Media: Has the BBC lost the plot?

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The Independent Culture
Yes, argues Ben Bradshaw. Its self-serving managers don't have a clue

What on earth is going on at the BBC? Hardly a week now goes by without the corporation shooting itself badly in the foot. Last week, the edict telling experienced BBC journalists and contributors what they could and could not say about a certain cabinet minister's private life backfired completely.

It brought ridicule on the BBC, giving the story legs to run and run when it would have died a natural death after a couple of days.

The infamous memo forbade the repetition of "allegations". "Allegation" is an odd term to use about someone's sexual orientation. The BBC does not "allege" that somebody is black or Jewish. To allege is to infer that the thing is somehow pejorative. So the edict managed to enrage both sides - quite a feat. The BBC's enemies in the Murdoch and Black press could accuse it of favouritism and over-the-top political correctness, while progressives were alarmed by the terminology. Why does the Beeb cling lovingly to the word "homosexual", when few people under 50 still use the term?

The BBC's own staff were mortified. Jonathan Dimbleby had to tell Mo Mowlam what she could and could not say on Any Questions. The humiliation moved him to fire off a withering letter to his bosses, accusing them of impertinence.

The week before, BBC journalists and technicians were out on strike over pay and working conditions, taking several programmes, including Five Live and The World at One, off the air. Not for the first time, BBC staff had been presented with a pay rise pegged strictly to inflation, while senior management had given themselves a great deal more.

Anger turned to fury when it was reported that at least one "fat cat" had received a five-figure bonus for the "successful" move of news and current affairs to its swanky new building at White City in west London from its traditional home in Broadcasting House. If that transition is judged so successful, God knows what an unsuccessful one would have been like.

Programmes have been falling off air like needles from a tired Christmas tree. If the newsreader pops up when he or she should these days, one is grateful. Radio 4 has suffered worst because it is still transmitted from Broadcasting House while its news and current affairs programmes come "down the line" from White City. A problem with the line and the two lose each other - leaving the listener with the now familiar continuity announcer and soothing music, or total silence. If Today completes its elongated course without a major hitch, it's a minor miracle. Playing a tape of Mongolian throat-singers in place of Tony Benn may have added greatly to the mirth of the nation, but the relentless monotony of the cock-ups does not. Radio 4 must be reliable, or it is nothing. No wonder it has lost listeners in droves, which brings me to the BBC's third PR disaster: the new schedules.

James Boyle, Radio 4's controller is an excellent scheduler. Something had to be done, and much of what he has done is right. The new arts and film programmes and some of the comedy are a significant improvement. Saturdays and Sundays are now much better than they were. But there are problems, and the BBC needs to acknowledge them and put them right quickly.

There are too many bad quizzes in the wrong place. Today is too long, The World at One and World this Weekend too short. They used to be home to the thoughtful, considered correspondent's report or discussion on major domestic or international affairs. Where are those items now? But Boyle's main problem hasn't been scheduling, but money. He's had to relaunch Radio 4 at a time when a significant chunk of its funding has been siphoned off to pay for 24-hour television.

The BBC appears in crisis, lacking in confidence, on the defensive. And that's with a relatively friendly Government that is not threatening to privatise it or take away the licence fee. It doesn't seem to know what it wants to do, where it is going, or what it is there for. Or, if it does, it is terrible at communicating this to the public and its own staff. Can the BBC really go on providing everything and spending millions to buy sport, while keeping the quality of what makes it distinctive in news, current affairs and drama? The evidence of the last two years suggests not.

Senior BBC managers should be out there defending the licence fee as unbeatable value. They should be supporting their programme-makers, not undermining them with ludicrous edicts and suffocating them with endless bureaucracy. Editors used to edit. Now they spend most of their time in meetings justifying what they do to someone who then goes to another meeting to justify it to someone else. I understand the infamous Sloman edict went down at least three tiers of management before it arrived on programme editors' desks. Their protests were fed laboriously back up. The potential for Chinese whispers corrupting this over-bloated management is enormous - and incredibly wasteful.

In the old days, a big boss would have called a meeting in the newsroom. Editors would have had their say and the big boss would have thought better about edicts. Had he or she gone ahead in the teeth of opposition from staff, at least she or he would have had the courage to come out and defend the decision to the people who pay their wages - the listeners and viewers.

The listeners and viewers still hold the BBC in high regard. They know it provides quality at excellent value; they know it employs some of the best and most dedicated programme makers around. But they also feel it's being badly let down by a top heavy, self serving management that seems to have lost its way.

Ben Bradshaw is MP for Exeter and a former BBC radio reporter

No, says Peter Salmon. It's just the usual Beeb-bashing by the rest of the media

Hard hats are clearly the order of the day for BBC staff. Given the headlines about the BBC in recent weeks, you might reasonably expect this piece to be datelined: Beleaguered BBC Controller, Crisis HQ, Television Centre.

We have read in recent days that - apparently - half the staff is on drugs, journalists are being censored, bosses are lazy and arrogant, the death of BBC sport has occurred because cricket has changed channels, there is a complete breakdown of technology in the newsrooms, and the latest period drama is a ratings flop. Is the BBC in meltdown? Absolutely not.

