Conor Dignam on Broadcasting
'Crowngate' may very well end up costing the BBC its own head
Monday 08 October 2007
If Mark Thompson was already feeling the heat as the BBC director general, last week's "Crowngate" report and resignations have plunged his leadership into what looks like a full-blown crisis.
Where other official reports have sometimes walked on eggshells in order to avoid apportioning blame, Will Wyatt's verdict on the handling by the BBC and the independent producer RDF of the promotional footage around A Year with the Queen was explosive.
The resignations of Peter Fincham as BBC1 controller and Stephen Lambert as creative chief at RDF Media will do nothing but feed suggestions that serious question marks are now hanging over Thompson's leadership of the BBC, as he looks like losing the support and confidence of the organisation he seeks to lead.
Right now, some of the most angry and critical voices about the management and running of the BBC are being heard from within its own ranks.
There is widespread anger from producers and programme makers about the way two key issues have been handled.
There are two very clear causes for this and both of them lead back to the actions and approach of the BBC's most senior management. The first, of course, is a licence-fee settlement that, at more than £3bn a year, was still less than the BBC needed – resulting in a programme of cuts that will be felt right across the corporation.
The second (back to Crowngate) centres on the corporation's handling of the whole issue of trust and fakery in a small part of its output. For many staff, the executive response has been heavy-handed and arrogant – far too quick to blame production staff rather than look at the management failings that have led to these mistakes.
Up until Fincham's resignation last week, which only came out because Wyatt was not pulling any punches, no senior heads had rolled. In fact, when the BBC's creative director Alan Yentob was revealed to have been cut into interviews for the BBC1 show Imagine when he wasn't even present, the corporation was quick to shrug this off as something that everyone did – when they don't.
There seemed to be one rule for the most senior management and another for the executives at the top of the BBC ladder. Last week, at least it was shown that even the most senior management are vulnerable in the current climate. Jana Bennett, the BBC's director of vision, could also be in the firing line, as Wyatt's report raises questions about her management of events around the Crowngate fiasco.
Some people within the BBC are now also saying that the man in the top job – Mark Thompson – could be brought down in the current climate. And that doesn't seem as unlikely as it would have done six months ago. The pressure on Thompson isn't just about Crowngate and trust but extends across the BBC, where staff are tired of budget cuts and are becoming increasingly audible about their unhappiness.
Last week, almost 100 staff, including Today's James Naughtie and Newsnight's Gavin Esler, signed an open letter to the BBC management calling on them to protect news budgets from further cuts.
Almost every BBC department and genre is expected to share the pain through "salami slicing" of budgets, while Thompson resists taking a more radical solution such as closing down BBC3 and BBC4 and saving more than £150m a year.
Leading BBC figures such as Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys have gone public with their concerns but been slapped down inside the corporation.
Angry BBC staff are nothing new, of course. Every reforming DG (and there have been a few of them) has had to face down staff members who believe that the BBC was created to keep them all in jobs, regardless of how good they actually were at them, or whether their roles were still required.
The difference in this dispute is that the BBC has plenty of money at its disposal, but Thompson has decided to invest it elsewhere. It is going on technology and online, and into fewer but bigger and more ambitious programmes, which will be repeated across the BBC's different channels.
On many fundamental levels, Thompson is absolutely right in his strategy. He is making reforms that are needed for the BBC to survive and is seeking to reinvent the corporation's approach for a different media age. A generation of younger audiences is in danger of drifting away from the BBC (and the licence fee) unless it can find new and different ways to reach them.
Some of these ways will be through the traditional routes of great TV shows, but to maintain its own future the BBC must also explore new ways of creating content for this audience, and of communication.
But that doesn't change the fact that on almost every major policy – digital development, moving to Salford, reducing news spend – Thompson is out of step with many of his own staff. They simply don't believe that this is the strategy the BBC has to pursue, and they think that a focus on content – rather than new buildings and digital platforms – is what should be driving the BBC's future. In the key areas of strategy, vision and trust, Thompson has failed to bring many within the BBC with him. He now looks increasingly exposed, and with few allies within the organisation. He needs his own senior management to stop sniping and to get behind him on key policies – but the problem is that many of them draw the line at cuts to their own operations.
Thompson arrived at the BBC in the wake of the Hutton crisis and helped to rally the organisation during a slump in its confidence. Now he has to restore trust, not just with the BBC's viewers, but with his own staff.
Otherwise we could be witnessing the beginning of the end of Thompson's time as DG. One way or another, it seems unlikely that the fallout of Crowngate is over just yet.
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