No gain without pain at the new BBC

The corporation is bracing itself for Tuesday's big announcement by DG Mark Thompson, says Will Wyatt

If you bumped into any members of the BBC staff in recent weeks they probably wore a worried expression. Because on Tuesday Mark Thompson, the director-general, will announce the outcomes of four reviews of BBC activity: out of London, commercial, content supply, and value for money. Commentators have been bidding up the likely number of job losses.

If you bumped into any members of the BBC staff in recent weeks they probably wore a worried expression. Because on Tuesday Mark Thompson, the director-general, will announce the outcomes of four reviews of BBC activity: out of London, commercial, content supply, and value for money. Commentators have been bidding up the likely number of job losses.

For those who believe that the BBC is back in proper hands with the appointment of Thompson, someone who understands its full range of responsibilities and possibilities, this is a defining moment.

The Green Paper on the corporation is expected early next year and Thompson has to lay out his vision, demonstrating that he has faced up to the big questions. Is the BBC prepared for the world of digital-only distribution, wireless devices and near-universal broadband? Can it be flexible enough to thrive in such a world? It is a world leader in programming, but is it equally accomplished in the efficient use of public funds? Does the BBC offer the public the best programmes wherever they come from? Or are independent producers hobbled? Is it open to partnerships, alliances and the needs of the public?

Thompson has had to move swiftly and, knowing his temperament, no doubt radically to cover lost ground. His predecessor, Greg Dyke, had many of the attributes of a great leader but not, crucially, a sense of direction. What we need to hear is a clear statement of the BBC's public purposes and how they will be made manifest in programmes and services.

It was not until 1995 that the BBC published its first explicit programme strategy. There has not been one since and one is long overdue. For the public and for the staff, everything flows from this. I expect Thompson to make the headlines clear, with news, comedy, originated drama and music in bold type.

Plans, as always, will be ambitious. They will have to be paid for. Ahead of the charter negotiations with government, the BBC must demonstrate that it carries no love handles. The Atkins diet has done it for Thompson himself. He will need to reach for the scalpel to be as effective with the corporation as a whole. This is the area that is likely to generate headlines.

The BBC's staff costs have risen nearly 50 per cent over the past four years. Now that the new services are up and running it is time for a shake-out. Time, too, to build into the future the savings made possible by new technologies.

Value for money consultants have been prowling the offices. They are bound to be unpopular, but pairs of eyes that are disinterested and sceptical are essential at such times. More than a decade ago the BBC out-sourced catering, premises and security. Expect outsourcing to embrace some more sensitive functions this time, human resources for one. I expect the £50m-plus marketing budget to be slashed. Farewell the poster campaigns.

Most sensitive of all are the programme production departments. It is likely that up to 2,000 programme staff will be moved out of London. This is a Dyke idea - culturally right but expensive - that is being carried forward. As one who moved a much smaller number of people out of London and had a tearful programme head pleading for a reprieve, I know that this will be an onerous managerial task.

Reductions are far worse but reductions there must be.

With the intent of cheering up the staff, Dyke proclaimed that it was not the BBC's job to make independent producers rich, and that he was not concerned about his relations with the sector. The independents felt that the rest of the BBC took its lead from the top: the BBC failed to meet its 25 per cent quota of commissions from independents for two years running. Meanwhile it was BBC policy to bring more short-term contract people on to full-time staff.

This was bound to end in tears. It unified the indies, reinforced their campaign for a greater share of BBC commissions, and gave them evidence that they were unfairly discriminated against. They found sympathetic ears in government and a 50 per cent target has been mooted.

This may be seen off by the idea of keeping the current target, scaling back BBC production to 50 per cent and creating a 25 per cent "window of creative competition". Either way BBC production will be smaller.

Perhaps the toughest task facing Thompson and his team will be maintaining the self-confidence and the talent base in BBC production through the moves and reductions. The BBC is a producer broadcaster. It has programme teams imbued with its public service ethic. Their eyes are not dominated - as increasingly the large independent production companies' are - by format sales, overseas rights, and other commercial exploitation.

Meanwhile in specialist areas such as science and natural history the BBC has the only sizeable units of production in the world. These are a national resource.

Competitors will be prowling, hoping to snap up the crucial executive producers, experienced talent and rising stars. The BBC must remain a place that they want to work in.

Thompson is setting forth on an arduous journey. Those who travel with him will do so the more willingly if everyone is listened to and well treated. The Palo Alto consultant who worked with Dyke and now with Thompson seeks "to turn moments of transition into opportunities for greatness". I hope that Thompson can turn such flapdoodle into fact.

Will Wyatt was the BBC's chief executive/broadcasting from 1996 to 1999, and is the author of 'The Fun Factory - A Life in the BBC', published by Aurum

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