I remember another confluence of crises in the Eighties. As a young producer I shivered as Mrs Thatcher's militia attacked - so many ideologically- motivated opponents, so many vested interests, so many of our colleagues in the media hell-bent on destroying public-service television.

These days it is less a fight between left and right and more a struggle for hearts, minds and territory. It is about technology, rights, regulation, frequencies... the war for digital supremacy. In the run-up to a licence- fee review we should expect something of a firestorm, but it is also happening because the BBC is owned by all of us through Parliament, so everyone has a view on how it should be run. I am controller of BBC1, responsible for the programmes and the schedule. Believe me, I am reminded nearly every day of the week that there are a lot of people out there who feel they could do my job better.

The media is no exception, and delights in seizing upon what it perceives to be our shortcomings. Each of the issues, conveniently linked into a chain of crisis in the newspapers, is quite separate. Unfortunately the media often feels entitled to cherry-pick its way through the facts to present a predetermined version of events that fits with its own, or its proprietor's, particular agenda.

Analyse the incestuous feeding of myth on half-truth, passing from newspaper column to magazine feature and back, and you could be forgiven for wondering sometimes where the real agenda lies.

A quick check with the object of their bashing - the BBC - would mostly expose their carefully constructed slant on reality as a house of cards. Of course we make mistakes and errors of judgement - who doesn't?- but in those circumstances we are prepared to admit the mistake and make an appropriate revision.

I am not qualified to comment on all the recent examples of the BBC's alleged falling-short of its aims and obligations, but let us examine one: the loss of Test cricket. Four years ago there was free and open competition for the rights to broadcast Test cricket. The BBC made a bid and won the contract. By 1998 the BBC was paying nearly seven times more than it had been in 1990. The cricket authorities described the deal as "a bonanza".

This year the BBC made a bid to renew those rights, increasing its offer by another substantial margin, but was outbid by Channel 4. The press had a field day. The Mirror proclaimed the "Death of BBC Sport" on its front page, yet another in a long list of losses from BBC sport. Stuff and nonsense!

These losses amount to four or five deals which have moved to other channels over the past eight years. A few days later, the BBC spirited away the coverage of British athletics from Channel 4. No front page in The Mirror that day. The corporation had secured year-round coverage of a sport more popular with a broader audience than cricket and at a much lower cost. That is greater value for the licence-fee payer and is the 11th significant television sports contract signed by the BBC this year.

Just last week a desperate ITV attacked the BBC's new adaptation of Vanity Fair after only one episode simply because early industry figures indicated that Taggart - on its own channel - had attracted a couple of million more viewers.

It is important that Vanity Fair is not seen as an out-and-out ratings chaser like Taggart. It is a cornerstone of quality which should be judged on its ambition - the sort of programme that the BBC should be making, bringing classic literature to life in an immensely entertaining way.

It doesn't take a genius to schedule a popular 1983-vintage cop show against Vanity Fair and win, but that is not what television should be about. I have moved Vanity Fair to 9.30pm next Sunday because ITV had rescheduled Heartbeat to run against it and I want viewers to have an opportunity to see both fine programmes on the two big channels.

Seven million people watched the first episode of Vanity Fair, and critics from the same newspapers that decried its performance in their news columns heaped praise upon the production in their reviews. The Guardian, for example, brayed in its news headline "Sharp shock for BBC as Taggart beats Thackeray" - whereas their critic had hailed Vanity Fair as "as good as you get. Sometimes just the look of the thing can take your breath away."

The media last week seized on an internal memo reaffirming a long-standing guideline on discussing the private lives of individuals, and lambasted the BBC for allegedly censoring its own journalists and favouring one individual - in fact not quite true.

For many years now the BBC has had a clear policy: We will not discuss or report on the private lives of individuals unless broader public issues are raised - and the purported "outing" of one or more cabinet ministers is no exception.

This is not a policy we have suddenly devised. It is one we have debated over the years. Its principles are clear and have been laid out in successive editions of BBC Guidelines for public discussion.

On many occasions in the past we have decided not to broadcast private details about individuals. We have even sent out memos about them. We start from the simple principle that everyone has a right to privacy, no matter who they are.

Of course, this is not an unqualified right. It may, for example, be reduced by criminal or anti-social behaviour. Once the private actions of a public figure start to raise questions about the suitability of that person to hold public office, then it is legitimate to question that aspect of his or her private life.

But it would appear that such fair-mindedness is less common outside the BBC, which is perhaps why in the past week we have been greeted in the press with accusations not only of censorship but also "moral laziness" and of according an individual a "unique exemption". Not so.

It is perhaps worth noting that the BBC received a total of 18 calls from viewers and listeners protesting against this so-called ban - 11 fewer than phoned in about Delia Smith's cookery programme.

The media has persuaded itself that the BBC is in crisis. Our programme- makers feel differently. Despite the seemingly endless campaign to ridicule or vilify our work, the BBC strives to deliver on its promises and offer a broad range of quality ideas of interest to the widest possible audience.

I have been controller of BBC1 for a year now, and to see a schedule bearing such rich fruits as Vanity Fair, Dinnerladies (the new Victoria Wood sitcom), David Attenborough's The Life of Birds, the children's Sunday classic Children of the New Forest and a quartet of documentaries about the First World War - all on BBC1 this week - is gratifying.

Not so much a crisis - more business as usual.

Peter Salmon is controller of BBC 1