reformer of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Lord Patten, that he should become so unstuck in his latest incarnation as chairman of the BBC Trust.

The revelations regarding Jimmy Savile and more lately the inaccurate, superficial reporting on Newsnight of the north Wales child abuse scandal have opened a window belatedly on the workings of the BBC.

In the beginning, 90 years ago, it was a simple radio service. Today, it is being portrayed as a mammoth media machine operating with a degree of self-righteous, intellectually-superior pomposity.

As a result of the current controversy over Savile and child-abuse, the public is now aware that it has so many managers and obscure job titles that the staff could be forgiven for not knowing who controls whom, where and at what cost.

If ever there was a case study in mismanagement required for an MBA course, it appears the BBC could provide it.

Secondly, with 23,000 employees, a new £1bn television centre in London, a massive media city in Manchester, 650 staff alone in Northern Ireland, up to 25% of programme making outsourced to independent companies and untold numbers of self-employed freelances, contributors and presenters, the overall finances of the BBC appear beyond comprehension in the middle of a recession.

Thirdly, discipline in the BBC appears to have broken down. Its flagship personalities have said very much anything they wish about their bosses in the past week, a level of insubordination which would not be tolerated in private industry, irrespective of how justified the grievances may be.

For example, Jeremy Paxman accused the "bonkers" BBC of undervaluing staff and swelling the ranks of its managers. John Simpson branded management as "biddable time-servers", who had been a "serious blight on the BBC since the 80s".

He also accused the BBC of making "savage cuts" on programme makers and broadcasters - the very seed corn of its international reputation.

We still don't know what fate - if any - will befall the head of BBC Northern Ireland, Peter Johnston, over his role in the infamous Newsnight broadcast which has cost the corporation dearly.

According to the preliminary report published last week, Mr Johnston was implicated in some unspecified manner in the decision to broadcast the programme earlier this month. He has said he has no intention of resigning.

The BBC's power and independence is such that, even though governments threaten and criticise, as is the case now, politicians usually cower away from major change.

The buck stops with Lord Patten and his Trust, who are charged with major reform of a public service organisation which has shades about it of the long-defunct world of inefficient, nationalised industry.

Lord Patten does not look like a man with the energy to do what is necessary to streamline the BBC for the 21st century. Indeed, as the corporation celebrated nine decades of radio broadcasting, his Lordship resembled one of its famous characters, Mr Glum, from the post-war comedy programme Take It From Here.

Where public money is involved, transparency is essential. The BBC in Northern Ireland devotes considerable news and current affairs resources to keeping the Stormont Executive and the public services on their toes - and rightly so. But who is doing the same for that other great public service - the BBC itself?

Do we know how much it pays its presenters? No. Do we know how much it spends and occasionally wastes on individual programmes and series? No.

Do we know what the listenership, or viewership, of these programmes are, which may be a measure as to whether they were worth producing in the first place? No, or only rarely when a programme proves particularly successful.

The BBC's continued lack of transparency in Northern Ireland and elsewhere is not defensible, given that every penny spent is from the public purse. That is but one of the issues which Lord Patten must address.

He needs to do so with more urgency, if the BBC is to retain credibility and respect with the viewing and listening public which is its paymaster.

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