Ian Burrell: BBC journalists cheered the news that the ‘wicked witch’ Lucy Adams is to go, but the DG won’t

Media Studies

When journalists take their leave of a newspaper it is customary for colleagues to honour their service by striking their desks, replicating the “banging out” procedure of Fleet Street printers in the hot metal era.

The announcement of a departure from the BBC last week prompted a similarly collective response – a spontaneous burst of applause from some journalists – but it contained no hint of respect. The exit of Lucy Adams, the BBC’s widely disliked human resources chief, was seen in BBC newsrooms as cause for celebration. It is not for the director-general, Tony Hall.

Admittedly, it is hard to feel much sympathy for the abrasive Adams, who receives a salary of £332,900 and has presided over some embarrassingly generous pay-offs to departing BBC senior colleagues which have outraged the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and damaged this great institution ahead of its delicate negotiations for charter renewal.

If she ever attempted a charm offensive, it barely got out of the trenches as far as many staffers were concerned. The National Union of Journalists has accused Adams of orchestrating a dirty tricks campaign against its members, something she strongly denies. She faced down demands for improved pay and drove through job and budget cuts required in the Delivering Quality First (DQF) programme drawn up by the former DG Mark Thompson.

But that was her job. DQF was the result of the freezing of the licence fee at the last settlement in 2010. As director of HR, her role involved prising away some of the Beeb’s well-rewarded – and surplus – senior managers. In hitting her targets for reducing the numbers she had to strike deals – or else see the BBC taken to expensive industrial tribunals for unfair dismissal claims.

Some of the pay-offs do strike me as reckless governance of what is, in essence, public money. Sharon Baylay, for example, was given a near £400,000 pay-off in 2011 after only two years of service as director of marketing. No wonder the PAC is angry. Adams cannot have been relishing the prospect of MPs returning to the topic of BBC executive pay next Monday.

When she appeared before the committee in July she was savaged by Tory MP Stewart Jackson. “If this [was] any other organisation, that would be called corporate fraud and cronyism – and you presided over it,” he told her. Worse, the BBC’s own reporters picked up their cameras and pursued their HR boss to her own front door.

She is seen by colleagues as “thick-skinned” but has clearly been wounded by her experiences at the BBC. Officially, she is leaving in the spring because she will have done five years in the job and that anniversary “feels like a good time to try something new”, as she put it in a statement.

More to the point, she has come to the conclusion that her brief is impossible. If she reduced the headcount by persuading managers to leave, she faced criticism for giving them money to go. If she didn’t negotiate, they stayed and she missed her targets.

She is not a corporation careerist – having earlier worked for the law firm Eversheds and the outsourcing giant Serco. Senior BBC colleagues knew she was a lightning rod for frustrated staff in an organisation being told to downsize. They were aware that, to many in the news division, Lucy Adams was known as the “wicked witch”.

Although my sympathies are with the journalists, there is sometimes a worrying pushback against tough and successful women in the media business. When Sly Bailey, the cost-cutting former chief executive of Trinity Mirror, stood down last year, Daily Mirror reporters looked up YouTube clips of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” and broadcast it across the newsroom like so many Munchkins.

But Adams’s handling of bullying issues at the BBC hasn’t impressed me. The recent publication of the Respect at Work Review – to which 930 members of staff made voluntary submissions – seemed like an exercise in shutting the matter down.

Tony Hall has shown appetite for confronting this workplace problem and has recognised the reputational damage caused by excessive pay-offs by introducing a £150,000 cap. Some choose to view the departure of Adams as a sign of his getting tough, making a “brutal” sacrifice that leaves the PAC without a head to put on its plate.

But I don’t see it like that. The DG said he will be “very sorry” to see the HR chief go and I believe him. He must find someone to fill her shoes, and probably on a salary of less than £250,000 for a role that would command double that in the commercial sector – a world in which the BBC is increasingly expected to operate. Whatever his journalists may have thought, Tony Hall won’t have applauded this departure.

Esquire plugs gaps with weekly digital

Alex Bilmes, Esquire’s editor, is bringing out a weekly digital edition for 99p a pop (compared with £4.25 for the print magazine). It could redefine the production cycle of traditional print titles.

The debut edition exploits technology with a moving cover inspired by the graphic designer Saul Bass (known for his Alfred Hitchcock film poster art).

The Esquire Weekly concept is “your week in 20 minutes”, with product recommendations to click and buy (the new Arctic Monkeys album) and events you can book tickets for (new Channing Tatum film). There’s an interactive style guide and a video interview with England footballer Jack Wilshere.

Bilmes was frustrated that men who described themselves as Esquire readers were in fact engaging with the brand only every month or two. “This is something between a magazine and a website, and you don’t have to be passing WH Smith’s to buy it,” he says.

Recent ABC figures suggest that masculine titles (such as Men’s Health, BBC Top Gear and GQ) are – so far – more popular in tablet formats than women’s magazines. Is this a way for lads’ mags such as Nuts and Zoo to avoid supermarkets which are demanding they are sold in “modesty bags”? Bilmes thinks not. “It’s over for lads’ mags and has been for some time,” he says.

Murdoch has eye on the ballball

“BallBall” might not sound like the catchiest title for News Corp’s new football offering for Asia, but the mobile and online product is of huge significance for Rupert Murdoch’s company.

Initially launched in Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam, it is seen as having much wider potential by News Corp CEO Robert Thomson, an expert on Asian markets after his time as Tokyo and Beijing correspondent for the Financial Times.

Given that betting companies are all over the Premier League these days, gambling would seem an obvious opportunity for BallBall. But I understand that it is an area in which News Corp won’t tread for the immediate future, given its wider regional ambitions.

Asian fans like the idea that English football is corruption-free, one company source said. Funny how things work out. I remember, in the early days of the Premier League, allegations by one Chris Vincent that goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar and other players were involved in fixing games for a Malaysian betting syndicate. They were acquitted but Grobbelaar was bankrupted by his attempt to sue the paper that carried the story: Mr Murdoch’s The Sun.

Twitter: @iburrell

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