Steve Richards: The BBC is too precious to be allowed to suffer at the hands of bad management
Published 18/10/2007 | 14:09
On Tuesday the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, addressed a meeting of what reports describe as "150 of his top executives".
As he outlined his proposed cuts, it probably did not cross his mind that the huge number of senior managers crammed in the room was part of the problem. Nor will such a blasphemous thought enter the minds of the layers of managers below the "top executives". From their cosseted perspective, they are always the solution. They are the BBC.
In reality there are two BBCs. One is the life-enhancing institution, partially protected from the wild media market place, providing a range of output which no commercial operator would make available. The other is the layers of management, largely disconnected from the output, that threatens to smother and ultimately destroy the organisation. Here is Jeff Randall, the former BBC Business Editor, writing recently in the Daily Telegraph: "For every journalist foot soldier gamely filing reports, there is back at HQ a battalion of worse than useless, middle-ranking meddlers with only one aim: to survive long enough to draw a pension... They exist in a parallel universe of meetings about meetings. They are masters of work creation, digging holes in order to fill them in, communicating largely by sanitised memos... yet when they are required to take a decision they refer up or delegate down, or better still go missing, They abhor accountability."
Randall is not alone in speaking out. Those big enough to be unsackable are rattling the bars. At the Edinburgh Television Festival this summer, Jeremy Paxman added flesh to Randall's critique: "Working for the BBC has always been a bit like living in Stalin's Russia, with one five-year plan, one resoundingly empty slogan after another. One BBC, Making It Happen, Creative Futures, they all blur into one great vacuous blur. I can't even recall what the current one is."
This is a more potent criticism than it seems. There are many managers responsible full time for the likes of "creative futures", a project so irrelevant that a leading presenter has no idea what it was all about. Here is the disconnection between the two BBCs, the presenter known to the licence-fee payers and the fantasy world that becomes corrosive.
Out of this insular, protected managerial culture, wholly avoidable mistakes arise. The worst error in the Andrew Gilligan saga was not the original report, half a decent story rushed on air too quickly. It was the managerial reaction, misjudging how serious this would be for the BBC. To take one example from the Hutton inquiry website, someone called Controller of Editorial Policy was asked by another manager whether BBC guidelines had been followed. With the Government on the warpath and headlines raging, this must have been the biggest question ever asked of him. He merely cut and pasted an answer he had received from another BBC manager saying all was well. That was the limit of his investigation.
Not surprisingly in such a complacent atmosphere, the head of BBC Vision, Jana Bennett, did not recognise immediately that a story involving the words "Queen" and "deception" would be explosive. In both cases, no investigation of the detached managerial culture followed. Instead, all staff members are sent on expensive and patronising training courses as if they are to blame.
I have not spoken to anyone in the BBC who argues that there is no scope for cuts. In my view Thompson has correctly identified the problem of duplication within news. But the debate is over whether he is being too indiscriminate in his salami slicing and too protective of the managerial world from which he comes and which could be cut back sweepingly. The unions would be making a big mistake if they held strikes "against all cuts", at a stroke turning Thompson into a crusading moderniser. Instead, some senior presenters and editors are suggesting that the unions should hold a vote of no confidence in his leadership, a more subtle approach that would instigate a wider debate about the structures at the BBC and its priorities.
It is Thompson who must take much of the blame for the clumsy campaign the BBC conducted for a more generous licence fee in the first place. Indeed, only in the topsy-turvy world of the BBC would a leader be in charge of implementing cuts that are needed partly because of his own ineptitude. One senior minister – who was originally supportive of Thompson – tells me that the DG is directly responsible for the BBC losing a further £600m over the next six years. According to the minister, Gordon Brown, when Chancellor, was minded to accept a higher licence fee until Thompson met him to put the BBC's case in person. The exchange will go down as one of the costliest in the history of the BBC, in which the DG, armed with the anti-politics orthodoxy that pervades parts of the Corporation, managed to be clumsily assertive without the force of forensic advocacy. I am told that Brown cannot now refer to Thompson by name, instead speaking of "that Director General".
The failure of the BBC's campaign went wider. When the former Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, put the case for a higher licence-fee settlement to the Cabinet, she did not have a single supporter. Normally Ms Jowell could count on the support of eight colleagues when putting a case, on the grounds of political friendship alone. On this she was alone, with other ministers raising questions about efficiency, the size of managerial bonuses and the rest. A Labour Cabinet – probably the last administration to be have been brought up on the BBC before the era of multi-channels, and enthusiastic about the ethos of public-service broadcasting – had become alienated by the careless managerial profligacy.
For those of us still gripped by the public-service ethos, the stakes could not be higher. I would pay the licence fee for BBC 5 Live, Radio 4 and Radio 3 alone. On a drive home last Sunday, I listened to good football and rugby talk on 5 Live, switched to hear a programme about a weird Allen Ginsberg poem on Radio 4, and then a session about darkness and light in music on Radio 3. I did not want the journey to end.
Then there was the great Dylan night on BBC4, hours of film that would be reduced to a few clips on a commercial station. Each day of the year I could list a similar range of excellent programmes, the product of a guaranteed income that obliges a national broadcaster to deliver a variety of output. The obligation attracts the big names in current affairs and drama that could go elsewhere.
In the coming weeks, the BBC Trust should listen to the likes of Randall and Paxman rather than attempt to silence them. Without the BBC our lives would be greatly diminished. It must be saved. First it needs saving from itself.