BBC threatens staff with the sack

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STAFF at the BBC who fail to meet their targets under the new regime of John Birt, the director-general, face dismissal according to documents obtained by the Independent on Sunday.

The move comes amid a continuing financial crisis and chaos caused by reforms introduced with the 'Producer Choice' initiative. Senior insiders complain that management is devoting its time to finding new ways of saving money at the expense of quality programmes, and listening increasingly to external consultants with no experience of public service broadcasting.

Morale, they say, has reached rock bottom. Last year's accounts show that the network television budget was overspent by pounds 38m. Senior sources in the BBC say that the true figure was far higher.

John Smith, the newly-appointed financial controller of network television, claimed that the BBC's finances had shown 'a pretty significant turnaround' in the past year: 'We've put controls in, we've changed staff.' He admitted, though, that the latest, unpublished, accounts will still show an overspend, which is 'nothing for us to be proud of'.

In network television, it will be pounds 16m, according to preliminary figures. Meanwhile, officials at Bectu, the broadcasting union, say they have been told that regional television and radio must make savings of at least pounds 8m.

The full impact will be felt this financial year, as new productions and thousands of jobs are scrapped. 'They are desperately trying to claw back the money in 1993-94,' said a senior financial insider. Managers were locked in crisis meetings and external management consultants were being increasingly used in an attempt to find new ways of saving money.

Mr Birt and his colleagues face additional pressures. The Government has warned that it will curb next year's licence fee increase unless efficiency targets are met, and Producer Choice has met unexpected difficulties.

A memo leaked to the Independent on Sunday illustrates the predicament, and the tough tactics used to ensure compliance. Producer Choice, officially introduced on 1 April but tested much earlier, forces programme-makers to seek competitive tenders from non-BBC studios and film crews. On 7 April, Mary del Castillo, head of the design and visual effects department, which under Producer Choice has to charge programme-making BBC colleagues for its services, wrote to her senior staff at Television Centre.

Ms del Castillo notes that her department is finding it hard to reach performance targets agreed with management under Producer Choice; fewer programmes are being made, and some of her staff are failing to charge their BBC colleagues the proper amounts.

Noting that the department's deficit is 'significantly worse than we had anticipated', she writes that 'some people have particular problems with the way we need to do business'.

Failure to improve after a review period, she says, will result 'in the individual being seriously considered for redundancy'.