Wednesday 12 March 2014

Please take care of the BBC. It is precious.

The future of BBC funding is again under discussion. It will always be thus. 

The Sykes report rejected advertising in 1923.  Annan in '77 suggested local radio should all be commercial. Peacock recommended privatising Radio 1 and 2 in '86.  Davies in '98 trotted out the bright idea of licence fee supplement for digital service services 

Now, the BBC concern is that if you fail to pay your licence fee, you may simply be threatened with a manila letter from the County Court rather than being locked up alongside some tattooed miscreant.

The moment the satellites soared into the Sky – and the amount of TV emanating from non-BBC sources grew, future funding for the BBC was always to be under ever growing scrutiny. Visionary management would have identified that challenge; and would have attempted to carve out a more efficient focused Corporation which concentrated on what the Nation would really be without were it to implode. Then resource those areas fully, with pride. 

My limited time with the BBC suggested to me that the Corporation was everything I had both hoped and feared. Dedicated, gifted, creative, intelligent, hard-working people with a will to generate breathtakingly beautiful, thorough and distinctive output.  Alongside wanton waste, byzantine bureaucracy and major mismanagement.  My impressions are culled largely from radio. May I venture to suggest that TV is the same but on a larger budget?

I would campaign naked on Carnaby Street to save the greatest elements of what the BBC does. Similarly. I feel moved to having my first ever knuckle fight to knock out those who do not address the reality.

I am not alone. I know a huge number of very sensible people inside the BBC. They share with me their frustrations: those BBC stories which generate a shake of the head in disbelief.  I know people from my side of the fence who go to work there and are given insufficient tasks to fill their days.  They also tell me of members of staff who rarely turn up or put in a decent day's work.  Or those parts of the BBC in turmoil because half their staff are on attachment and no-one knows if they'll bother coming back. And did I really read just now of disciplinary processes going on for a year. A year?

I see too the BBC staff surveys which tell of poor morale. Frustrated employees who say they
feel mismanaged. How can you have poor morale within the finest broadcaster in the World with guaranteed revenues across the term of a licence agreement and enviable levels of job security?  

Each time funding is under threat, we know the cry will be that the programmes and channels we love may be under threat. Those are the lines of PR merchants. There are significant savings to be made – and you need the right people to identify and implement them. The right structural savings can often free decision-making and enhance the creative environment.

I recall one employee saying to me, in my brief time at the Corporation: ‘the trouble is that we don’t have enough staff’. That same person struggled to tell me what they actually did each day. Those who have been cushioned by years inside this sector have long since lost their objectivity. They think that if four people are replaced by three it is necessarily worse.  The more logical BBC folk people I know suggest that they’d get on with their jobs a whole lot better with the absence of some individuals.  Those individuals who have long since forgotten that they are paid by hardworking people to perform a public service. 

The BBC should abolish its programme prevention department.

This great Corporation needs leadership. A leader who can carry it through the toughest changes in its history and emerge the other side.  Build a BBC which has moved out of some areas - and resource others better so it may continue to generate World class broadcasting. Build a BBC which appoints the right number of great managers and lets them get on with the job. Build a BBC which understands how to create the best possible creative environment.  But most of all, build a BBC which stands a good chance of being there for future generations.  

This 90 year legacy is simply too good to squander.


  1. 'How can you have poor morale within the finest broadcaster in the World with guaranteed revenues across the term of a licence agreement and enviable levels of job security?'

    Well, job security isn't all that solid - the BBC has got rid of a lot of jobs since Greg Dyke. But I take your basic point. Here's how:

    Years ago, when John Birt took over as DG and began to impose his misguided internal market nostrums, a certain sort of person, who would normally have found the atmosphere within the BBC uncongenial, found that their outlook - a narrow focus on measurable parameters like cost, and an attitude of disdain, even contempt, for the 'creatives'- were no longer a reason to leave the BBC for some other field such as management accounting, but were in fact valued by the new regime. Bean counters were suddenly what the BBC seemed to want. They have since flourished, but while some of them have been good for the BBC's internal balance sheets (and I emphasise the 'some'), they have been disastrous in terms of people management.

    I make no bones about this, having worked for the BBC for over 30 years: there are far too many managers whose attitude to their staff, especially actual programme-makers, is appalling. It's not just a matter of terms and conditions; many industries have seen a squeeze on employees' benefits, including pensions. These managers have no respect for their staff; in particular, senior staff who have been around a long while and, in any other industry, would be valued and trusted, would be training and mentoring newer staff and generally ensuring continuity of the BBC's ethos in all its various forms, are disregarded and distrusted. The bean-counting mindset sees us as expensive, overpaid; the 'dead men' whose shoes younger employees are desperate to fill - at considerably less expense, given the erosion of pay and conditions for recently recruited staff.

    Training is reduced to an absolute minimum; most skills are learnt 'on the job' or not at all. This is so that the marginal costs of training staff is as low as possible. In this way, managers can play 'hardball' with any staff who express their disappointment with the regime. The answer to dissatisfaction is: 'There's the door over there if you don't like it.' And if you go, your boss isn't seeing a huge investment walking out of the Corporation. If anything, he's looking forward to saving money as he replaces you with someone on the bottom rung salary.

    None of this is novel; it's just relatively novel to the BBC. The sort of aggressive, short-term, hard-nosed, cost-cutting management that has been visited on thousands of British businesses since the 1980s, came to the BBC and stayed. These people now think they ARE the BBC, and we are just hired hands.

    Of course, the younger staff see all this and are not encouraged. Result: a general disillusionment, in which people try to go about their jobs and keep up standards, in the knowledge that this isn't being noticed or valued by their managers, who are much more interested in maintaining a strict minimum level of service. There is a word for this approach, and the ethos it engenders in a workplace; mediocrity.

  2. Another well written piece David sorry it has taken me till April to read it. My limited experience at the BBC as a Freelance Senior Producer working there for about 18 months echo's your paragraph:
    Dedicated, gifted, creative, intelligent, hard-working people with a will to generate breathtakingly beautiful, thorough and distinctive output. Alongside wanton waste, byzantine bureaucracy and major mismanagement.
    I wonder what the future of the BBC might be, one thing for certain, it will have to adapt to a multi-media and multi-market world where I can grab a TV show from YouTube on my phone - I think the most important thing the Beeb can do is 'dare to take risks' make shows like W1A .. I can't think of any other broadcaster in the world who would have the balls to make and transmit such a p*ss take at those bean counters at NBH


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