Purge the BBC of its obsession with youth and ratings

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The Independent Culture
I KNOW how Greg Dyke is going to be feeling this morning when he gets out of the chauffeur driven car at Broadcasting House and goes up to his office. It will be rather like I did that January morning back in 1988 when I negotiated my way past security and waited expectantly in the lobby of Television Centre to be told where my office was located.

My advice to Greg is that he'll feel a bit of an impostor. He'll be exhilarated at the prospect of getting stuck into the best job in broadcasting, but also a little bit of an outsider, someone who successfully stormed the citadel, the bloke with the wrong accent who didn't go to the "right school" or a posh university, the man from the common world of commercial telly who's now going to have to deal with an organisation so labyrinthine and so insecure, that it makes a gathering of masons look like a pack of Brownies.

When I first tried to get a job at the BBC in the early eighties Greg was my producer at LWT. My agent told me (quite correctly as it turned out) that I didn't stand a chance. No matter I had presented talk shows, prime time entertainment shows and produced dozens of documentaries, I hadn't been to the right school, the right university and I had the wrong accent. It was a boy's club.

Sure enough, the patronising channel controller told me I would have to be "retrained" with a stint on Nationwide. To John Birt's credit, his appointment marked the end of that era at the BBC, but when I arrived it was still early days in the new regime.

Samir Shah, Ian Hargreaves, Michael Jackson and I all had to try and get to grips with a place where which circulation list you were on for memos and what initials you were minuted by was more important than communication with the workforce or creating a straightforward costing system.

John has spent his time struggling to make the BBC a more accountable place, a place where more women and ethnic minorities are promoted, and a place where people spend time thinking about why they make the programmes they do. Unfortunately John is someone who has the highest ideals but sometimes failed to see that in implementing them a different kind of bureaucracy would result. In trying to create logical directorates he brought in endless think tanks, flow charts and consultants.

Morale among the management plummeted when we were summoned to events like the "Sexual Harassment Seminar" to be told that a survey revealed it mostly went on in the scenery storage area. Another early morning conference meant the top 20 executives in television were gathered to discuss our "Objectives." Things didn't kick off well when our MD, Will Wyatt, stuck a caption on the overhead projector which read "We have to make the best television programmes for the most people." Talk about stating the bloody obvious.

But, like John, and Greg, I love the BBC, and spent many happy years dealing with its self-generated inanities. My advice to Greg is simple: don't employ your mates, like Melvyn Bragg, as it will only cause enormous resentment. Make Alan Yentob your deputy, since his forte is the arts while yours is sport and entertainment. And befriend Chris Smith - like many of us he distrusts the way the BBC chooses its governors and conducts its accounting systems.

Make the channel controllers understand they have to speak to their key programme makers and not operate their private kitchen cabinets. Purge the place of its obsession with youth and ratings, you're middle-aged like me and we both know far more about how ordinary people want to be entertained and informed than any besuited twenty-something from a media consultancy. Love bomb your sports department and woo Des Lynam back from the other side.

Above all, realise that the BBC has to make highbrow as well as middle- class programmes. At the moment it is suffering terribly because it seems to have lost sight of the fact that people need aspirational documentaries, and drama. Dare to be difficult.

Finally, a word of advice. Take a leaf out of Duke Hussey's book. When he was chairman he used to call up and come down to TV centre for lunch in the canteen with eight programme makers, taking notes and listening to their grievances. I liked him a lot for that. I know Greg'll be hacking away at the committees, eradicating the endless meetings and cutting down on the memos - he hasn't got the patience, thank goodness.

BBC radio is excellent, but the channel controllers feel unloved. They should be empowered to get on with it, without the new Director General's interference. John got the Charter renewed and set up the BBC as a powerful brand worldwide.

Now Greg has to face renewed scrutiny from the Government over funding for digital services; he should never lose sight of the consumers, and how optional the services might suddenly seem to their world, with other activities competing for their leisure time. The BBC is still a place of deep divisions and internal rivalry. Knowing the football fanatic Greg is, I'm sure that team-building (without the flow charts) will be his top priority.

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