Former BBC executives slam 'bloated' institution

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The Independent Online
The BBC was criticised last night as inefficient and bloated by several former senior executives in comments that will cast further doubt on John Birt's campaign for a higher licence fee.

Recently-departed executives, including Michael Atwell and Tim Gardam, both now at Channel 5, and Nick Elliott, now controller of drama at ITV, launched scathing attacks on their former employer during a session at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. They claimed the BBC was still highly inefficient and described what they called the idiosyncratic behaviour of senior BBC executives such as Alan Yentob, director of television at BBC Production, and Michael Jackson, newly-appointed controller of BBC1.

All three said the public broadcaster deserved to be supported but criticised senior management for being out of touch and possibly unequal to the challenge of guiding the BBC into the digital future.

Their intervention came at a delicate time for the BBC, which has mounted a campaign to increase the licence fee to meet the cost of introducing digital television. Suggestions that the BBC continues to be overstaffed will undermine the call for more public money.

BBC insiders insisted yesterday that the corporation would continue to cut costs, but that the higher licence fee would still be necessary in the future to bridge what Mr Birt called a funding gap.

The news coincided yesterday with high-profile family squabbles within the ranks of senior BBC journalists, including Kate Adie, John Ware and Esther Rantzen.

During a session early yesterday focusing on the media's coverage of the Dunblane trag-edy, Colin Cameron, head of television at BBC Scotland, suggested that Ms Adie's tone during her reporting had been inappropriate, and that in retrospect it had been part of what the BBC had done wrong. The comment was seized upon as a further sign of tensions between BBC Scotland and head office in London, and compounded the sense of internecine strife within the corporation suggested by the bitter attack on Ms Rantzen by her BBC colleague, John Ware.

The debate about quality journalism was seen as crucial, in light of John Birt's call on Friday for a higher licence fee to finance the BBC's transition to the digital age.

"If we are to ask for more money, we had better be sure we produce the kind of news and current affair programming the licence fee-payer deserves," said one BBC news producer.

The issue was picked up again during the festival's well attended session on spin doctors, featuring Donald Dewar, the Labour whip, and Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy.

The panel, which also included senior journalists Michael Brunson of ITN and Mark Damazer of the BBC, agreed that the role of spin doctors created huge difficulties for the press, particularly in the lead up to elections.

Journalists, including some from the floor, complained that senior ministers would too often decline to appear on major news programmes when they were likely to face hard questioning.

But Mr Dewar defended the right of individual politicians and political parties generally to stay away from journalists: "There are different interests on both sides, and we are each entitled to defend those interests."

Phil Harding, head of the BBC's political unit, said: "If there are attempts at intimidation, they will be resisted." He added: "Politicians believe there is bias, but the public appears to believe there is far less bias, than it is to the public, to the electorate, that we are ultimately responsible."

Preoccupations with "fresh influences" on television dominated the festival, with sessions dedicated to such issues as Dunblane and the growing dominance of BSkyB, the pay television company owned 40% by Rupert Murdoch, in the multi-channel market.

Christine Mitchell, head of programming at General Cable, accused BSkyB of having "a foot against our throats" through its dominant position as program-me supplier to cable and its policy of "bundling" channels.

She repeated the cable industry's demand for more flexible pricing from BSkyB, and suggested that cable companies could have an advantage over satellite through their ability to market both telephony and cable television. "We need to have more flexible packages to give our customers what they want," she said.

But David Elstein, head of programmes, disputed the claim that BSkyB was acting uncompetitively.

"We will not do anything that hurts our own business, and no one would expect us to," he said, suggeting the cable industry might seek to market its services better.