The Beeb's exercise in corporate accountability is an empty act of brown-nosing

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I have been trying to work out what it is about the BBC's latest piece of corporate spin-doctoring that is so depressing. Our Commitment to You, a 50-page booklet liberally spattered with pie-charts, diagrams and celebrity snapshots, contains the BBC's promises - at least 250 of them by one count, which might be thought suspiciously over-zealous - to its audience. It is the sort of thing you associate with time-share salesmen behind on their monthly target, rather than with the world's finest broadcasting company. But even so, why should this verbose post- nuptial agreement - packed full of good intentions and polite genuflections - induce such feelings of gloom?

It isn't that the idea of accountability is dreadful in itself - though it is a more complex matter than this document pretends. It's true that the BBC is a service you can't easily decide not to pay for, even if the 1 and 2 button on your zapper remain unpolished by repeated fingering. It's true, too, that as a public service it actually has something close to a covenant with its audience. But, unless you starve yourself to death, you can't decide not to pay for commercial television either; every time you buy a soft drink or a pack of toilet paper you are paying your dues, and the annual cost works out at rather more than the licence fee. Still, until the BBC discovers a way to pick the public's pockets as discreetly as their commercial rivals, they will have to exceed them soft soaping the public.

But if you view the pamphlet as an expression of the BBC's current corporate mentality the news is not good. Let's take those 250 promises to begin with, a Stakhanovite probity output which must have had them working into the small hours. How many of them are promises in any real sense - that is, a quantifiable pledge to do something novel and verifiable? My rough estimate of the number that actually pin the BBC down to a specific course of action is under 20. What's more, of those 20 commitments some are a good deal easier to verify than others. The governors should find it easy to check on the installation of "speaking lifts" in BBC buildings - they simply have to press the button and listen - but how exactly will they monitor News and Current Affairs' promise to "report more international events in place of some less significant developments at home"? Will a compliance officer be appointed to log these two forms of coverage and, if so, how will he or she decide what constitutes a "less significant development"? Will the promise to broadcast more factual programmes in peak time than ITV be fulfilled by wall-to-wall cop-chasing or by more ambitious documentaries? It is easy to think of ways in which the letter can be honoured and the spirit betrayed.

The remaining pledges are essentially variations on the theme of "We promise to be good" - whether the field of moral effort is regionalisation, political balance, decency or ethnic representation. And here the document is often tediously repetitive. Given the general promise to "work harder to reflect the wide interests and varied cultures of the whole of the United Kingdom ..." was it really necessary for BBC1 to separately vow to "ensure that we reflect the issues and interests of the whole of the United Kingdom in our programme mix ..." or for BBC2 to promise to "make programmes about music and the arts in different parts of the United Kingdom" (a pledge only marginally more constraining than promising to broadcast at all).

In a public relations exercise you would hardly expect great originality - banality is the safest place to stand if you don't want to upset anyone ("We promise ... not to cause widespread offence") - but there is something worse here, a faint mendacity that taints the whole enterprise. Not only is it impossible for the public to check whether many of these promises are met but the drafters of this document must know that some of the guarantees cannot, by their very nature, be honoured. "We promise to provide something for everyone", for example, a fatuous slogan which is best answered by the joke on the facing page - a portrait of Wallace and Gromit accompanied by this soundbite: "Now if I had invented the BBC, I would have devoted a whole channel to cheese! Something for everyone! What d'ya say to that Gromit?" Gromit, most sagacious of dogs, keeps his counsel, because the truth is there is no sensible answer to the proposal. Where, in the seamless continuum of passion, does the BBC draw the line? Somewhere the other side of jazz, we know, because one of the few quantifiable promises is that Radio Three will increase its coverage of that music. But what about folk music, or model railway construction or rubber fetishism (all interests which are reflected on the racks of a large newsagent but have yet to find a fixed place in the schedules) - are they to count as jazz or cheese, a respectable constituency or a joke?

The worst lie is saved for last: the slogan on the back of the pamphlet reads "You make it what it is" - an empty piece of corporate brown-nosing that brings to mind the privatised utilities at their most greasily ingratiating. Well, I'm sorry, but you don't - not unless you actually work there, struggling to find enough time between such exercises in corporate humbuggery to actually make the programmes that surprise, interest and even, I'm glad to say, occasionally offend the audience n

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