Focus: Memo to the BBC...
Wanted: a Director-General with a record of visionary leadership. That was how the ad for John Birt's successor read last week. As the battle with commercial rivals heats up, how can a new DG put the Beeb back on course?
Sunday 21 March 1999
managing director of TalkBack Productions (`Never Mind The Buzzcocks', `They Think It's All Over', `Murder Most Horrid', `Shooting The Past')
The BBC, like other large institutions, tends to be a bit inward-looking. The Birt era has encouraged that. I've constantly got management consultants coming round to see me, asking me what I think of the BBC doing this, that or the other. The one thing I want to say is, `Stop spending so much time in conferences discussing things like this'. The BBC is still littered with mission statements and ringbinders on how to do the job. Let's face it, that language of management is completely out of date anyway.
Saying that, you can feel a thawing out at the BBC. There's an encouraging mood of irreverence and mischief. Rather like a communist regime, nobody who works there has really dared to be outspoken, but with the post of Director-General coming up, you feel that attitudes are loosening, which is a good thing.
The BBC's mantra has been, `We're trying to run it like a business'. But why? Why not run it a little less like a business. It's as if they've wilfully allowed the creative spirit to be smothered.
But it is changing. It's simply a matter of knowing that Birt's going; people don't feel they have to be quite so careful. Who'll be the next Director-General? That's a bit like guessing the next Pope.
I suspect, though, that almost as soon as someone replaces Birt, his era will seem like ancient history.
From: Jocelyn Hay
chairman of Voice of the Listener and Viewer group, representing the consumer in broadcasting
One of the key factors in the new appointment is to return to that visionary leadership role that is so vitally important for the BBC's future. In all genres of programming, they should cater for the social and democratic needs of the public.
In this very competitive market-place where virtually all new channels will be commercially funded, it's absolutely essential to fulfil a public service. The BBC mustn't lose sight of that in the ratings war. Meanwhile the Government is urging them to be more competitive, so there's a big danger they'll be forced into a more commercial role. It's a very delicate ecology.
I wouldn't criticise certain areas of programming like, say, games shows. You can't label a genre. It's the actual content and motivation behind it. You can have pop shows and chat shows that are extremely good - or extremely tacky. It depends on whether you're going for cheap sensation and ratings or sincerely trying to meet the needs of the audience.
But it's essential that the new Director-General has the courage to maintain tradition, to put the needs of the viewer and listener first. If they lose that ethos, they lose their whole raison d'etre.
From: Amy Jenkins
screen-writer, author and creator of `This Life'
My personal experience of the BBC is very good, although that was when Michael Jackson was still around. Visiting the BBC can be a bit like going to school. My general impression is that there's no one particularly inspiring around. You don't feel like that when you go to Channel 4.
Sometimes John Birt will invite you to a fancy dinner for writers but then nothing ever happens afterwards. You also hear stories of idiotic personal politics and a lot of shuffling of staff.
You sense that if you went to private school then Oxford and the BBC, your whole life would be lived within a British institution.
From: John Peel
broadcaster and DJ
I did once apply to be controller of BBC Radio 1 but never heard anything back. As you can imagine, I won't be applying for this. I prefer humans to strategies, so a change of direction would probably be a good thing. I can't say too much, though, because the BBC have allowed me to get on with the sort of things I like doing.
What I did find very revealing was when Radio 1 went to Sound City in Newcastle (an annual week-long showcase for British bands and the record industry). All the planners and marketing people were put in far more expensive hotels than the DJs.
It will be interesting to see which hotels the DJs get when we go to the next Sound City event in Liverpool. If we end up in a Novotel on an industrial estate outside Liverpool we'll know that things haven't changed at all.
From: John Tusa
managing director, BBC World Service from 1986-92. Now managing director of the Barbican Centre
It would be absolute death to have a management clone of John Birt. The new Director-General should immediately and publicly put a moratorium on management consultants and strategy papers for two years. The extent to which the BBC is still straitjacketed by strategies shows a total failure to respond to ITV's new schedules.
Whoever succeeds Birt must have personal, communication and intuitive skills of a rare kind: they must show themselves to be aware of the nature of the BBC and its staff, an organisation of creative individuals; an organic, evolutionary institution, not a set of rigid structures.
They should also look for somebody who loves programming and understands that the internal crisis within the BBC is so big, it deserves equally as big a change. Above all, it's got to be a new start.
From: Mark Thomas
writer and performer for Channel 4's `Mark Thomas Comedy Product'
I think Mark Twain's observation applies: `The last person we want in the White House is the one who wants to be there.' They should be looking for someone who has the commitment and courage to return to making programmes that are part of a public service rather than driving to please the lowest common denominator. The BBC should be an informal and challenging channel, rather than one that kowtows to fads and fashion.
I'd look outside the television industry for good candidates - John Bird from the Big Issue may be a good choice. He's provided a complete alternative to the mainstream press and seems able to stand up to people.
From: Phil Redmond
chairman of Mersey Television, executive producer of `Brookside' and `Hollyoaks'
In the BBC's drive for efficiency, they lost sight of what they're there to do. It's time to get back to being a public service rather than
part of a commercial network.
The BBC should also be a place
where talent is nurtured. At the moment,
people either start or end their careers there.
As licence payers we should be asking for more in programme output than formats such as `Vanessa'. The big one is `The National Lottery Show' which really does highlight their loss of direction. I know they're trying to show how Lottery money is spent, but then surely it would be better to present it in a different arena, not as an ersatz games show.
So it's left to BBC2 to be a laboratory for crazy ideas, whereas that ethos should flow through the whole institution. I think you should be able to go to the BBC to do stuff that really upsets people. As a public service, they're the ones who should challenge cultural norms, even more so than the commercial networks.
The problem is we've tried to combine the ideals of a public service with the values of a commercial network. They should make a decision about which one they want to be and stop being a hybrid.
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